In a perfect world, we would all fall asleep as soon as we shut our eyes. After all, you’ve got the ideal sleep setup. But for many of us, quick sleep simply isn’t reality — far too often, stress gets in the way of quality sleep. Whether anxiety stems from momsomnia or worrying about whether we'll be able to fall asleep quickly, those worries can quickly trigger a stress-sleeplessness loop that keeps us from experiencing restorative rest.
Luckily, there are many techniques for quelling a racing mind. For some, that means finding a relaxing pre-sleep routine. For others, it means reminding ourselves not to expect perfection. Research also shows that deep breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method can help us de-stress — and they could be more effective in combating insomnia than pharmaceuticals.
If you’re looking for a new tool to help you ease pre-sleep anxiety, try the 4-7-8 method tonight.
What Is the 4-7-8 Method?
Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at the University of Arizona, introduced the 4-7-8 breathing technique in 2010. His goal was to help his patients enter a relaxed state that eased the symptoms of insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
Inspired by the ancient yogic technique called pranayama, Weil’s deep-breathing method utilizes a simple 4-7-8 pattern that he likens to a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” Although researchers haven’t fully explored the relationship between the 4-7-8 technique and sleep, some devotees say it helps them fall asleep in as little as one minute. Deep breathing more generally has been shown to decrease anxiety, which can lead to better shut-eye.
Davi Brown, head of content at Breathwrk and certified breath-work instructor, describes the 4-7-8 method as a simple but effective breathing pattern for anxiety. It involves inhaling through your nose for four seconds, holding the breath in for seven, and exhaling through an “o” mouth with a “whooshing” sound for a count of eight.
“The 19-second breath slows the breathing rate to help slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure,” Brown says. “The elongated exhale engages the parasympathetic nervous system to trigger your body’s relaxation response.”
How to Do the 4-7-8 Method
When you try the 4-7-8 breathing method, you’ll likely be breathing much more slowly than you typically do. Although generally, just five to six breaths per minute are recommended in normal breathing, Brown says most people breathe around 10 to 15 times because they haven’t learned how to breathe properly. “The 4-7-8 breath slows the breathing rate down even more, so you are taking about three breaths per minute,” Brown says.
Weil outlined the 4-7-8 method in a 2010 guide developed for the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine (PDF). To try it for yourself, follow these five steps.
PreparationFind a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. If you are distracted, block outside noise. “Wearing headphones with gentle music can help keep your focus on your breath,” Brown suggests.
PosturePosture is important, and Weil recommends sitting with your back straight. According to Brown, you can also lie on your back with your knees bent and gently resting together, bringing one hand to your heart and another to your belly.
Tongue positionPlace the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth. Keep it there through the entire exercise, exhaling through your mouth around your tongue. If this feels awkward, purse your lips slightly.
BreathworkOnce you’ve found a quiet spot, settled into the correct posture and positioned your tongue properly, start your breathwork:
- Empty your lungs of breath by exhaling through your mouth, making a whooshing sound while your tongue presses against the top of your mouth just behind your front teeth.
- Close your mouth. Inhale quietly through your nose as you count to four.
- Hold your breath as you count to seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound as you count to eight.
Now that you’ve completed one 4-7-8 pattern, inhale again, and repeat the cycle three more times.
FrequencyFor the first month of practicing this method of breathwork, Weil recommends no more than four rounds at a time, which is “enough to feel the effects,” Brown says. However, to reap the most benefit from the 4-7-8 method, Weil suggests working up to eight rounds of breaths.
What Are the Benefits of the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique?
Numerous studies have explored the stress-relieving powers of deep breathing techniques. In Weil’s guide, he explains that the 4-7-8 method “has a surplus of benefits for your entire nervous system” when practiced daily.
It acts as a “natural tranquilizer”
Weil refers to the 4-7-8 technique as a “natural tranquilizer” for the nervous system. As he writes, the exercise “is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice.” That’s in contrast to pharmaceuticals, which can lose effectiveness over time.
