The anxiety builds:
Your heart races.
Your stomach clenches.
Your muscles contract.
Your nervous system is out of control. Soon you will be in full-on fight-or-flight mode, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Or is there?
What if you could learn the same technique Navy Seals use to calm the autonomic nervous system? And what if that technique were so simple you could do it anywhere, anytime, without other people even noticing?
Say hello to box breathing.
How Science Promises Box Breathing Can Help You
Box breathing, also called four square breathing, is a science-based variation of deep breathing popularized by Mark Divine, former Navy Seal. Here’s the short version of why it works:
Your autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system turns on your fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system turns it off again.
Problem is, the parasympathetic sometimes takes its own sweet time to make that happen. Your goal is to be able to flip the off switch whenever you want, instead of waiting for your body to get around to it. That’s where box breathing comes in.
Inhaling stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. Exhaling stimulates the parasympathetic. Box breathing has you spend more time exhaling/holding your breath, making the calming effects of the parasympathetic system more dominant.
The parasympathetic nervous system is also triggered by higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in your blood. Extra carbon dioxide makes your vagus nerve more effective at calming your body. It triggers a relaxation response. The part of box breathing where you hold your breath trips that switch by building up extra carbon dioxide.
All you have to do is learn the pattern. And its so simple that you can do it in the course of your regular day, and no one else will even realize what you’re up to.
Learn the Ridiculously Simple Breathing Pattern that Creates Calm and Relaxation
Box breathing has four parts: like the four side of a box. You can visualize making your way around the side of a square as you complete the pattern.
Part One: Begin with your lungs empty. Breathe in slowly to a mental count of four, until your lungs are full (You can experiment to find the most comfortable speed of the count for you).
Part Two: Hold your breath to another slow count of four, at the same rate as the first count.
Part Three: Exhale slowly to the count of four.
Part Four: Continue exhaling to another count of four, or if your lungs are already empty, hold your breath.
That’s it! Repeat that pattern until you feel the grounding effects kick in.
Easy Tips to Maximize Your Box Breathing Success
Breathe deeply, so that your stomach and diaphragm expand. Your shoulders shouldn’t be the body part that moves when you breathe.
If you find that you get dizzy, take a break for a few minutes and then resume box breathing. The dizziness usually goes away with practice.
Try box breathing a few minutes every day to keep yourself in practice. Practicing before bed can help you relax and get ready for sleep. Practicing first thing the in morning can help you center and prepare for the day.
When you are headed into a high stress situation, box breathe for 5 minutes first. It can help you feel grounded and prepared for what’s ahead.
How Box Breathing Will Help You in the Long Term
Box breathing is commonly used by law enforcement, military, and medical personnel for quick help in high stress situations. It can help you immediately too. But like other deep breathing techniques, it also has longer term benefits.
Studies say deep breathing exercises can help you feel happier, focus better, and reduces your levels of stress hormones. It can improve mindfulness, which helps with everything from concentration to mood.
Research says deep breathing and the relaxation response it triggers reduce inflammation and improve the way your body manages energy and insulin. It also impacts epigenetics—or which of the dormant genes that could potentially impact your health are actually activated.
So using breathing exercises as part of your daily routine not only helps you manage stress in the moment, it can help you stay healthier overall. And that will reduce your stress well into the future. Cool, right?
A Glimpse of Your Future
The trigger comes.
Maybe it’s a setback at work. Maybe it’s a confrontation with a friend or significant other. Maybe it’s just the hundredth little hassle that day.
You feel your stress levels rising. But instead of letting fight or flight take over, you breathe.
Four counts in. Hold. Four counts out. Hold. As you follow the pattern, you feel your muscles relax. Your stomach unclenches. You come back into your body.
You have learned to work with your own nervous system to reduce stress.