4-2-6 Breathing: Decrease stress by using your breath

Melissa Martin, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Certified Pilates Instructor |

Anxiety and stress seems to be the theme thus far in 2020. When we experience these feelings for longer periods of time and it becomes chronic, it can shift our entire nervous system and affect how we process stress in our bodies and mind. This puts our brains into a flight or fight response, which makes it basically impossible to think clearly and rationally. One of the best ways to manage stress and shift out of this response is to use breath work. It is so simple and easy to do, and can be done anywhere at any time. One of these techniques is 4-2-6 breathing.

When we are experiencing high levels of stress, the sympathetic nervous system is the one running the show. The point of it is to prepare your body for the threat of an attack and be prepared to run or fight for your life. This is great when a tiger is chasing after you, but not so much when you are stressed trying to make a deadline at work. The problem is our minds don’t know the difference between these and prepare your body the same way for any perceived threat. Digestion shuts down, heart rate speeds up, more blood goes to your limbs to run or hit with, pupils dilate, and cortisol courses through your system. One time in order to save your life is great, but when we live our lives in this state, it is very detrimental to our health. The goal is to frequently work to shift out of the sympathetic system back to the parasympathetic.

The parasympathetic is the “rest and digest” state. Bodily functions all calm down and return to normal, digestion continues, and heart rate slows down. Using your breath is one of the most effective ways to get to this place. Studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing accomplishes this, as well as quiet the alarms going off in your brain that you are in harm’s way. Diaphragmatic breathing also activates the vagus nerve, which is primarily responsible for activating the parasympathetic system so it’s a win-win.

4-2-6 Breathing How To

The best way to do this is to place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Inhale a few times without moving your chest, but rather having the breath come solely from deep inside your core. You will see your belly moving in and out- this is the goal. You can also move your hands to feel your lower ribs- this is another good landmark to focus your breath from. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 2, exhale slowly with a relaxed mouth and jaw for 6 while letting all tension in your whole body melt away. Do this for at least 5-10 minutes 1-2 times a day. I recommend doing this both during and not during the presence of stress for two reasons. 1. When you are stressed, you are literally retraining your brain and nervous system to be able to stay calm and deal with whatever is in front of you in the most rational way possible. 2. During times where you are not stressed, it continues to train your nervous system away from the response from the sympathetic nervous system, slowly working to decrease to intensity and frequency of your overall stress levels. This is also great to do before going to sleep to literally give your mind something to focus on to unwind. Counting your breath for 5-10 minutes straight is guaranteed to relax you and shift away from a state of stress and panic. The more you do this, the easier and more naturally you will respond to stress in a healthy way.

Commit the next few weeks to regularly practicing 4-2-6 breathing and you will be amazed at the difference it makes in your life. Managing stress not only gives us a better quality of life through peace of mind and rest, but also has a huge impact on your immune system. Remember that stress is the ultimate killer? Well, not anymore for you!