Inhale for 4 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. Do this for two minutes.
Now let’s talk about why that works.
The Stress Response
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response, which is a physiologic response to any stimulus that we perceive as a threat. Also called the “stress response”, this set of physical reactions originally served a survival purpose. If you met a sabertooth tiger on the path, you’d have a boost to help you either fight or run away.
Specifically, the adrenal glands send a flood of hormones into the body, leading to (among other things) increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breath rate.
A fascinating reminder about mind/body connection: this series of physiologic events occurs whether the threat is real or perceived.
In modern life, stress is less commonly related to physical survival, and more often occurs behind the wheel of a car, or across the table from someone, or just thinking about giving a big presentation. In these instances, this response of the sympathetic nervous system can do more harm than good.
Over time, the effects of triggering this response can add up to become health symptoms associated with chronic stress. If you’d like more specifics, here is a brief but detailed explanation of the stress response from Harvard Health.
Calming the system
The body, in all its brilliance, works to set itself back in balance by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to counter the potentially harmful effects of daily life stressors.
However, many people are living with a chronic stress response, which never fully resolves on its own. There are many ways to encourage the body to counteract the stress response, including various breathing exercises, certain forms of exercise like yoga and tai chi, meditation, the Relaxation Response, and other coping strategies.
Enter, this simple breathing hack:
- Sit quietly and close your eyes.
- Take 4 counts to inhale fully through your nose. Use an external sound (like the ticking of a clock), or keep time by tapping a finger on your leg.
- Take 8 full counts to exhale. (It might take some practice to exhale this slowly. Some people find it easier to control the exhale if you blow out through tightly pursed lips)
- If this is too challenging, start with inhaling for 3 beats and exhaling for 6, and build up your stamina. The important part is the ratio of the inhale to exhale is 1:2.
- If your beats are 1 second long, repeating this 10 times takes about 2 minutes.
How does it work?
The simplest explanation for how prolonged exhales calm the nervous system comes down to the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. On the exhale, the cranial nerve known as the vagus nerve emits this substance directly onto the heart, causing the heart rate to slow.
I agree, that sounds a bit far-fetched. but I’m pretty sure the scientists are not making it up. The nerve literally sends a soothing, calming substance out to the other parts of the body. (As a sidebar, the vagus nerve is also responsible for energizing the vocal cords, so it is clearly a magical nerve).
The vagus nerve also contributes to health and brain functioning in other ways. More details about the science of this technique can be found in this excellent article from Psychology Today, titled Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve.
If your breathing feels hard to control and you would like some guidance, schedule a session for some personalized coaching for using your breath to calm your nerves.