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How to use the box breathing technique

The box breathing technique helps you to calm stress and reduce anxiety in just a few minutes.

mental-wellbeing 03 icon
June 23, 2022
6 min read

Research reveals how a specific relaxation exercise known as the box breathing technique (also referred to as 'square breathing') can dramatically reduce your stress levels, and thus your overall health and happiness. Since an estimated 74% of British adults say they've felt overwhelmed with stress in the past few months, there's no better time to start this practice.

So what is box breathing? In this guide, we’ll explain how the technique works, the benefits for your brain health, and how you can implement it in your life today.

Article breakdown

What is the box breathing technique?

The box breathing technique is a simple relaxation exercise that helps you slow your breath during stressful situations.

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.

How long should I practice box breathing? 

As the four sides of a box imply, 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 

Where can I practice box breathing?

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.

But if this is your first time trying it, 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

How does the box breathing technique work?

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

  • Tense muscles

  • Higher body temperature and flushed skin

As you move through the five stages of stress, tackling these physical responses can influence the mind-body connection and actually reduce stress and anxiety. And that’s where the box breathing comes in. It forces you to slow and deepen your breathing, thus calming your central nervous system.

Why do Navy SEALs use box breathing?

This effective breathing method is used by the Navy SEALs. Since they're frequently in high-stress situations, the box breathing technique helps them stay calm and focused and improves their overall wellness.

But it's not just for the SEALs, it can benefit you too.

The benefits of box breathing for brain health

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:

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:

  • A significant reduction in cortisol levels

  • 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

  • Reduced anxiety and sensations of pain

The box breathing technique

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 box breathing

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.

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