How to Combat Stress with Box Breathing

Do you want to learn how to combat stress with box breathing? Box breathing is a quick and easy way to relieve stress and improve concentration, and you can do it practically anywhere. It is used by lots of high performing individuals or people with stressful jobs, from athletes, public speakers, or police officers to U.S. Navy SEALs.

The Importance of Proper Breathing

Breathing is a crucial function of our bodies. It is the way our bodies take the oxygen needed for energy production at the cellular level (through oxidation). It is done automatically by the autonomous nervous system, and we don’t usually think about it. The body learned to do this quite well, but it also tries to adapt it to circumstances in order to prepare the body as good as it can.

The autonomous nervous system functions in two ways: fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest. The first one is needed when facing dangerous situations (but is also triggered by stressful ones), while the latter is the resting state when the body feels safe. In the fight-or-flight mode, the body does all it can to prepare itself to face danger, so it releases hormones that increase the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. This offers a short-term energy boost to allow you to either fight a predator or yo be able to run away. This is not something the body can do for a long time, so staying too often in this state causes body wear and tear.

This is why problems start to arise once we have to live in a stressful environment, as the fight-or-flight mode will be triggered often and for extended periods of time. This way we got to a point where a huge percentage of the population is not breathing properly anymore – most of us tent to hyperventilate (breath more often and deeper than needed).

Recent studies have shown that carbon dioxide is essential for the transition of oxygen from the blood to the cells. This is why what we perceive as a lack of oxygen is very often the lack of carbon dioxide caused by hyperventilation. I have recently talked about the Buteyko breathing method, and you can read more about the proper breathing patterns in that article.

In fact, if you check most of the meditation techniques, yoga exercises or simply other breathing techniques, they all lead to a reduction of air intake and build-up of carbon dioxide. You might perceive as contradictory the hyperventilation before long breath restrictions, recommended for example by Wim Hof, but they are really not – they rely on the body being able to accumulate carbon dioxide and breath properly, and when you plan to hold your breath for a long time, they instruct you to flush out the carbon dioxide from your blood, get excess oxygen, and prepare for carbon dioxide build-up to help you use that oxygen gradually. You can watch an interview with Dr. Artour Rakhimov regarding this topic here:

How to do Box Breathing

The box breathing exercise is composed of four steps you can envision as the sides of a square, as in this diagram.

Box Breathing Diagram

The four steps I mentioned are:

1. Inhale slowly and steadily for 5 seconds

2. Hold your breath for 5 seconds

3. Exhale slowly and steadily for 5 seconds

4. Hold your breath for 5 seconds

The 5 seconds interval is just a starting point, you can experiment with shorter or longer intervals to find what works best for you. People with a good breathing practice, who exercise periodically, are able to do box breathing with 15, 20 or even longer intervals.

Try to do this exercise for 4-5 minutes right after waking up or before going to bed. If you meditate, try to do the exercise before, as it will help you get into the right mental state.

Tips for Box Breathing

Beginners might find it difficult to start with 5 seconds, so if you feel dizzy after doing box breathing, you can try starting with 3 seconds intervals.

As I mentioned earlier, this is an easy exercise that you can do anywhere, but for the beginning, it is easier to find a quiet place where you will not be distracted. This will help you relax and focus on the exercise.

Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach, and try not to move your chest when breathing. You should feel an expansion in the stomach area when breathing in, but without tightening the abdominal muscles. When exhaling, try to relax your body and leave the elasticity of your lungs do the work, pushing the air out.

There are many apps that can help you with this, but I think that counting is so easy and straight-forward that you don’t really need any help.

Conclusion

Box breathing is a very simple exercise anyone can master in a short time. Incorporating it into your daily routine will help you be less stressed, more relaxed, focused and conscious throughout the day. Because it is so simple to do, you can give it a try while doing other activities that do not require 100% of your attention, like watching TV, showering, walking or even working.

A few minutes of box breathing can calm you down and combat stress. It can be used to prepare for a stressful event, like a speech or an interview, but also to calm down during or after such an event.

8 Comments

  1. I have tried box breathing before, and I like to use it especially in the evening to calm down before going to bed.

    Thanks for a thorough article that explains all the important aspects related to this technique!

    After reading this post I feel more motivated to do box breathing.

  2. Cherise

    Breathing exercises are certainly a great way to reduce stress. I haven’t heard of box breathing, so simple and I’m going to try it!

  3. I really enjoyed this article. It is well written and contains a lot of good information. I was introduced to box breathing by a counselor when I was suffering an acute panic attack. I have to say, as someone who used to suffer from those, this breathing technique works. I really have to incorporate it again into my daily life. Thank for sharing!

    • Thank you for the kind words Manuela!
      Glad to hear you seem to have overcome the panic attacks since you stopped practicing this, but at the same time I’m glad you are able to confirm the effectiveness of this method.
      Hope you will remember to use this whenever needed.

      Alex

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