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Focusing on your breath during heightened states of alertness can be a powerful tool for reducing stress, calming anxiety, and cultivating mindfulness. There are many different breathing exercises to keep in your toolbox for when you need them, and one basic breathing technique known as box breathing is gaining mainstream momentum as people discover how straightforward it is and how helpful it can be in everyday life.
While it may seem new to you, the practice of slowing down your breathing with intention has ancient Ayurvedic roots. Box breathing has been used for thousands of years and in practices such as yoga and meditation to calm an anxious mind, engage the rest-and-digest state (the parasympathetic nervous system), and stay grounded in the present moment. It's even used by Navy SEALs for keeping cool and laser-focused in high-stress, high-pressure situations.
But you don't need to be a yogi, Zen master, or SEAL to incorporate breathwork like box breathing into your own routine. This uncomplicated, four-step breathing technique is easier than you might think and can be done anywhere and at any time—settle your nerves before a work presentation; slow your breathing while trying to fall asleep; or take a literal breather when you get angry or agitated. We spoke to breathwork pros to find out why this breathing method has resurfaced as an effective and science-backed solution to stress and anxiety.
What is box breathing?
Box breathing goes by many names: four-square breathing, square breathing, four-count breathing, Sama Vritti Pranayama, tactical breathing, and yogic breathing.
"Box breathing is a four-step breathing technique during which you breathe in, hold, breathe out, and then hold for the same number of counts throughout," says Sophie Belle, a breathwork facilitator and founder of online breathwork studio Mind You Club. So each step of the breath cycle—inhale, hold, exhale, hold—makes up one side of the box.
Practicing box breathing involves slowing the breath by following a specific pattern:
Inhale for four counts
Hold your breath for four counts
Exhale for four counts
Pause for four counts
(You won't always have a stopwatch on hand, so "counts" can refer to approximate seconds here.)
Not only does the box breathing physically alter your breath to become slower and deeper, but it also forces your mind to become focused on and conscious of your breath. This can be especially powerful during times of tension or distress, but also beneficial anytime, anywhere as a daily habit. "When we're consciously breathing, we have the ability to regulate our body and take it from an overstimulated state of stress and nervousness to actual calm," says breathwork specialist Ali Levine. "Box breathing is a way for you to consciously monitor your breath and pay attention to your rhythm—it's a reset to your breath."
The Benefits of Box Breathing
Reduces the body's stress response.
Studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing (in other words, taking big, deep, gentle breaths that fill your belly) counteracts both the physical and mental elements of stress. Deep breathing has even been shown to reduce the physiological consequences of stress in adults. "Box breathing is a simple, yet powerful way to take yourself from fight-or-flight mode back to a normal rhythm," Levine says.
When you're stressed or tense, one of the ways your system reacts is for your breathing to become faster and more shallow (this is all part of a normal, natural stress response). This kind of rapid breathing, known as hyperventilation—essentially where you exhale more than you inhale—lowers carbon dioxide levels in the body and makes you feel lightheaded. Slowing down your breathing helps to control hyperventilation. It restores the rhythm of your breathing, correcting those fast, shallow breaths associated with stress and anxiety.
During states of stress, another thing that happens is that your heart rate increases. This is when your body enters fight-or-flight mode, releasing adrenaline and cortisol, which cause your heart rate to speed up and blood pressure to rise. Slow breathing has been shown to have a profound effect on cardiovascular function. Box breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of fight-or-flight mode, helping the body return to a rested state.
Halts unhelpful thought loops.
Box breathing comes with the enormous benefit of calming the mind. Stress and anxiety often come with a cluttered headspace and racing thoughts. "Box breathing focuses your mind, so it's incredibly good for stress, rebalancing, and [attention]," Belle says. When your thoughts won't stop swirling, it can feel impossible to quiet them. Using a mindfulness-based breathing exercise like box breathing forces you to bring your attention to something other than upsetting, overwhelming, or just plain obnoxious thoughts. It gives your brain something else to fixate on (what a relief!). And one of the best long-term side effects of doing something like box breathing is that the more you do it, the better your brain will become at redirecting attention away from unhelpful mental chatter. It's actually a skill that gets sharper with practice.
Helps you focus on the present moment.
Anxiety typically involves worrying about the future or harping on the past. Box breathing is heavily associated with meditation and mindfulness, two of the best techniques for anchoring yourself in the current moment.
"The focus on the breath enables you to become very present," Belle says. "This helps you to practice non-attachment to unhelpful thought patterns, which over time can lead to more positive automatic stress responses."
How to Try Box Breathing on Your Own
This breathwork practice is rewarding and grounding—and it's easy to get started. You don't need any special equipment or even a secluded place, just your mind and your breath. Give it a try when you feel stressed or on a regular basis to encourage relaxation.
How to do it:
Ground yourself (e.g. sit in a chair, sit on the floor, stand in a comfortable position). Sit or stand up straight (but not rigid) and relax your shoulders.
Bring focus to your breath.
Take a slow, deep breath in as you count to four, making the inhale last for all four counts. Feel your belly expand with air.
Hold your breath for four counts. Try to think only about counting to four.
Exhale through your mouth: Breathe out steadily for four counts, making the exhale last for all four counts.
Hold again for four more counts.
Repeat this cycle as needed.
If you've never engaged in breathing techniques before, it will likely feel strange at first—that's completely normal. "Don't be disheartened if it feels difficult," Belle says. "Just reset and reduce the counts or try again at another time when you have a bit more space to focus on the breath." Instead of attempting to carve out time for box breathing, Belle recommends stacking this habit onto another daily activity that doesn't require much effort, like waiting for the shower water to get hot or the kettle to boil.