Can’t Meditate? Do This Instead.

If you are alive and conscious, you have undoubtedly heard of meditation; I’m sure you have also heard all the reasons why you need to start immediately in order to achieve better health. From lower levels of stress and blood pressure, to improved mood and sleep quality, medical professionals and spiritual gurus alike are recommending that more of us find time in our busy lives to sit in the stillness and just… be. Meditation, we’re told, is yet another tool to tuck neatly into our personal wellness toolkit.

Great. Awesome. I’m totally on-board. For a woo-woo person like me, meditation presents as a deliciously appealing alternative to the over-intellectualizing of literally EVERYTHING, to which I am prone – My mind salivates just thinking of all the ways in which I will benefit from such a practice.

I can’t wait. Let’s DO this!

There’s just one problem. One teeny, tiny problem…

I suck at meditating.

Unfortunately for me, it’s true – I blame the over-active thinking mentioned above. Whenever I set-out to meditate, no matter how intentional I may be, I find myself unable to get comfortable, with a racing mind, and absolutely no chill whatsoever.

I asked an avid-meditator friend of mine how, exactly, I should be meditating; what’s the trick? He replied, “Focus on your breath.” Okay. Sounds easy enough. How is it possible to struggle so much with such a seemingly simple task?

Answer: Just because something is simple does not mean it is easy.

While I have no plans to abandon meditation altogether (there’s a reason they call it a “practice,” after all), I’m glad I have a quick trick up my sleeve to quell my soul’s hunger for peace and quiet and calm.

Just focus on the breath, huh? Yeah, I’ve got something for that.

No time or patience for meditating? Enter: the 4x4x4x4 breathing technique.

What It Is

I was first introduced to 4x4x4x4 by my therapist, and was pleasantly surprised by how immediately it relieved my stress and anxiety in any number of situations.

You breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, and repeat four times. Breathe deeply into your belly; imagine you are trying to breathe through the bottom of your body. Pull your breath all the way into your pelvic floor. Breathe through your nose to ensure you’re breathing diaphragmatically, as opposed to just holding air in the chest (which, coincidentally, is where stress and tension wants to live). Exhale from your mouth.

Get it? 4 (in) x 4 (hold) x 4 (out) x 4 (rounds). Simple. Easy.

Another way, for my visual peeps:

  • Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold for 4 seconds
  • Exhale for 4 seconds
  • Repeat 4 times

Why It Works

When the brain perceives you are experiencing a “stressful” situation, it triggers a response from the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The SNS signals the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, and cues the adrenal glands to produce cortisol – one of the body’s primary stress hormones. This creates a positive feedback loop, wherein the body becomes physiologically stressed by cortisol production, thus creating the emotional feeling of stress; however, as you feel emotionally stressed, the more cortisol your body will produce. This is a response cultivated over thousands of years of evolution, in theory, designed for your survival.

However, in our modern day and age, most of us are not in situations where we are literally running from danger or fighting to survive on the daily. Our minds know this, but our brains do not. And while we may not be in a constant state of actual danger, the perception of danger (stress) is just as real in our bodies.

When you inhale deeply and exhale fully, you are promoting the body’s full exchange of oxygen. This means that as new oxygen is brought into the bloodstream, carbon dioxide is expelled. Also, as your rate of respiration slows, so does your heart rate. These physiological changes signal to the brain to stop producing cortisol, as the perceived threat has passed. As less cortisol is being pumped out of the adrenal glands, you will naturally begin to be less physically and emotionally stressed.

The 4x4x4x4 technique is so effective that US Navy Seals regularly practice a variation. Read about it, here.

How To Practice

You can do this anywhere, anytime, and no one has to know. I’ve done it at the airport, in a taxi, on the bus, at a Christmas party, walking down the street, at the gym, at the spa, sitting in a work meeting, getting my nails done, at family get-togethers, in elevators, and numerous other places. On days where I am feeling particularly overwhelmed, I try to do at least one round right before bed.

I 4x4x4x4 all the damn time. And now, so can you.

Check out this video I made helping you implement 4x4x4x4 breathing into your life:

Leave a comment below letting me know your take on 4x4x4x4. I want to hear how it has worked in your life. Helpful? Unhelpful? Let me know.

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