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The 4-7-8 breathing method
can help calm your nerves 

by Melissa Monica

February 26, 2024

It’s pretty common to feel nervous before taking a big test. Your palms sweat, your head pounds and you might even feel short of breath. When we get anxious or scared, we tend to take shorter, shallower breaths. But doing the exact opposite — taking slow, deep breaths — can actually help decrease symptoms of anxiety. Here’s where a simple breathing technique called 4-7-8 comes in.

The 4-7-8 method, also called the relaxing breath, was developed by Andrew Weil, M.D., who describes it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” The method is relatively straightforward: Breathe in for four counts, hold for seven counts and release for eight counts. But if you want more detailed instructions, read on.  

  1. Press the tip of your tongue behind your upper teeth, resting on the ridge of tissue. Keep it there during the exercise.

  2. Exhale through your mouth, making sure to completely empty your lungs. 

  3. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for a count of four.  

  4. Hold your breath for a count of seven.

  5. Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.  

  6. This is one breath cycle. Repeat three more times for a total of four breaths.
     

The 4-7-8 method can help lower levels of perceived stress, says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, California. “When you exhale for longer than you inhale, it has the effect of lowering your heart rate,” he says. “It could also reduce anxiety and help some people fall asleep.” 

While the research is preliminary, mindful breathing exercises like 4-7-8 have been shown to help reduce test anxiety among students and even improve test performance. If you can’t remember the exact method during a moment of stress, Dimitriu says to just take a series of long, deep breaths.

“I can’t say enough about how important it is for everybody to occasionally take a deep breath during the day,” he says. “I think many of us become passive breathers. And it's important to remember to breathe.” 

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