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How (And Why) To Use Box Breathing

Discover what box breathing is and its benefits.



When you’re approaching a deadline at work, struggling to get your children out the door in the morning, dreading a difficult but important exam, or facing down any of the other innumerable challenges that make up modern life, you may find that your breathing is affected. You may notice that your breaths are shallow and unsatisfying, failing to fill your lungs or expand your chest. Or, you may notice that you’re not breathing at all, holding your breath for extended periods.

These effects of stress on breathing are normal - many people experience them. However just because they’re normal doesn’t mean they’re ideal and, what's more, doesn’t mean that you have to continue to put up with them.

Techniques exist for getting your breath under control, even in stressful situations. One such controlled breathing technique is box breathing, which was developed and popularized by a former Navy SEAL - someone with extensive first hand experience of living through daily stress.

The box breathing technique is simple, accessible, and effective in helping you function better during stressful times, which for so many of us, is most of the time. In this article, we’ll describe and define what box breathing is, outline techniques and best practices for box breathing, and review some of the many benefits of box breathing.

What Is Box Breathing?

Box breathing is an intentional breathing technique characterized by the slow, rhythmic, even inhalation and exhalation of air (Ahmed et al., 2021). It is sometimes called square breathing or four-square breathing. The names “square”, “box” and “four-square” all reflect the fact that this breathing technique consists of four steps, each of which should take the same amount of time, usually four seconds. The four sides of the square, the four steps in the sequence of box breathing, are as follows:

  1. a measured and even inhalation

  2. a period of holding the breath in your lungs

  3. a measured and even exhalation

  4. a period of holding your breath before the next inhalation

This sequence of four steps is then repeated for anywhere from one minute, up to twenty minutes, and perhaps even longer.

Mark Divine, the former Navy SEAL who popularized this breathing technique, recommends daily box breathing of between ten and twenty minutes.

Once you are familiar with the practice of box breathing, you can then use the technique at any point throughout the day, for as little as one to two minutes. You may find box breathing helpful as a way to relieve stress, calm down, and maintain an alert, focused mind (Divine, 2016). According to Divine, box breathing may be effective in putting you in a “neutral energetic” state. You may find yourself feeling neither charged up nor relaxed, but feeling, alert, grounded, and ready to take action.

Box Breathing Technique

The box breathing technique is simple. It consists of four steps. Reflecting the fact that a square is made up of four sides of equal length, each step in the box breathing technique takes the same amount of time. Although you may need to decrease the length of each step, or you may want to increase the length of each step, it is generally recommended that you start by taking four seconds for each step. The four steps are:

  • Inhale for 4 seconds

  • Hold the breath for 4 seconds

  • Exhale for 4 seconds

  • Hold the breath out for 4 seconds

Then repeat the process for as long as you like, though many practitioners and instructors recommend at least one minute to secure the anxiety-reducing, calming, and energizing benefits of box breathing (Divine, 2016).

Benefits of Box Breathing

Box breathing is just one form of deep, intentional, or contemplative breathing. Breathing is physiological activity, like digestion. However, unlike digestion, breathing is a physiological act that people can exert some level of conscious control over. Box breathing, as an intentional breathing technique, encourages you to concentrate on your breath and to intentionally control your breath. Doing this may help you to breathe more deeply than you might when breathing unconsciously.

There are many physiological benefits to deep breathing (Gerritsen & Band, 2018). Deep breathing may increase levels of oxygen in the brain, increasing mental clarity, focus, concentration, and cognitive performance. Deep breathing also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the body’s system of hormonal and chemical communication that is responsible for recovery from stress. Amongst its beneficial effects, deep breathing can reduce your heart rate, regulate your digestion, and may even increase eye health. All of these specific physiological effects may in turn allow you to feel less anxious, calmer, and more grounded.

In Sum

Box-breathing is a very simple breathing technique with the potential for big benefits. There are only four steps involved and the visual of the box or square makes these four steps easy to remember. You can practice box-breathing on your own, or with the assistance of a video, GIF, or app. You can dedicate a period of your day to practicing box breathing, or you can incorporate it into your daily life, inhaling, exhaling, and holding your breath to counts of four while engaged in other activities like driving, cleaning, or cooking. Box breathing is free and is accessible to people across a range of ages, as well as levels of fitness and ability.

References

  • Ahmed, A., Gayatri Devi, R., & Jothi Priya, A. (2021). Effect of Box Breathing Technique on Lung Function Test.

  • Divine, M. (May 2016). The breathing technique a Navy SEAL uses to stay calm and focused. Time. Time Motto.

  • Gerritsen, R. J., & Band, G. P. (2018). Breath of life: The respiratory vagal stimulation model of contemplative activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 397.

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