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4 - 7 - 8

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Breathing is commonly understood to be a 'circuit breaker' in a moment of panic and stress. As far back as the times of black and white movies, people in acute distress were advised to reach for the smelling salts or breathe into a paper bag. But why, and how does it work? Is it just an old wives' tale or folklore? If I do it, how do I do it right? I mean, we have all been breathing since birth. Surely we know how to breathe!

The answer to why we use breathing techniques is; moments of stress and panic caused by a threat or perceived threat kick off a series of events in our bodies. Human beings are at optimal functioning when our system is in balance. The autonomic nervous system manages balance; (yes, you are right, as in automatic bodily functions such as breathing, heartbeat and some reflexes, for example) The autonomic nervous system has two gears, so to speak. These gears are called the sympathetic nervous system, the fast and the furious gear to go fast and get out of here and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the cruise control gear to enjoy the ride. Or in more scientific terms the sympathetic nervous system is our 'fight or flight' system, and the parasympathetic nervous system is our 'rest and digest' system.

When human beings encounter a threat (such as coming face to face with a tiger) or a perceived threat (such as a thought), our sympathetic nervous system is activated by the emotional and instinctive part of the brain. This gets the whole body ready for a fight or flight response, such as facing a threat and defending ourselves in 'fight' or running away 'flight'. The physical experience of a person in panic and stress generally includes; sweating, tense muscles, a need or inability to go to the toilet, increased heart rate, brain fog and faster breathing. Faster breathing increases the oxygen in our blood gases, which can lead to a sense of unreality, hyperventilation, and, in severe cases, passing out. When the sympathetic nervous system is in control, we find that our ability to think clearly and apply logical decision-making diminishes; we react instinctively and reflexively. So, how do we change gears and get back to cruise control???

Research suggests that breathing is an effective strategy to restore calm, which is why Psychologists suggest that we breathe! Controlled breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system and restores calm to our body and mind. We can think with clarity, adrenaline reduces, the heart rate returns to a regular beat, and reasonable and logical decision-making capacity is restored.

An effective breathing technique is 4- 7- 8 breathing, the shorter breath in and long breath out return our blood gases to balance by reducing the oxygenation of the blood and increasing carbon dioxide.

Follow these steps to try 4-7-8 breathing to achieve deep relaxation or control stress and panic.

  1. Firstly, empty your lungs from your last breath mindfully.

  2. Breathe in for 4 seconds.

  3. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.

  4. Engage your core muscles and diaphragm to breathe out deeply for 8 seconds.

  5. Repeat steps 2, 3 and 4 until calm is restored.

If you have any questions about seeing a psychologist for panic attacks, stress management, anxiety, depression or circumstantial adjustment disorder, click here to contact us for an appointment.

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