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  • Bill Petrie

Reduce Stress in Four Easy Steps!

Most of us are experiencing very unhealthy levels of stress and the health implications are enormous. Excess stress increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, gastrointestinal disturbances, Alzheimer’s, clinical depression and anxiety. Excess stress also destroys our quality of life.

So, it’s very important to learn how to de-stress.

One of the simplest ways is the 4-4-6-2 breath. It’s simple but highly effective!

Here’s how you do it:

When you are first learning this breath, try it in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.

Sit comfortably with a relatively straight back and with a relaxed belly.


Breathe in deeply to the count of four – 1, 2, 3, 4.

(Count at a rate that feels relatively comfortable for you)

Then, hold your breath to the count of four – 1, 2, 3, 4.

Next, breathe out to the count of six – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Lastly, hold your breath to the count of two – 1, 2.

Now, repeat the cycle of four stages over and over for the next five minutes.

While you are doing the breathing, focus on the counting and the sensations in your stomach as you breathe.

Now bear in mind that, at first, this way of breathing may feel awkward. Stick with it! It does become extremely helpful over time.

Why does this way of breathing help? Well, firstly, this way of breathing requires us to breathe deeply and we relax naturally when we breathe deeply. We are just built that way!

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of breathing. The first way uses the muscles between the ribs to expand the chest. Whenever we get anxious, tense or angry, we tend to breathe this way. The result is shallow breathing and a tendency to over-breath. Breathing like this makes us feel even more tense.

The other way of breathing is by using the diaphragm (the muscle at the bottom of our chest). We use this muscle when we breathe deeply. To test if you are breathing this way, relax your belly and notice it moving in and out as you breathe. Now, if you are breathing deeply your stomach will go out when you breathe in and in when you breathe out. If this is happening, you are using your diaphragm to breathe and you are breathing deeply. Breathing in this way relaxes us and when we do the 4-4-6-2 breath, we deliberately breathe in this way – first relaxing the belly then drawing in deep breaths on the in-breaths.

The second reason the 4-4-6-2 breath works so well is that this way of breathing counteracts the tendency that we have to over-breathe at times when we are anxious, tense or angry. If we over-breathe, it makes it more difficult to think clearly and, as a consequence, it makes it more difficult to deal with the tension constructively.

With the 4-4-6-2 breath, the two stages where we hold our breath makes it less likely that we are over-breathing. As a result, we will be more clear-headed in dealing with tension, anger or anxiety.

A third reason that the 4-4-6-2 breath is so effective is the fact that there is a long out-breath. We naturally relax more on the out-breath than on the in-breath and so a long out-breath not only clears the lungs of stagnant air, it also helps us to de-stress. Again, this is simply the way in which we are designed to work.

Over time, when you are doing the 4-4-6-2 breath, slow your breathing rate down. But, please bear in mind that it is very important that you don’t create more stress when using this breathing sequence. Pace yourself as you slow your breathing rate down over time. At the beginning (and for quite a while) you may find you go through quite a number of breathing cycles per minute. As you manage to slow the breath down over time (without straining) you will find further benefits. A pace of about five breaths a minute generates what is known as ‘heart coherence.’ The greater the heart coherence the more the heart rhythm smooths out resulting in an increased balance in the flight/flight system and improved circulation.

If you want to master this breath, it is important to practice it often. Start using it when you are not extremely anxious, tense or angry. It is easier to relax when you are not too tense and what you’ll be doing is building up an association in your mind between the 4-4-6-2 breath and relaxation. The more you practice it, the more you will benefit when you really need it to calm yourself down.

Later, use the 4-4-6-2 breath whenever you are tense, anxious or angry. It will help!

One of the delights of this method is that you can practice it virtually anywhere – in long queues, at the dentist, in meetings, in traffic jams, before a public talk, in fact, in almost any situation. You will even find that as you calm, it will tend to calm others too.

It is also important with the 4-4-6-2 breath not to expect a dramatic instantaneous experience of relaxation. It is a powerful but subtle method that slowly lowers the level of arousal. If you use it as described, it will work for you. Just give it time!

The really difficult part is to remember to use the breath when you’re tense, angry or anxious. Why is this? Well, most of us tend to get caught in stories when we feel tense. These stories have themes like:

‘How could he have done that!’ ‘I’m going to get that SOB’ “That idiot…” ‘Why is this happening this way. It shouldn’t be?’ ‘I can’t do this!’ ‘I can’t cope!’ ‘I’m going to make a fool of myself!’ ‘I’m going to lose my job!’

The problem is that the stories themselves perpetuate the feeling. So, if you’re anxious because you think you’re going to mess things up – say, with a talk you’re giving – It only makes it worse if you’re telling yourself things like: ‘I can’t do this!’ I’m hopeless!’ I hope I don’t panic!’ What are my colleagues going to think?’ All of this just makes you more anxious. But, the problem is not even that those thoughts are there but that you buy into them. You give them credibility by paying attention to them and by believing that they might be (or are) true.

So, if you notice thoughts like this, just let your mind create its stories. That’s what minds do! Then take your attention to your breathing. Do the 4-4-6-2 breath. Focus on the counting and the sensations in your belly. Each time you notice that your attention has gone back to the stories, take you attention back to the breath. It helps – particularly if you have a lot of practice relaxing this way.

So, give the 4-4-6-2 breath a go and please let me know how it works for you by leaving a comment in the ‘Leave a Reply’ box below. I find it to be a gem and many of my clients agree.

Wishing you much greater peace in your life!

ps, for those of you who are familiar with yoga, it is helpful to do this method with the Ujjayi breath. In doing this breath, as you know, we breathe with the diaphragm and constrict the throat so that we hear the sound of the ocean as we breath in and out through the nose.

pps, For those of you who are using the square breath (4-4-4-4 breath I wrote about last year), I would recommend that you try this one. It gets even better results because of the long out-breath.

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