The technique is also known as "resetting your breath" or four-square breathing. It is easy to do, quick to learn, and can be a highly effective technique for people in stressful situations.
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.
Read on to discover the four simple steps required to master box breathing, and to learn more about 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. Before starting, people should sit with their back supported in a comfortable chair and their feet on the floor.
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
- Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
- Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
- Repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns.
If someone finds the technique challenging to begin with, they can try counting to three instead of four. Once someone is 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.
Why breath is vital to health
Box breathing can help to positively affect emotions and mental well-being.
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 hormones to make the heart beat faster, breathing to quicken, and to boost blood sugar levels.
Having this state of stress activated too often, or for too long, has adverse consequences on health, however. 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 conditions that include:
The ability to consciously regulate breath allows the body to leave a state of stress and enter into a state of calm.
Box breathing could provide a number of benefits to those that use it.
"I used it every day in SEAL training...it helped me graduate as the honor man, [the] number one 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
Deep breathing techniques have been shown to significantly reduce the production of hormones associated with stress, such as cortisol.
In one study, participants showed lower levels of cortisol after deep breathing, as well as increased attention levels.
Mark was also keen to emphasise this. He stated that, "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
Increases mental clarity, energy, and focus
One study was able to show that breathing techniques could bring about better focus and a more positive outlook.
Participants in the study were also more able to manage impulses, such as those associated with smoking and other addictive behaviors.
Improves future reactions to stress
Studies suggest that box breathing may have the ability to change someone's future reactions to stress. Researchers have even 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 in short-term 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."
Tips for box breathing
There are a number of steps that people can take to make box breathing easier:
- Try to find a quiet space to begin with box breathing. A person can do this anywhere, but it is easier if there are few distractions.
- With all deep breathing techniques, placing one hand on the chest and another on the lower stomach can help. When breathing in, try to feel the air and see where it is entering.
- 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.
Mark recommends that a person incorporates the technique into their daily routine, and 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."
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."
Other deep breathing techniques
Pranayama breathing is a breathing method used to increase alertness and achieve calmness.
Many breathing techniques are classed as diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing. Box breathing is one of the easiest to master, 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 also many apps available that are helpful for those people who are just learning how to do guided meditation and breath work.
With only four steps, mastering box breathing is possible for anyone looking to add more consciousness and relaxation to their daily routine.
Box breathing is one of many breathing techniques that can be useful in the reduction of day-to-day stress. Studies have shown 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.