It improves sleep
According to Brown and other experts, the 4-7-8 breathing technique helps you fall asleep faster — some practitioners report falling asleep in 120 or even 60 seconds when using the 4-7-8 method. It also improves sleep quality by slowing down your heart rate, calming your mind, and relaxing your nervous system.
It relieves anxiety and stress
The 4-7-8 breathing technique helps relieve symptoms related to anxiety and stress “by stimulating the vagus nerve to induce your body’s natural relaxation response,” Brown explains.
In one study, 4-7-8 breathing reduced anxiety in people living with moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
It can strengthen your response to other daily stressors
Regularly using the method helps improve your resilience so that you can better overcome daily stressors, Brown says. Weil recommends using it during tense moments in lieu of a more physiological fight-or-flight reaction.
It can help decrease the perception of pain
“The perception of pain is reduced when holding the breath in after a deep inhalation,” Brown says.
Research shows that paced breathing can reduce pain. Although most studies focus more generally on deep breathing, one small study found that pregnant women experienced less pain after using 4-7-8 breathing in the first phase of their delivery.
It encourages the release of oxygen into the body
Slowing down your breath helps release oxygen into the body, optimizing your oxygenation process and bringing you numerous health benefits.
“When we slow the breath down, we actually retain higher levels of CO2 in the blood. This presence of CO2 actually encourages the optimal release of oxygen from the blood and into the tissues of the body,” Brown says. “The presence of CO2 not only liberates more O2 into the body but helps to increase our endurance. This optimized endurance and O2 in the body supports individuals to achieve a relaxed resting state.”
Deep breathing can even enhance oxygenation at high altitudes, where it has been shown to simultaneously reduce systemic and pulmonary blood pressure.
When Will You Reap the Benefits of the 4-7-8 Method?
Deep breathing exercises can start helping you reduce your anxiety almost immediately. However, Brown says that “the lasting benefits are achieved through daily practice,” for three minutes a day, though some people can work up to more.
The 4-7-8 breathing pattern might seem complicated at first, but it will get easier with time, Brown says. However, it’s not uncommon for it to “feel like a mini-workout to get into the breathing rhythm,” Brown adds.
Additional Tools and Techniques
Once you get into a good groove with the 4-7-8 breathing technique, use these tools to deepen your practice.
Brown suggests adding visualization to the breathing method. Not sure where to start? Try a simple visualization “of inhaling light into the body, holding it throughout, and releasing it back out on the exhale with all your tensions and thoughts,” Brown says.
Guided meditation videos
If you are struggling with the 4-7-8 pattern, Brown suggests following along with a guided meditation video on YouTube. Weil also has a collection of 4-7-8 technique videos that offer a simple introduction to the method’s breathing pattern.
Weil does not suggest completing more than four breaths at one time during your first month of practice. However, if you’re ready to deepen your practice, try increasing gradually to eight breaths over time.
Who Should Do the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique?
“Everyone breathes and everyone can benefit from becoming aware of their breath and how they can modulate it to help them feel better and reach their goals,” Brown says. However, anyone with pre-existing conditions, including anxiety disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, COPD, and others, should consult with their doctor before commencing breathwork.
The 4-7-8 technique could be just what you need to ease your bedtime anxiety. However, it can be used any time that you need to quiet your mind — not just right before bed. “Do it the first thing in the morning, right before bed, and anytime you need a little support,” Brown suggests.
Bottom Line: Why You Should Try the 4-7-8 Method
There’s nothing more natural than breathing. But if anxiety is keeping you up at night, a slight change in your breathing patterns could give your sleep quality a huge boost. Deep breathing techniques are generally safe and don’t require any special equipment. (That means you can get started with techniques like the 4-7-8 method tonight!)
Experiencing sleepless nights but don’t want to try 4-7-8 breathing? Plenty of other tools can help you drift off to sleep: box breathing, muscle relaxation, reverse psychology, meditation, and more. Keep exploring until you find the one that makes falling asleep feel blissful and natural, not stressful.
Additional reporting by Leah Groth