I Tried the 4-7-8 Breathing Method to Fall Asleep...Here's What Happened

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Have you heard of the "4-7-8" breathing method? I hadn't until references to it kept popping up in my Facebook feed. I ignored them at first, but the positive endorsements from friends and friends of friends ("works for me every time!", "did it last night and it worked!") were a siren song that I couldn't resist. After a few tries, here's how it's been going:

This article from Byrdie gives a good explanation of what the technique is, what scientifically is happening and the writer describes how it feels when she does it ("It washes over you like a calming, relaxing drug. I can never remember getting past the first set of 4-7-8.").

Rooted in yoga, this breathing technique is intended to slow your heart rate and calm your mind.

It's a 3-step breathing technique:

  • Breathe in deeply through your nose for 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds
  • Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds

I've never been a good sleeper so I set my skepticism aside and gave it a try.

Night 1:

"Okay, let's do this. 4-7-8, 4-7-8," I chant in my head. Just as I'm psyching myself up to start...I psych myself out. Bits of the Byrdie article pop into my head:

"Do you know the feeling of being put under by anesthesia, where you are conscious, and the next thing you remember is waking up? The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream, and may even make you feel slightly lightheaded which contributes to the mild sedative-like effect."

Laugh if you will (I can't hear you), but I suddenly and irrationally begin panicking that I'm going to die in my sleep. What if I slow my heart rate too much? And there's something a bit mystical sounding about "4-7-8" that conjures up childhood memories of "red rum" and Ouija boards. My state of mind: not calm! So, I table it for the night.

Night 2:

Realizing how silly I had been the previous night I'm prepared to try again. "Okay, 4-7-8, 4 breaths in, 1-2-3-4, okay...now what again? 7 what? Oh right, hold my breath for 7 seconds, 1-2, 3, 4 (omg, I'm only up to 4?), 5, 6, (surely, I'm going to die!), 7. Oh, crap! Mouth open or closed to exhale? How many seconds again? 4-7-8. 8! Right!"

I try a few more times with similar results and reach two conclusions: 1) I may not be smart enough for this 2) I may not be fit enough for this. For whatever reason my brain turned rubbery and I couldn't remember the very simple instructions. And, I seem to have the lung capacity of a newborn gerbil.

Night 3:

I didn't give up! I decided to get another take on 4-7-8 and watched a video of Andrew Weil, M.D. demonstrating the technique. Although I didn't find his bright purple shirt calming, he did seem genuinely relaxed as he did the breathing exercise, in front of a crowd no less. On the "8" part he instructs to "blow air out forcefully through your mouth making a "whoosh" sound which I hadn't done before. Weil describes the outcome of the breathing exercise as producing "a very pleasant state of altered consciousness".

As soon as I climbed into bed I realized that making a loud "whoosh" sound to exhale was not going to work with a husband already asleep 6 inches from me and my toddler daughter sleeping only a few feet away. I tried to make a quiet "whoosh" and this seemed okay. It helped to have watched Weil do it and I think what I'd really like is an audio recording of him repeating the steps playing in my ear so I could set my brain free from remembering what do to and for how long.

I also became weirdly obsessed with the accuracy of my counting. One Mississippi? One One Thousand? I had no confidence that my 7s weren't really 8s and vice versa. And maybe it doesn't matter.

Despite my diminished whooshing and preoccupation with counting, it was somewhat easier this night to get into a rhythm with the 4-7-8 breathing. Did it help me get to sleep? No. I gave up after a few minutes, unable to find my own pleasant state of altered consciousness.

Bottom line:

This wasn't an instant success for me. Weil emphasizes that the exercise takes practice so three tries is really just the tip of the relaxation iceberg. I expect a few weeks of practicing might give better results. Or, maybe it's just not for me!

Have you tried 4-7-8'ing to sleep or just to relax?

Re-edited from a post originally published 2.2.15-NT

(Image credits: Marie-Lyne Quirion)