Box breathing is one of the simplest and most effective methods for reducing stress and anxiety. It’s easy to learn, and the results are immediate.
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What is Box Breathing?
Box breathing, also known as four-square breathing, is a simple yet powerful technique that involves a cycle of a 4-count inhale, a 4-count hold, a 4-count exhale, and a 4-count hold. Box breathing reduces stress and tension.
How Do I Practice Box Breathing?
To practice box breathing, you cycle between the following:
- 4-count inhale
- 4-count hold, with lungs full
- 4-count exhale
- 4-count hold, with lungs empty.
Some people also like doing longer—either five or six counts. So you can cater the practice to your preferences.
How long should I do box breathing for?
You can do this practice for any amount of time—from as little as one minute to 10 minutes or more—depending on how much stress relief you need.
You could also try doing a certain amount of cycles instead of a fixed time—for example, trying ten cycles in a sitting.
If you’re unsure, go for 5 minutes (or about 20 cycles); researchers found1https://www.cell.com/cell-reports-medicine/fulltext/S2666-3791(22)00474-8?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS2666379122004748%3Fshowall%3Dtrue that just 5 minutes daily reduces stress and creates positive emotions.
When should I do box breathing?
There are two times to practice box breathing:
- Use the technique to become generally calmer. This is where you make box breathing part of your daily regimen in your morning routine. The idea is that practicing it when you’re not stressed will create calm in your body and help prevent anxiety and stress from occurring later on.
- Use the technique when you’re on edge. If you’re experiencing high anxiety and need to calm down, this is a perfect time to use box breathing to relax and find your center again.
The Step-By-Step Guide to Box Breathing
Now that you know the basics, let’s break down a step-by-step guide to ensure you get the most out of this practice.
- Get into a comfortable position: Sit or lie down. If you need, you can also do box breathing standing. You want to ensure that your spine is straight and relaxed, so it is best to find a supportive chair or cushion if sitting up or lie down on your back with a pillow under your head and legs bent at the knees if lying down. The more relaxed your body is, the more benefit you can draw from the practice.
- Start the cycle: Once you are in a comfortable position, begin by:
- Taking an inhalation through your nose that lasts for four counts (1–2–3–4)
- Then hold the breath in for four counts (1–2–3–4).
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for four counts (1–2–3–4).
- Then finally, hold again for four counts (1–2–3–4)
This completes one cycle of box breathing.
- Visualize while breathing: To further increase the effectiveness of this practice, try visualizing during each stage of box breathing.
- As you inhale, picture yourself filling with bright, positive energy.
- As you hold, envision that positive energy pulsating throughout your body.
- As you exhale, imagine yourself releasing all tension from your muscles and mind.
- And as you hold allow yourself to feel calmness settle into every corner of your being.
To keep their mind focused, some people also find it helpful to imagine walking around a box as they breathe.
- Walk up left side of a box on the inhale.
- Walk across the top of the box on the hold.
- Walk down the right side of the box on the exhale.
- And walk across the bottom on the hold.
Just like this graphic:
You can repeat these cycles multiple times until you feel relaxed and relieved from stress and anxiety.
It’s also important to note that there should be no strain involved when doing this exercise; it should be gentle but intentional breaths at a rate that feels natural for you, depending on what works best for your body type and lifestyle habits.
Learning breathing techniques to help with stress is a phenomenal goal to pursue. If you’d like to learn some science-backed techniques to clarify which other goals would benefit your life, then this free goodie might be up your alley:
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6 Situations That Are Perfect For Box Breathing
Box breathing is a highly versatile technique, one that can be used in various situations to reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, and promote relaxation. Here are some of the common scenarios where box breathing can be helpful:
Using box breathing when you feel overwhelmed or anxious
If you feel anxious, overwhelmed, and on edge, take a pause and try a few minutes of box breathing to quickly calm down.
If you are on the verge of a panic attack, box breathing can also help you step away from the edge.
The technique stimulates your vagus nerve2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/ and parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm your body and allows you to regain control over your emotions so that you can more effectively manage whatever issue we are facing.
If you feel anything like this poor Squirtle below, take a pause and try a few minutes of box breathing!
It can also be helpful to pair breathing exercises with introspective activities. Here are a few ideas if you’d like to improve your relationship with your inner critic.
