In a go-go-go world, it’s all too easy to get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, even when you’re not facing any true threats. But if you make a conscious effort to step back, slow down and let your brain work its magic, you can find the kind of peace and calm that can change your entire state of being.
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Five-finger breathing is a deep relaxation and breathing that can help you do just that.
Pain specialist and behavioral medicine psychologist Judith Scheman, PhD, explains what this is, how to do it and how it can help you relax, unwind and even manage pain.
What is five-finger breathing?
Five-finger breathing is a simple but powerful breathing technique that induces deep relaxation — and you can do just about anywhere (though, not while driving or operating other heavy machinery, please).
Unlike other types of breathwork, five-finger breathing is a multisensory experience where you concentrate on more than just your breath. You also focus on the movement and sensation of one hand touching another, slowly and with intentionality.
This helps your brain enter a state of deep relaxation, which causes it to release endorphins. “Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers,” Dr. Scheman explains. “They’re chemically identical to opioids, but they don’t cause constipation, or sometimes itching, nausea or vomiting, and they don’t disrupt your sleep or your immune system.”
In other words, you can think of endorphins as your body’s safe, all-natural drug — and deep relaxation is the factory where that drug is made.
Benefits of five-finger breathing
Breathwork techniques trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your brain responsible for resting, relaxing and resetting. When you’re tense, overwhelmed or amped up, these techniques help move you out of fight-or-flight mode and into a calmer state of being.
And although anyone can benefit from five-finger breathing, it’s especially beneficial to people who are headed into surgery or who are recovering from a recent procedure.
“You might do this relaxation technique with your eyes closed as soon as they start to take you back to the operating room,” Dr. Scheman suggests. “This will allow you to go into surgery very deeply relaxed.”
Deep relaxation techniques like five-finger breathing have been shown to:
- Relieve stress and anxiety. When your parasympathetic nervous system is active, you can take your focus away from worries and stressors. Reducing anxiety and stress can reduce inflammation and help our immune system.
- Relax your body. “Research shows that people who go into surgery in a deeply relaxed state need less sedation prior to receiving general anesthesia,” Dr. Scheman says. This means you’ll get your brain back faster after surgery or a procedure.
- Reduce pain. Opioids (narcotics) can, in some people, be extremely addictive. But using deep relaxation techniques before and after major surgery can minimize the need for opioids to manage your pain.
- Promote healing. Practicing deep relaxation techniques after surgery may also help you get back on your feet sooner. “People who practice deep relaxation three or four times a day every day after surgery have been shown to heal significantly faster from their surgical wounds,” Dr. Scheman notes.
- Promote sleep. “Patients also report that it helps them sleep through the night, sometimes even in the hospital,” she adds.
How to do five-finger breathing
If you’re new to this practice, you may wish to begin by using guided audio or video. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can do it on your own any time you need to relax.
Dr. Scheman walks us through the steps of five-finger breathing.
1. Ready your hands
Five-finger breathing requires the use of two hands. One hand will be your base (this hand won’t move) and the other will be used to trace your fingers (this one will move). It doesn’t matter which is which, but you may find it easiest to use your dominant hand — the one you write with — for tracing.
To start, hold your base hand in front of you with your fingers spread comfortably apart.
2. Start tracing your thumb
Place the index finger of your tracing hand at the bottom of the thumb of your base hand — right where your thumb meets your wrist — and begin slowly moving your index finger up to the tip of your thumb.
“As you move your finger up your thumb, take a slow breath in, perhaps allowing your eyes to close,” Dr. Scheman instructs.
When you reach the top of your thumb, do the opposite: Slowly drag your index finger down the other side of your thumb while exhaling.
3. Keep going, focusing on your breath
When you’re done tracing your thumb, move on to tracing your index finger in the same way — then your middle finger, ring finger and pinky finger.
As you trace each one, continue to breathe deeply and slowly. “Let yourself relax as you breathe gently,” Dr. Scheman encourages. “Become more and more deeply relaxed each time you exhale.”
4. Change direction
When you’ve traced your whole hand and reached the bottom of your pinky finger, reverse directions and go back the way you came, moving toward your thumb.
Continue to take slow breaths in and out, focusing on your breath and on the sensation of your index finger tracing your skin. “Let go a little bit more with every exhale,” she says.
Allow yourself to relax as much as you possibly can, with your breath as your guide.
5. Let yourself relax
Continue the practice as long as you need. “When you’re ready, you may open your eyes, bringing with you any relaxation that you’ve found,” Dr. Scheman says.
Try not to rush into whatever you do next (unless it involves falling asleep). Give yourself the time to revel in your relaxation and let it wash over you.
Teaching a child to do five-finger breathing
It can be hard to get kids to sit still, much less meditate or learn typical breathwork techniques. But five-finger breathing is a simple activity that kids can comprehend, making it a helpful tool for teaching them to calm down and regulate their emotions.
In short, the five-finger breathing technique is for anyone who wants to step back from the frenzy and fervor that life can sometimes bring.
“Add this practice into your schedule, and at end of the day, you can look back and think of it as something you did to take care of yourself,” Dr. Scheman says.
To hear more on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Breathwork for Beginners.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.