science of us

How to Breathe If You’re Feeling Anxious

Photo: Getty Images

At some point, you’ve probably been told to “take a deep breath” in a moment of anxiety. As it turns out, there’s more to the cliché than you might think. The Cut spoke to experts about 4-7-8 breathing, a technique that, in a matter of seconds, can ease your negative response to stress. Inspired by yoga, 4-7-8 breathing isn’t just a psychological tool: It can actually change the speed at which your heart beats and promote the effective pumping of blood to various organs and muscles. Here’s how (and why) to do it.

What is 4-7-8 breathing?

It’s a breathing pattern based on pranayama, which is the part of yoga that deals with breath control. “4-7-8 is relaxing because it extends the exhale portion of the breathing,” said Dr. Victoria Maizes, the executive director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Extending the exhale has a quieting effect on the body by interacting with the parasympathetic nervous system (essentially the flip side of the fight-or-flight stress response).

How do I do it?

Sit upright with your chest open and put the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth. There’s a little ridge behind your upper front teeth where your tongue will stay for the entire exercise (the placement of which will cause a “whoosh” sound when you exhale). Inhale through your nose to the count of four, hold your breath for seven counts, and exhale slowly through your mouth for eight counts (you can purse your lips while exhaling if that feels more comfortable for you).

This is one breath, so do this three more times for a total of four breaths. If it’s helpful, you can count on your fingers to track how many cycles you’ve done. “You have to exhale slowly or else you’ll run out of air pretty fast, since your exhale is now twice as long as your inhale,” says Maizes. The ratio is what’s important — not the exact time you spend on each phase — so you can speed the whole thing up or slow it down as long as you keep the 4-7-8 count intact.

How often should I do 4-7-8?

“I think it’s hard to learn anything new when you’re really anxious, but in particular, I think it’s hard to learn to relax,” says Maizes, which is why she suggests making 4-7-8 a practice by doing it twice a day, every day. You can do it more than twice a day — do it 20 times a day if you want — but you should only do the 4-7-8 breath four times in a row at a time. Once you get really good at it — after practicing it for about a month or longer — the typical recommendation is to bump it up from four to eight times in a row, but no more. (It’s not exactly clear why this restriction exists, but Maizes theorizes that it’s because you can blow off more carbon dioxide while slowly exhaling, and doing too much of that could make you lightheaded or uncomfortable.)

Because you’re doing no more than four cycles (or, eventually, eight) at a time, the exercise will only take seconds. “It is physiologically impossible to be stressed and relaxed at the same time,” Maizes said. Practicing 4-7-8 breathing makes your nervous system smarter, “so then if you’re anxious, your body goes, ‘Oh yeah, I know how to relax. I’ve been practicing this for weeks.’” Sometimes, Maizes adds, if you’re feeling really anxious, you might have difficulty both taking a deep breath and holding your breath. That’s why it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the practice throughout the day, particularly in moments when you are not feeling stressed. “The more you practice it and get better at it, the more helpful it will be for you when you’re feeling a lot of anxiety,” says Dr. Sarah Kate McGowan, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try 4-7-8 in the moment if you’ve never done it before — it will likely still be helpful — but in a highly anxious moment, it’s easier to draw on something you’ve done before.

What are the benefits of practicing 4-7-8?

It’s free, it’s simple, and you can choose to use it any time you’re feeling stressed. “Part of anxiety is loss of control,” says McGowan. With something like 4-7-8, you don’t need to rely on anyone but yourself. Don’t underestimate the self-efficacy aspect of this practice.

But there are physiological components at play, too. This sort of breathing helps regulate the body’s stress response — the “fight or flight” reaction that helps us survive life-threatening situations. In stressful circumstances, your breath increases in order to get extra oxygen to your lungs and your brain — helpful, should you actually have to fight or take flight. But in a lot of modern day stressors, there isn’t a physical threat creating that anxiety. “So what we’re doing with breathing exercises is trying to slow down our body’s sympathetic response,” McGowan said.

The body’s stress response isn’t inherently a bad thing. “Even fruit flies have a stress response,” said Dr. Esther Sternberg, research director at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. “You cannot live without it. The goal is not to get rid of the stress response — that’s not possible. The question is how you turn that negative stress into good stress and make it work for you.”

And the way to do that is by engaging what’s called the relaxation response. This response is activated by the vagus nerve, which connects the spinal cord to the internal organs of the body. One way to quickly engage the vagus nerve — in other words, to quickly engage the relaxation response — is through deep breathing. “It’s like putting your foot on the brake and putting the brake on the stress response,” Sternberg says.

Breathing deeply changes the speed at which your heart beats. If you look at one minute of heart rate, you’ll see that your heart doesn’t beat exactly evenly. This is what’s called heart rate variability, which is the variation in the spaces between the beats. “That’s because the vagus nerve is directly connected to the part of the heart that controls heart rate, the rhythm center,” says Sternberg. “When you inhale the heart rate increases, and when you exhale, it decreases. As you breathe deeply, it changes the speed at which the heart beats, so you get more variability. The greater the heart rate variability, the more effective the pumping of the blood to all your different organs and muscles.”

Just as there are brain pathways engaged with negative experiences of stress, Sternberg says positive experiences — such as deep breathing, walking in nature, and even prayer — engage other brain pathways that are rich in endorphins and feel-good molecules. “In addition to making you feel good, they contribute to putting that break on the stress response,” Sternberg says. Remember, if you’re feeling anxious, “your body is telling you something.” she says. “As soon as you change course, you shift from feeling stressed to feeling exhilarated — the difference between the two feelings is whether or not you’re in control.”

How to Breathe If You’re Feeling Anxious