Using box breathing to manage chronic stress and burnout
Another time to consider box breathing is if months of stress have piled up, and your life feels like a steaming pile of burnout. Introducing box breathing into your routine could help you balance out.
Box breathing helps to relax the body and mind. When we regulate our breathing, it reduces body tension and lowers stress.
And it doesn’t take much time commitment. In one research study1https://www.cell.com/cell-reports-medicine/fulltext/S2666-3791(22)00474-8?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS2666379122004748%3Fshowall%3Dtrue, 90% of participants who practiced box breathing just 5 minutes a day for a month reported feeling more positive feelings and less stress and anxiety.
Just a few minutes of this practice a day could slowly start to cool your burnout.
Using box breathing to calm yourself before a big event
Box breathing is becoming increasingly popular3https://www.med.navy.mil/Portals/62/Documents/NMFA/NMCPHC/root/Documents/health-promotion-wellness/psychological-emotional-wellbeing/Combat-Tactical-Breathing.pdf as a tool for different high-stakes professionals.
Here are a few occupations that train their personnel to use box breathing:
- Navy SEALs
- First responders
- SWAT teams
- Police officers
This former Navy Seal explains that box breathing helped him and his fellow SEALS avoid panic: “If we let that worry, anxiety, and stress … overcome us, that’s what it leads to is panic.”
The military also refers to the practice as “combat tactical breathing,” and like the police force and SWAT teams4https://www.policemag.com/training/article/15346596/box-breathing, they use box breathing to calm and focus before entering into tense and dangerous situations.
While you may not jump into burning buildings or raid enemy bunkers on a daily basis, we all encounter situations that cause stress, worry, and even panic.
You might consider spending 5 minutes practicing box breathing right before any of the following big events:
- Giving a wedding speech
- Interviewing for a job
- Giving a presentation at work
- Meeting your Hinge date
It helps lower your heart rate5https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10484-020-09485-w and blood pressure while increasing oxygen flow throughout the body so that when it comes time to perform, you’ll feel confident and composed.
Using box breathing to help you focus before you meditate
If you are a meditator, then you know that regardless of what type of meditation practice you do, focus is your friend.
Whether you’re doing a body scan or a visualization, keeping your attention focused allows you to take your practice to a deeper level.
One cool way to use box breathing is to use it as a warmup for your meditation practice.
Say you’re planning to do a 20-minute guided meditation—try doing box breathing for your first 5 minutes to calm your body and mind so that you can most effectively direct your attention for the rest of your time.
On the flip side, you could also try box breathing after your meditation to get even deeper into the practice.
Using box breathing to regain focus when feeling distracted at work
Say you have a big work project to do. You set out an hour for focused work. As part of your task, you need to find a specific YouTube video. But while on YouTube, a video pops up on your feed that looks SO interesting. Something inside of you starts itching. You feel an uncontrollable urge to find out what happens in this video! It feels important! Somehow you convince yourself that it will even help you with your work project.
Thirty minutes later, your timer goes off. Whoops!
Yes, we’ve all been there. If you work on a computer (or even just with a phone in your pocket!), you’ve likely fallen into the land of endless distractions while you’re trying to work.
On especially distractible days, focusing on your work project can feel like the one place your attention won’t stay.
If you find yourself in this situation, you could try a block of box breathing to help soothe your distracted mind and regain your focus.
Certain studies6https://desktime.com/blog/17-52-ratio-most-productive-people have shown that the most productive workers tend to work in undistracted, deep focus for 52 minutes and then completely break from work for 17 minutes. If you structure breaks into your workday (whether 17 minutes or a different amount of time), try doing box breathing during one of your breaks and see if it helps you relax and rebuild your focus.
If your mind and focus feel full of clutter, you could also consider pairing box breathing with a few other activities from this list.
Using box breathing to help you fall asleep
Forget about counting sheep! If you struggle to fall asleep because your mind is racing, box breathing is great for winding down before bedtime as its calming effects help relax both mind and body.
Sleep medicine physician Dr. Funke Afolabi-Brown7https://www.restfulsleepmd.com/blog/addressing-mind-racing-at-bedtime recommends this as one effective strategy for falling asleep because it “takes your focus to something intentional and distracts those thoughts.”
