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 steps, each lasting 4 seconds:

  1. breathing in
  2. holding the breath
  3. breathing out
  4. 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.

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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:

  1. sit with their back supported in a comfortable chair and their feet on the floor
  2. close their eyes and then breathe in through their nose while counting to four slowly, feeling the air enter into their lungs
  3. hold their breath while counting slowly to four, trying not to clamp their mouth or nose shut.
  4. slowly exhale for 4 seconds
  5. 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.

Mark Divine is a former Navy SEAL commander who has been using the technique since 1987. In the video below, he describes how to use box breathing.

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 hormones 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:

The ability to consciously regulate breath allows the body to leave a state of stress and enter into a state of calm.

To help support your mental well-being and that of your loved ones during this difficult time, visit our dedicated mental health hub to discover more research-backed information.

Box breathing could provide a number of benefits to those who use it.

Mark Divine, who is the creator of the SEALFIT and Unbeatable Mind fitness programs, spoke to MNT about how the technique has helped him in stressful times:

“I used it every day in SEAL training … it helped me graduate as the honor man, [the] No. 1 graduate. Now I use it for every challenging situation and practice it daily.”

Below are four potential benefits of box breathing, with research to support the claims:

Reduces physical stress symptoms in the body

Research shows that deep breathing techniques significantly reduce the production of hormones associated with stress, such as cortisol.

In a 2017 study, participants showed lower levels of cortisol after deep breathing, as well as increased attention levels.

Divine also emphasized this. He said, “Box breathing bleeds off excess stress and gives you a handy, on-demand tool to avoid taking on any more stress than you can handle.”

Positively affects emotions and mental well-being

According to the 2017 study, breathing techniques can be useful in the reduction of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Increases mental clarity, energy, and focus

A 2014 study showed that breathing techniques could bring about better focus and a more positive outlook.

Study participants were also more able to manage impulses, such as those associated with smoking and other habit-forming behaviors.

Improves future reactions to stress

Studies suggest that box breathing may have the ability to change someone’s future reactions to stress.

In a 2013 study, researchers suggested that relaxation response practices, such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga, can alter how the body reacts to stress by changing how certain genes are switched on.

Genes have different roles within the body. The study found that relaxation response practices boosted the activation of genes associated with energy and insulin, and reduced the activation of genes linked to inflammation and stress.

According to the study, this effect occurs in both short- and long-term practitioners of these techniques. However, the effect is more significant in long-term users.

“Once someone experiences the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits of box breathing, they will want to do it daily.”

– Mark Divine

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.”

Many breathing techniques are classed as diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing. Box breathing is one of the easiest to learn and is a great entry point into breathing methods.

Other breathing methods commonly used to increase alertness, calm nerves, and achieve calmness include:

  • pranayama breathing
  • alternate nostril breathing
  • meditation breathing
  • Shaolin Dan Tian breathing

While many people use deep breathing techniques independently, there are many apps available that are helpful for people just learning how to do guided meditation and breath work.

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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