Using the breath to calm anxiety and stress: 4-7-8 and 5/7 breathing

How do we find a resource in the moment that we can turn to easily and without it being obvious? This week I was giving a mindfulness presentation at a corporate HQ to 30 people with busy and demanding lives and was asked if it was possible to stop and take a breathe at a time of stress or if this would not make the person look weak or indecisive. This partly shows how focused our working world is on a certain approach to strength – the Yang mode of purposeful, driven and active behaviour. There is also a place for the Yin mode of receptive, listening and pliable attention. Taking a moment to stop and breathe helps with this rebalancing as we rush through our lives.

The breathing method I was teaching at the session was drawn from the video I shared last week, with the 5/7 rhythm of breathing – breathing in through the nose for a count of 5, out through the nose for a count of 7…..then after a few rounds starting to include a pause of two seconds, holding the breathe for a count of 2 after breathing in for 5….then holding it for a count of 2 after breathing out for a count of 7.

As I was on my way to this session the train was held for over 5 minutes outside Earls Court. As I was running to a deadline and the minutes ticked by I could feel myself becoming anxious. This is second arrow territory – the first arrow of suffering is: the tube is not working and I have a deadline. The second arrow is: why didn’t I leave earlier, this is awful, what will happen if I am late…….The first arrow I have no control over, it’s happened. The second arrow is what I am firing, but it is all conjecture, what if and what might have been – so is also pointless to get lost in.  All I can do at that point is wait for the tube to move again. As a way to calm this second arrow and deal with the stress caused by the first arrow of the train not moving I used the 5/7 breathing. Spending five minutes calming my breath as I waited for the train to move again. The train did then move and I arrived on time. The result was that I arrived feeling calm and present instead of agitated and on high alert from having a toxic mix of cortisol and adrenalin in my body after sitting feeling anxious for over 5 minutes.

The more you practice being with the breath in times of stress, the more naturally your attention will turn to it when you need it, and even a few deep breaths will be effective. So, in answer to the question of if it will seem strange to stop and breathe, the more you practice this the less obvious it will be, as you will simply take a deeper breath as you wait a moment to speak…and rather than this making you seem unsure, it will give a sense of you being poised and present.

In the workshop I introduced people to deep belly breathing, so that they were taking a breath into the belly then up into the chest. Some commented latter that they noticed that they did tend only to breathe into their upper chest so this felt new. Practicing taking this fuller breath really helps to make it a resource you can then turn to in the moment, taking a few full breaths before answering, or whilst speaking.

Before you do any of the breathing practices below, spend a little time laying down, with a hand on your belly and another on your chest, and notice where the breath is moving your body. Do you breathe into your chest only? Or does the hand on your belly move first, and once full the breath then expands the chest?

If you notice you have chest breathing, take both hands to your belly and as you breathe in imagine that you are filling a ballon, expanding your hands as the belly fills, then allow the breath to expand into the chest, lifting and opening it. Then as you breathe out, the chest drops and closes, and the belly empties. Practice getting this flow of breathe into the belly then up into the chest before you go on to try the 5/7 or 4-7-8 breathing, as without this full belly breath these practices will not be as effective.

The video below guides you through the 5/7 breathing, as a practice you can do for 10 minutes at home to train yourself in using the breathe to release stress and tension.

 

 

Another practice I have started to use recently is 4-7-8 breathing. This is so powerful as it helps the body in times of sudden stress, panic or anger. It is a shorter practice than the 5/7 breath, which can be done for an extended period. In contrast 4-7-8 breathing is done for only 4 rounds, but its effect is profound. Think of it as your ‘break glass in an emergency’ meditation.

Breath in though your nose for a count of 4, holding for a count of 5 and then out through your mouth for a count of 8, emptying the belly as you breathe out. This is one round. Repeat three more times. The man who devised it suggests resting your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind your top teeth throughout, and making a whooshing sound as you breathe out – the idea is you allow the breathe to leave freely rather than holding it. You can do this twice a day to train yourself in taking long slow breathes, and also use it at times of stress.

 

 

I shared this 4-7-8 breath practice with someone during the week and he said by going out and doing it at a time of stress whilst at work it transformed the experience and he felt calm and settled and able to return to work and the question came up at the corporate training session about doing these breathing exercises at their desk. If there is not a prayer room available I encourage people at work to give themselves mindfulness breaks by using a suitable space, most often a shower room or disabled access loo as these are large spaces. One day we will have a well being room in every work space where you can go to do a few minutes of mindful breathing, but we’re not there yet. But if we can take smoking breaks, then I think it appropriate also to take mental health well being breaks!

Over the weekend you may like to try these two breathing methods out, see which you most enjoy and then as you enter the week I invite you to try them out in your daily life – on your commute, or at work. If you want to establish a daily practice then spending 10 minutes using the 5/7 breath as a way to settle your attention on the breath would be very effective. You can then use it as you need it during the day, or turn to the 4-7-8 breath if you need to calm nerves or are having a lot of anxiety or a panic attack.

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