The Health Benefits of Box Breathing
Box breathing is a type of diaphragmatic breathing, which is often referred to as “belly breathing” or “abdominal breathing.” This type of deep breathing creates calm by activating your vagus nerve and helps to reduce stress by decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity (which carries our “fight or flight” response).
Here are some other core health perks of box breathing:
- Box breathing triggers our body’s relaxation response which helps to reduce levels of cortisol8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513238/ (the stress hormone) while increasing levels of serotonin (the “happy hormone”).
- Furthermore, it activates our parasympathetic nervous system2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/, which helps us calm our anxiety
- Box breathing also increases oxygen flow9https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/ throughout our bodies, helping us to think more clearly so we can keep our minds focused on the present moment instead of getting too caught up in worrying about what might happen next
- Box breathing can also lower your heart rate5https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10484-020-09485-w, reduce your blood pressure, and decrease your physiological arousal. In other words, it helps you calm your nerves.
- Finally, it increases heart rate variability2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/, which is associated with better mental health outcomes such as improved emotional regulation and decreased depression symptoms.
Additional Resources and Tools for Box Breathing
Some folks like doing breathing and meditation practices on their own, whereas others enjoy the structure and accountability that an app or video can provide.
If you’d like to try box breathing using an online tool, here are a few to explore.
Using a GIF to keep count
You might normally associate GIFs with cute animals and funny celebrity moments. But this is one of the rare cases where you can actually use a simple GIF to support your wellness. Here’s a GIF that can help you time your breathing.
The best App for box breathing
A top choice for a box breathing app is the Unbeatable Mind app, which costs just $4.99.
Unbeatable Mind is the project of Mark Divine, who is a former Navy SEAL Commander. Since his time in the Navy, he went on to become a best-selling author, create a company, and host a podcast. He’s also championed box-breathing because he found it so useful in the Navy and is partially responsible for the public attention the practice has gotten.
Here’s the link for the iOS version.
And here’s the link for Android.
A great video for box breathing
Here’s one video that guides you through box breathing.
A useful audio recording for box breathing
Here’s an option that you can do with your eyes closed, where you’ll be kept on the cadence of when to inhale, exhale, and hold.
The breathing is about 8 minutes long, and there’s a meditation outro that’s about 1 minute.
Frequently Asked Questions About Box Breathing
Box breathing is an effective technique for managing anxiety. When you slowly and deeply fill and empty your lungs, it calms the body’s nervous system, allowing you to regain control over your emotions.
Box breathing works to reduce stress and anxiety by calming the body’s nervous system. It has been successfully used by various professionals, including Navy Seals and SWAT teams, to manage stressful situations.
The benefits of box breathing include triggering the body’s relaxation response, reducing cortisol levels, activating the parasympathetic nervous system to calm anxiety, and increasing oxygen flow throughout the body. It can also lower heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and improve mental health.
Box breathing works because long, slow breathing activates the body’s relaxation response, reduces cortisol levels, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm anxiety. Additionally, this slow diaphragmatic breathing increases oxygen flow, which can help with mental clarity and focus.
Takeaways on Box Breathing
Box breathing is a technique that is picking up lots of mainstream attention, partially because of its endorsement from several Navy SEALs.
To practice box breathing, simply:
- Inhale for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds
- Exhale for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
That makes up one cycle. You can either do a certain amount of cycles (say 5, 10, or 20). Or you could set a timer—anywhere from 1 minute to 10 minutes to more.
Some of the best times to employ box breathing are:
- When you feel overwhelmed or on the verge of panic. Box breathing can help you regain calm in these moments.
- Managing chronic stress. Incorporating box breathing into your routine can help lower your daily stress.
- Soothing your nerves before a big event. If you’re nervous about an event, try a few minutes of box breathing right before the big moment.
- Starting a meditation sit. If you’re a meditator, it can be helpful to start a meditation session with a few minutes of box breathing to create a foundation of focus and calm for the rest of your meditation practice.
- Regaining focus if you’ve become distracted at work. You can pause your work clock to do a few cycles or try box breathing on your breaks to help you get back into deep focus.
- Helping you fall asleep. Practicing box breathing while in bed can relax your body and prepare your mind for sleep.
Best of luck on your breathing journey! Hopefully, this post dropped a little extra knowledge and inspiration into your back pocket.
If you’d like to dig even deeper into different breathing methods, here’s a list of 9 breathing techniques that are especially helpful before a big event like giving a speech.
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