I have done a post like this before, but that was based on an animated gif that someone else made. This time, I commissioned someone to make an animation out of my personal favorite breathing exercise to help stop your anxiety. It’s called 4-7-8 breathing and it goes like this…
I write about this exercise in my book as a prefect “go to” breathing exercise for several reasons. First off, it isn’t an obvious breathing technique. You can do this on the train or in the middle of class and no one will even notice. The other is that focusing on the specific numbers and trying to “follow the rules” of the exercise can be really helpful for those who get anxious without specific instructions. Now, as you continue to breathe along here, I want to talk a bit about breathing for relaxation and how you can make this exercise work for you. If you have anxiety, stress, or even panic attacks, keep reading.
Anxiety cannot physically hurt you. You hear that? You are not in true danger. However, your brain makes it feel as if you are in danger. That’s because your asshole of a brain is jumpstarting your fight or flight response and throwing your sympathetic nervous system into a tizzy. As a result, you can feel like you are short of breath, like your heart is pounding, and like the whole world is closing in around you. Deep breathing is a way to hack your brain into relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which comes in and clean up the mess that your fight or flight response leaves behind. This process is called the relaxation response.
Now here’s the thing: the modern human animal is kinda shitty at relaxing. Therefore, we need to practice relaxation as a skill. The battle with anxiety or stress is often a high intensity situation. You don’t want to try to rely on skills that you have not had very much practice with when that pressure is on, right? Think of it this way: would you stand up in front of a crowd and give a speech that you’ve never practiced? Of course not. So let’s talk about how to practice relaxation in a way that will make you ready to kick anxiety’s ass at a moment’s notice.
As with any other skill, this will take some training. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should be practicing your deep breathing when you are not already experiencing strong anxiety. Our bodies are great at associating things together and if you only engage in deep breathing when you are already stressed, you can accidentally cause your body to actually expect stress from deep breathing. Instead, you want to spend about 10 minutes, three times per week, engaging in deep breathing and teaching your body how to go through the relaxation process.
So carve out three spots in your busy life to spend a few minutes engaging in 4-7-8 breathing or any other exercise that works well for you. Focus on the sensations that occur within your body as you breathe. Notice what it feels like when that internal switch flips and you shift into the wonderful cascade of relaxation. And that’s it! Once you successfully achieve that relaxation or the time limit has passed, call it quits for the day. If you keep training this, I promise that you will not regret it. That means that the next time you have a panic attack or a really busy day at work, you will not be left defenseless and instead you will have a well trained skill at your disposal to bring you down a few notches and get you back into the game.