A Universally Cool Tool: 4-Count Breathing


About two decades ago my little brother, a career Navy SEAL, taught me a breathing technique that has since become my favorite go-to mindfulness tool, not unlike my trusty Swiss Army knife that accompanies me on all outdoor adventures. My brother used this breathing technique prior to jumping out of helicopters en route to clandestine missions. While my peaceable applications have not been nearly so dramatic, they have been numerous and significant.


With inborn instincts that hearken back to caveman days, we react with one of three responses in the face of a threat:

  1. Fight (put up my fists)
  2. Flight (run away as fast as I can) or
  3. Freeze (if I don’t move, maybe they won’t see me)

We're not stalking woolly mammoths or fending off saber tooth tigers these days, but the reptilian part of our brain that is responsible for our survival doesn't know that. Being confronted by a demanding customer or presenting in front of a large crowd can elicit that same fight, flight or freeze response.

How It Works

The 4-Count Breathing Technique interrupts this subconscious cycle. It enables us to disengage from our animal brain and re-engage with our rational brain, the neocortex. Once we've done that, we can choose how we want to respond to the situation. Reactive behavior becomes proactive. Physically, the process of focusing on our breath for a mere one minute and four seconds slows down our heart rate and lowers our blood pressure--measurably!

Dying to know this super secret technique? The secret is super simple.

Do it with me:

  • Inhale for a count of four seconds
  • Hold the inhale for a count of four seconds
  • Exhale for a count of four seconds
  • Hold the exhale for a count of four seconds

Then repeat this cycle three more times. Go ahead, I'll wait:

  • Inhale-two-three-four
  • Hold-two-three-four
  • Exhale-two-three-four
  • Hold-two-three-four

Now what do you notice in your body? A little less tension? What do you notice in your mind? A little more space to think?


Personally I have used this approach to calm the butterflies prior to public speaking and to loosen the grip of fear when on an especially bumpy plane ride.

I have shared this technique with hundreds of teenagers and parents engaging in dialogue about the risks of underage drinking. Imagine a huge conference room of people inhaling, holding and exhaling all together.

It is also a stress management tools that I have introduced to many of my coaching clients over the years.

My brother, upon retirement, taught this and other breathing methods to fellow veterans suffering from PTSD.

And most recently, 4-Count Breathing was incorporated into our Quest programs as a mindfulness approach that enables clear-minded strategic thinking for executives.

Try it yourself and let me know what new applications you discover for this handy dandy multi-use tool.

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