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Vagus Nerve Breathing: What is the 4-7-8 technique?

Have you ever noticed your bodily sensations when you’re in a state of stress? Your heart pumps faster, your breath is shallow, and you may feel light-headed and shaky. While the body detects danger through exteroception, with focus on external stressors, we may become so wound up it becomes difficult to return to equilibrium, to calm and to a state of balance.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a simple yet effective method for managing anxiety and achieving a peaceful state of mind. This technique involves inhaling for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds and exhaling for eight seconds. It is a form of yogic pranayama, a practice that focuses on regulating the breath to promote physical and mental well-being.

Before starting the breathing pattern, sit in a comfortable sitting position and place the tip of the tongue on the tissue right behind the top front teeth.

To use the 4-7-8 technique, focus on the following breathing pattern:

  • emptying the lungs of air

  • breathing in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds

  • holding your breath for a count of 7 seconds

  • exhaling forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips, and making a “whoosh” sound for 8 seconds

  • repeating the cycle up to 4 times

The total number of seconds that the pattern lasts is less important than keeping the ratio. A person who cannot hold their breath for long enough may try a shorter pattern instead, such as:

  • breathing in through the nose for 2 seconds

  • holding the breath for a count of 3.5 seconds

  • exhaling through the mouth for 4 seconds

This breathing technique is helpful in reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation. It stimulates the vagus nerve, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that oversees our “rest and digest” function. From a somatic perspective, this breath technique helps us feel safe in our bodies, relaxing any urges to jump back into fight or flight.

Since the vagus nerve is responsible for many of our organs and how they function, adding this technique into your daily practice can help you manage stress and increase your resilience.

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