Many clients come into my virtual office wondering how they can finally beat their anxiety. Some experience full-on panic attacks while others report a dull, never-ending, pulsing sense of nervousness. As their therapist, I often tell them the solution to beating anxiety might be in one breath.

Mindful or conscious breathing can be an easy way to promote relaxation and reduce fear and anxiety in the moment. Using mindful breathing as a tool can help you access the part of your nervous system that allows you to reduce stress and think more clearly, which will keep you safer and eliminate the overwhelmed feeling that often accompanies anxiety and panic.

In terms of biology and physiology, our nervous system is made up of two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the part of your brain that gets activated when you are perceiving a threat. In ancient times this was when people were, in theory, being chased by saber tooth tigers and running away from wooly mammoths.

Your cognitive system shuts down and allows for three actions to happen: “fight, flight or freeze.” This means your mind is solely focused on survival. Rational thought leaves and you instinctively do one of those actions.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the system that soothes and relaxes you. When this system is activated, you can be creative, breathe more deeply and fully understand material you want or need to learn. This is when you’re at your peak. You can do your job effectively because your brain is working at its highest efficiency.

When you’re anxious, your brain is perceiving a threat. The key to stopping that anxiety in its tracks is to breathe.

For most of us, on a day-to-day basis we don’t experience many physical threats. What that means is your parasympathetic system should be dominating your body the majority of the time. Most of the time you should be relaxed, feeling good, and able to take on any challenge.

This means you should only be ready to “fight, flight, or flee” a small percentage of the time. When you are a highly anxious person, those percentages are way off balance. That means you’re always under stress. Your brain is constantly perceiving threats whether they are physical or emotional. That’s what makes you feel anxious!

With one breath — what many call a “relaxation breath” — you can trick your brain back into relaxation mode. One way I often explain this to my clients is to think of it as a “four-seven-eight breath.” It’s actually simple:

  1. You inhale through your nose for four seconds
  2. You hold that breath for seven seconds
  3. Finally, you exhale for eight seconds

The exhale part of this breath can be difficult. There is an alternate version you may use to the same effect that shortens the second and third steps. It’s called the “four-five-six” breath. It is as follows:

  1. You inhale through your nose for four seconds
  2. You then hold that breath for five seconds
  3. Finally, you exhale for six seconds

You can use the “four-five-six” breath as a stand alone strategy and you can also use it as a way to work up to the more difficult “four-seven-eight” breath posted above. This alternative version is a great place to start, particularly if you aren’t familiar with deep breathing. First timers will find this version a lot easier to use. It’s as effective as the original version posted above. Both will take a bit of practice, but as you do it more and more you will find that breathing deeply will become easier.

That’s it! This relaxation breath can be repeated for as long as you like.

If this sounds like a helpful strategy for you to try, be sure to give yourself a quiet, comfortable space to try it in. Each day you can take a few minutes to practice this relaxation breath. If you do, you will be on your way to beating anxiety, one breath at a time.

Note: If you have difficulty breathing, this exercise might not be the best strategy for you.

Originally published at

Originally published at