How to use box breathing to reduce stress
The box breathing technique helps you to calm stress and reduce anxiety in just a few minutes.
An estimated 74% of British adults say they've felt overwhelmed with stress in the past few months. And while many of the most common things that stress us out are out of our control—politics, the economy, global pandemics, etc.—there is one thing we can control: our breath.
Research reveals how a specific relaxation technique known as box breathing can dramatically impact your stress levels, and thus your overall health and happiness. In this guide, we’ll explain how the box breathing technique works, the benefits of box breathing, and how you can implement deep breathing strategies in your life today.
What is box breathing?
So what is box breathing? When you’re stressed or experiencing anxiety, the effects are hardly only in your mind. Your body also begins to exhibit physical symptoms of stress, such as:
A faster heart rate
Shallower, faster breathing
Higher body temperature and flushed skin
As you move through the five stages of stress, specifically tackling these physical responses can influence the mind-body connection and actually reduce stress and anxiety. And that’s where box breathing stands out. It forces you to slow and deepen your breathing, thus calming your central nervous system.
How the box technique works
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, the timing and pacing of your breath activate specific areas of your brain related to body awareness and general emotion.
And while there are many different forms of relaxation techniques and deep breathing strategies, researchers say that the box technique itself is "particularly helpful with relaxation" before, during, and after moments of high stress.
As the four sides of a box implies, the box technique involves four deep-breathing steps. You move through each step while visualising the four sides of a square or a box:
Breathe in for four seconds
Hold your breath for four seconds
Breathe out for four seconds
Hold your breath for four seconds
Repeat as necessary
The benefits of box breathing
Brain health benefits of deep breathing: Does box breathing work?
When you’re stressed, your hypothalamus (the brain’s so-called “command centre”) goes into overdrive. All of your mental energy gets diverted to deal with the stress response, which is why people who are stressed or anxious often have a hard time processing their thoughts and decisions.
If this stress isn’t dealt with, chronic stress can lead to:
Cognitive impairment, such as poor memory or difficulty socializing
Fewer brain cells, since the stress hormone cortisol kills your brain cells
An increase in ageing-related damage in the brain
By proactively or retroactively reducing your stress, box breathing and other breathing relaxation strategies counter all the harmful effects of stress on your brain. The benefits of box breathing include:
Improved psychological well-being, emotional control, and general brain health
Better cognitive function and physical performance, with lower risks of brain health concerns like dementia and depression
How to do box breathing for stress and anxiety
You can do deep breathing relaxation techniques anywhere and anytime, such as in your car during a stressful work commute or at your office desk after a high-pressure boardroom meeting. This is another benefit of box breathing.
But if this is your first time trying the box breathing technique, start out in a quiet, distraction-free room:
Dim the lights, put away your laptop, and turn off your phone’s notifications and alerts
Sit in a relaxed position on a chair or on the floor
Straighten your spine to ensure you can breathe deeply, and rest your hands calmly on your lap
If it helps you to relax, play calming music in the background
Step 1: Exhale
To do the square breathing technique, you want to begin with empty lungs. Gently blow out all the air in your lungs, feeling your abdomen contract as you push out your breath.
Step 2: Inhale for a count of four
Inhale slowly through your nostrils for four seconds. Focus your thoughts and awareness on this incoming breath. Feel your lungs expand, your chest rise, and your abdomen stretch out as you take in all this fresh oxygen.
Step 3: Hold your breath for a count of four
Hold the air in your full lungs for four seconds.
It may be difficult when you’re stressed and want to naturally breathe in and out quickly. However, this intentional slow down of your breath is the goal of box breathing, and helps to moderate your nervous system’s response to the stressful situations you’re experiencing today.
Step 4: Exhale your breath for a count of four
Gently let the air out of your lungs, slowly and evenly, over the course of four seconds. Keep your awareness on how your lungs and body feel as you breathe out.
Step 5: Hold your breath for a count of four
With your lungs empty, hold your breath for four seconds. Repeat this four-step process several times until you feel calmer and more relaxed.
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Tips for making the most of the box breathing technique
If you’re regularly stressed, consider:
Doing four cycles of box breathing every morning and evening
Proactively incorporating box breathing into your day if you know a stressful situation is coming up on your calendar
Reducing the time in each step to two or three seconds if you’re having difficulty maintaining the four-second count (this is especially helpful if you have asthma, allergies or other breathing difficulties)
Finally, don’t neglect your nutrition. Researchers have identified several of the best vitamins and minerals for stress and anxiety. Yet many adults struggle to get enough of these anti-stress nutrients in their diet.
If you’re worried that your diet might not have everything you need for optimal brain health and mental health, try the Heights Smart Supplement. Our top-rated formula of 20 key vitamins and minerals, including vitamins D, omega-3s, and B vitamins, targets everything from poor sleep to brain fog and stress. So you feel better, every day.