The Relaxing Breath

by | Mar 29, 2018


Fight or Flight Response – these guys are wisely choosing flight!!!

Do you struggle with stress? Most of us do. There is a simple and effective exercise, discussed below, that can have a big, positive effect on your ability to handle stress.

One of the primary causes of the negative stress we experience is our “fight or flight response” which occurs naturally when we perceive threat. When engaged, flight or flight causes our sympathetic nervous system to increase our metabolism, blood pressure, heart and respiration rates as well as dilate our pupils and constrict our blood vessels.  This all occurs to assist us in fighting or fleeing the dangerous situation.  This is an evolutionary feature that is found in many other animals and has helped our survival as a species.

An issue that we have in modern times is that we are rarely in actual physical danger and now this fight or flight response is triggered by non-dangerous situations such as work deadlines, our daily commute, discussion of politics and whether our posts get likes on social media. According to Harvard Medical School: “all those surging stress hormones can take a toll on the body. Over time, such low-grade chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.”

An effective way to combat the fight or flight response is to trigger the opposite response in our bodies which is the “relaxation response.” This physiological mechanism was first discovered and publicized by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard. From Psychology Today: “Dr. Benson describes the Relaxation Response as a physical state of deep relaxation which engages the other part of our nervous system—the parasympathetic nervous system.  Research has shown that regular use of the Relaxation Response can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety disorders, and others.” Dr. Benson found that use of the relaxation response can lower blood pressure on par with medication.

How can we trigger our relaxation response? There are a number of techniques, but one of the most simple, yet effective, techniques is the regular use of breathing exercises. Regular breathing practice can have a big effect over time on the negative stress you experience. My favorite breathing exercise is called The Relaxing BreathIt is something that I practice multiple times a day and also use when I’m feeling stressed. It also can help you fall asleep. Below is a video and then written instruction from Dr. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine explaining how to practice the relaxing breath. The Video:

The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise (from

“The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.

This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.

Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension or stress. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.”


  1. Wow, I just read my response! 3 1/2 yrs later!

  2. I have noticed professional athletes take some deep breaths during competition. A few years ago, Matt Carpenter started to breathe deeply while at bat, as he was in the batters box. I also notice it with professional golfers. I’m sure you can think of others.
    I have never tried the techniques described, but look forward to doing so.
    I can testify to stress magnifying when we get an oxygen deficit. Just watch a person with asthma, when they have an asthma attack the body wants to take a deep breath, its natural…but when the lungs or breathing passage constricts with an asthmatic response, a deep breathe actually compounds the inability to breathe! In this case, the quest for a deep relaxing breath actually works against you. Frustrating, and scary!
    It affects people with a persistent deficit of oxygen. You may see these people with the oxygen tanks and the nasal canula in their nose. It is very easy for these people to become stressed and anxious. Once again it is best when people on supplemental oxygen use their mind to help control stress, breathe easy and take most if not all breath through the nose, thus maximizing the intake of supplemental oxygen.
    Those who suffer with insufficient oxygen suffer multiple disorders. Higher stress levels, higher heart rates, and poorer mental cognition, and too many to list here.
    Imagine reading some text on how to take a medication, or read an article, or even trying to write down an appointment…only with your brain without the oxygen it needs…guess what, it doesn’t work. Additionally, memory is affected as well. Being unable to remember when to take medications, do paperwork or think through a new complicated task, all cause stress.
    So, if you can take a deep breath and remember a lot of our stress is self-imposed. There are many ways to solve the problems or challenges we face, for me stress builds when I fixate on one way. Its best to put a challenge into proper perspective. Learn how to balance your emotions, and how to recognize real emergencies from self induced stress.
    I am happy that I can take a deep breath….and your right John…it does make you feel better.

  3. I am gong to use this when I get uptight on the golf course. Relaxing when I have a tuff shot is a consistent problem.

  4. Great idea, I will use this today


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Subscribe To The IFOD

Get the Interesting Fact of the Day delivered twice a week. Plus, sign up today and get Chapter 2 of John's book The Uncertainty Solution to not only Think Better, but Live Better. Don't miss a single post!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This
%d bloggers like this: