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Breathe to Calm Your Heart and Nerves

nature photo with side view of model smiling and forest backgroundBreathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, with your mouth closed to the count of 4. Now hold that breath for the count of 7, and then exhale slowly through your nose to the count of 8. Repeat this “4-7-8 breath cycle” three more times. Congratulations, you just successfully meditated.
This little exercise, which typically takes less than 2 minutes, instantly lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, reduces stress, improves focus and even boosts the immune system. Some people prefer a shorter breathing cycle, one where you breathe in for 3, hold for 4, and breathe out for 5.
It’ not important which one of these breathing exercises you prefer, as long as you make it part of your daily routine. It’s ideal if you can find a quiet environment where you can sit down and close your eyes. Pause for a moment and try it right now. Can you feel the difference? Most people will notice an immediate wave of relaxation moving through their system, calming the mind and melting away any chest tightness. As you breathe in slowly, you should feel your belly expanding as your diaphragm pulls down, drawing the air into your lungs and filling them to capacity. Each time you exhale, try to empty your lungs out almost completely.
For millennia, yogis have used breathing exercises to promote mindfulness, improve vitality and become more enlightened. Science in the 21st century is confirming the health benefits of breath work exercises, like the one detailed above. Relaxation breathing is meditation for individuals who won’t or can’t meditate. Even doing four to eight cycles of this simple breathing exercise once or twice daily can reduce anxiety, lighten mood and improve sleep.
Controlled breathing works by altering the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the unconscious processes, including pulse rate, blood pressure, digestion, immunity and the body’s acute reaction to stress. Our breathing is the only bodily function that can be controlled entirely either by the conscious mind or the unconscious mind.
Thus, consciously altering our breathing to a slow deep pattern sends signals to the subconscious mind saying, “If we’re breathing like this, I can assume we’re in a very safe situation and all is well,” which then stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing your heart and arteries and calming your mind. This relaxation breathing also downregulates the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. In this way, breath work is a unique and powerful way to seize control of the autonomic nervous system.
I try to do this twice daily: once during the day, if and when I notice myself feeling harried or tense, and usually again when in bed at night, just before I doze off. In fact, this is a reliable way to induce sleep, whether you want to fall asleep initially or find yourself trying to fall back to sleep after awakening in the middle of the night.
Recent scientific studies suggest that a simple practice of breath work can alter brain chemicals as much as prescription antidepressant medications. Relaxation breathing can also reduce the stress hormone cortisol and lower inflammatory cytokines in the bloodstream.
Just give it a try - start with only four cycles of either the 4-7-8, or the 3-4-5 breath work as described here, and maybe progress to eight cycles if you have the time. It’s a simple and practical habit that can allow you to harness the healing power of your autonomic nervous system.

In Good Health,

James O'Keefe, MD