Every night, 40 million Americans lie awake while stress and anxiety make their mental cylinders fire. They turn a rough day at work into a repeating string of lousy song lyrics or an intense need to replay a breakup that happened a decade ago. They watch the clock, deciding sleep is out of their grasp. And what's worse, they don't know how to make it stop.
Evidence suggests meditation could help reduce the stress plaguing so many people. But that would mean, you know, learning to meditate. Fortunately, there's an absurdly easy trick based on the same principles. I use it. I recommend it. The only thing you need to know is how to count.
It's called the 4-7-8 breathing technique, also known as Relaxing Breath. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, it's a natural depressant for your nervous system, helping you fall asleep in 60 seconds by quieting the parts of your brain where stress manifests.
This is how you do it, according to Weil's website:
1. Press the tip of your tongue against the hard ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth and keep it there.
2. Exhale all of your breath out.
3. Inhale, quietly, through your nose for four seconds.
4. Hold that breath for seven seconds.
5. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, for eight seconds.
6. Repeat the cycle four times.
Boom. You're out.
How it works: "Sleep is a vulnerable state and it takes body-wide permission to achieve," Joseph Chandler, an assistant professor of psychology at Birmingham-Southern College, told Mic. "Feedback from different systems, including the stress system, must give the green light that it is safe to sleep."
Relaxing Breath is a means of halting the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal gland cascade — called the HPA axis — responsible for stress reactions. When the HPA axis is activated, your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep is compromised.
The HPA cascade might cause your brain to start to "freak out" — your anxiety is keeping you wired. When you break the cascade, the feeling of relaxation tells your brain all systems are go, you're finally safe. "This manifests in the appearance of alpha brain waves, the initial indication of entering the first stage of sleep," said Chandler.
Why is it so effective? "To my knowledge there is nothing specific about the timing that makes this technique work," Chandler told Mic. There are several variants of this pattern, he said, but the basics are all the same, "inhale slowly, hold and exhale with some force." It's similar to Lamaze breathing, the procedure taught in some prepared childbirth classes. Each method is predicated on the same concept of systemic stress reduction.
The 4-7-8 method is a quick and easy way to relieve your anxiety just enough to crash. As you get better with the technique, it could hopefully prevent you from sleepless nights in the future.