Box breathing is a powerful but simple relaxation technique that aims to return breathing to its normal rhythm after a stressful experience. It may help clear the mind, relax the body, and improve focus.
Box breathing, also known as resetting the breath or four-square breathing, is easy to do, quick to learn, and can be highly effective in stressful situations.
It involves four basic stepsTrusted Source, each lasting 4 seconds:
- breathing in
- holding the breath
- breathing out
- holding the breath
People with high stress jobs, such as soldiers and police officers, often use box breathing when their bodies are in fight-or-flight mode. This technique is also relevant for anyone interested in re-centering themselves or improving their concentration.
In this article, we look at the four simple steps required to learn box breathing and explore other deep breathing techniques.
The box breathing method
Box breathing is a simple technique that a person can do anywhere, including at a work desk or in a cafe. It is called box breathing to encourage people to think about a box as they do it.
To try box breathing, a person should:
- sit with their back supported in a comfortable chair and their feet on the floor
- close their eyes and then breathe in through their nose while counting to fourTrusted Source slowly, feeling the air enter into their lungs
- hold their breath while counting slowly to four, trying not to clamp their mouth or nose shut.
- slowly exhale for 4 seconds
- repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times
Ideally, a person should repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns. If they find the technique challenging, they can try counting to three instead of four. Once they are used to the technique, they may choose to count to five or six.
Why breath is vital to health
Resetting one’s breath, or working to make the breath leave fight-or-flight mode, is good for both the mind and body.
The unconscious body, or the autonomic nervous system, refers to the functions that take place without any thought, such as the heart beating or the stomach digesting food. This system can be in a fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest state.
In fight-or-flight mode, the body feels threatened and reacts to help the person escape or avoid a threatening situation. Among other things, the body releases the hormonesTrusted Source adrenaline and noradrenaline. These set off a cascade of reactions, which include making the heart beat faster, speeding up breathing, and boosting blood sugar levels.
Being in this state of stress for too long or too often has adverse health consequences. The physical impact of this state can cause wear and tear on every system in the body.
Long-term stress can increase the risk of:
- high blood pressure
- heart attacks
The ability to consciously regulate breath allows the body to leave a state of stress and enter into a state of calm.
Benefits of box breathing
According to the Mayo Clinic, there’s sufficient evidence that intentional deep breathing can actually calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
This system regulates involuntary body functions such as temperature. It can lower blood pressure and provide an almost immediate sense of calm.
The slow holding of breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood. An increased blood CO2 enhances the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic system. This produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body.
Box breathing can reduce stress and improve your mood. That makes it an exceptional treatment for conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
It can also help treat insomnia by allowing you to calm your nervous system at night before bed. Box breathing can even be efficient at helping with pain management.
Tips for box breathing
There are a number of steps a person can take to make box breathing easier. A person can:
- find a quiet space to begin box breathing
- place one hand on the chest and another on the lower stomach can help
- try to feel the air and see where it is entering, when breathing in
- focus on feeling an expansion in the stomach, but without forcing the muscles to push out
- try to relax the muscles instead of engaging them
Divine recommends that a person incorporate the technique into their daily routine. He says that it can be used alongside other mindfulness exercises.
“I recommend to start with a minimum of 5 minutes just after waking up, or after coming home from work before walking in the door. It can be added to your meditation practice. Do the box breathing first, and it will settle you into a deeper mental state for meditation afterward.”
– Mark Divine
He also believes that “box breathing can be used to prepare for a stressful event, such as a speech, or to calm down during or after a stressful event.”
Tips for beginners
If you’re new to box breathing, it may be difficult to get the hang of it. You may get dizzy after a few rounds. This is normal. As you practice it more often, you’ll be able to go longer without the dizziness. If you get dizzy, stay sitting for a minute and resume normal breathing.
To help you focus on your breathing, find a quiet, dimly lit environment to practice box breathing. This isn’t at all necessary to perform the technique, but it can help you focus on the practice if you’re new to it.
Ideally, you’ll want to repeat the box breathing cycle four times in one sitting.
Do box breathing several times a day as needed to calm your nerves and relieve stress.
Box breathing doesn’t carry the physical benefits of exercise or the long-term mental and resilience benefits of meditation, but it definitely has its place as a stress management technique. For one thing, it’s very simple to learn and to practice. Also, it can be practiced virtually anywhere and anytime—when you’re showering, watching tv, or even working.
You can give it a try anywhere when you’re overly distracted or exercising so strenuously that you can’t talk through it. Also, you can practice box breathing for only a minute or two and experience the immediate benefits of a calm body and a more relaxed mind, or you can practice for several minutes and experience that plus the longer-term benefits of meditation, including increased resilience to stress, decreased feelings of depression, increased positive feelings, and more.
Apps to Try
There are several apps that can help you practice box breathing or other types of paced breathing for stress relief. What’s great about these apps is that they can add a visual element to your practice.
If you’re a visual learner, you can practice these breathing techniques with the app to the point that you really connect with them, then visualize what you experience in the apps even when you’re not using them, like in the shower or while driving. This makes it easier for many people to both learn the techniques, and enjoy them more. Here are a few of the top apps for box breathing and other types of paced breathing exercises:
- Box Breathing App: This one can be downloaded for Apple or Android devices, and has nine levels of use that can help you to really get a firm grasp on the practice of box breathing and make it part of your daily routine. The makers of this app also stress that this technique can also help you achieve a flow state which is an additional benefit you’ll enjoy besides the stress management referenced earlier.
- Breathe 2 Relax: This app is also available for both Apple and PC—oriented users and has a wide range of timed breathing exercises to use. It was developed by the National Institute for Telehealth and Technology, an organization within the U.S. Department of Defense. One of its strong points is that it has a graph feature that can help you to determine where much of your stress originates.
- Universal Breathing: This is also available for iOS and Android users, and has a variety of visual exercises that work with your breathing. They become increasingly challenging, helping you to gain more complex skills with your breathing exercises. This can be particularly enjoyable for those who love a challenge and may become bored with an app that may feel repetitive, but want the benefits of practicing calming techniques like breathing exercises.
With only four steps, box breathing is possible for anyone to learn. It can add more consciousness and relaxation to a person’s daily routine.
Box breathing is one of many breathing techniques that can be useful in the reduction of day-to-day stress. Studies show the immediate and long-term benefits that this technique and others can provide.
Although more research is needed, current studies are convincing in their evidence for box breathing as a powerful tool in managing stress, regaining focus, and encouraging positive emotions and state of mind.
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