McNerney: The Sigh of Relief – A Quick Way to Reduce Anxiety

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

The internet is filled with clickbait promising instant results by using some simple technique. Usually, I scroll past these, knowing that the majority have no basis in science or haven’t been proven as effective. As a former biology major, I am always a skeptic when it comes to quick, easy solutions. The technique I will be sharing, though, is actually one that seems to tick all the boxes of being effective: It has been well researched, it is based on neurochemistry, and it works.

The technique goes by many names, such as Square Breathing, Box Breathing, and 4-4-4 Breathing. I just call it deep breathing. Simply, it means taking in a deep breath, completely filling your lungs, then fully exhaling. The most important part is that the exhale should take twice as long than it took you to inhale.

That’s the technique. Simple, and surprisingly effective. Inhale, then exhale taking twice as long. Let’s take a look at why this technique works. There are two reasons we think this helps our stress levels. The first reason is pretty easy to understand. The second reason is, in my opinion, the much more powerful reason.

The first reason: During our day-to-day lives, we breath without any awareness. Although we can control our breathing, we also just breath automatically. This automatic breathing is usually upper chest breathing. It replaces the air in the upper section of our lungs, but often leaves the deeper areas untouched. This deeper section tends to become saturated with high levels of carbon dioxide and doesn’t allow more oxygen to reach our bodies. By pulling in a deep breath and then fully emptying our lungs, it allows that section of the lungs to get new, oxygenated air, which increases our alertness and allows our brain to function more effectively.

Our anxious part of our brain is in the more primitive section. Our calm section is the area that benefits more from highly oxygenated blood. Getting lots of oxygen to that area of the brain helps it work more effectively, hence a calmer mood.

The second reason has to do with our diaphragm. This is the muscle that is used during deep breathing and when we are exercising. During inhale, it pulls the lungs open. During exhale, it pushes against the lungs to push out the old air. When the diaphragm is pushing again the lungs, it is activating a group of sensors on the muscle, which sends a signal to the brain to release endorphins. Endorphins are the calming chemical that allows us to think clearly and reduces the feelings of anxiety and panic. So, when we are exhaling for twice as long as inhaling, we are pushing those buttons for twice as long, allowing for a longer release of endorphins.

This is a fascinating discovery, and it makes sense. We, as humans, have been taking a sigh of relief for thousands of years. A sigh of relief, if you think about it, is just a quick deep breath and exhale.

This technique can be used both as a prevention and also during moments of anxiety. My Apple Watch has an option to remind me to breathe. Although at times annoying, it reminds me to take a moment to pause and breathe. This technique can also be used in the moment when feeling stressed or anxious. Just a few deep breaths can make a world of difference when I am feeling stressed, anxious, and especially when I am feeling irritated. Irritation is often a sign of anxiety, so a few deep breathes helps quite a bit.

Give this technique a try and see how it works for you. I am confident that you will see a difference.

This month’s column marks my 48th contribution toLoudoun Now. I am gratified to have been a part of this amazing publication for four years, and hope to have at least another four.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! andThe Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at

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