What Is Box Breathing? Benefits, How To & How It Works

Maybe you feel it when you’re running late and can’t find your car keys, maybe you experience it just before an important meeting or when you’re browsing through social media. Stress, in this day and age, is impossible to avoid.

Though a little dose of stress is actually good for you, being constantly stressed or anxious can have an adverse effect on your health.

Here’s an overview of how to get comfortable with this breathwork sequence and use it to call in calm on demand. You’ll learn:

  • What is Box Breathing
  • 3 Benefits of Box Breathing
  • How to do Box Breathing
  • How Box Breathing Works
  • 3 Box Breathing Apps
  • Tips to help you box breathing
a sign attached to a cork board with the word 'breathe' written on it

What is Box Breathing?

Box breathing, also known as four square breathing, is a technique used when taking slow, deep breaths. It can heighten performance and concentration while also being a powerful stress reliever.

It requires using an even number of counts. For example inhaling for four counts, holding your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and then holding your breath again for four counts.

This technique can be beneficial to anyone, especially those who want to meditate or reduce stress. It’s used by many different types of people, from U.S. Navy SEALs, police officers, and nurses. It’s also used by the action sports athletes I coached before they drop into the big air or slopestyle courses. Not just to be calm, but to be clear and focused.

3 Benefits of Box Breathing

Box breathing can provide a number of benefits to those that use it. It’s a great technique to do before a stressful situation. You can easily practice this before you have an interview, a big pitch at work, a difficult conversation, or if you’re stuck in traffic.

a woman in a red hoodie box breathing with one hand on her chest and another on her abdomen

Here are three benefits to a consistent practice of box breathing found in the research:

Benefit 1: Increases Clarity & Focus

Box breathing brings about better focus and a more positive outlook. Research has also been linked to developing the ability to manage impulses, such as those associated with smoking and other addictive behaviors.

Benefit 2: Reduces Stress

Deep breathing techniques have been shown by researchers to significantly reduce the production of hormones associated with stress, such as cortisol.

In one study, participants showed lower levels of cortisol after deep breathing, as well as increased attention levels.

Benefit 3: Improves Reactions to Stress

Research suggests that box breathing may have the ability to change someone’s future reactions to stress. Relaxation response practices, such as meditation, box breathing, and yoga can alter how the body reacts to stress by changing how certain genes are switched on.

Genes have different roles within the body. Relaxation response practices, such as box breathing,  boosted the activation of genes associated with energy and insulin, and reduced the activation of genes linked to inflammation and stress.

This effect was found to occur in both short-term and long-term practitioners of these techniques. However, the effect is more significant in long-term users.

a woman holding both hands to her chest and inhaling with a city scape in the background

How To Do Box Breathing

The duration of each step may be increased or decreased based on your comfort, but it generally ranges from three to six seconds. You can repeat the entire exercise for about one to five minutes if you’re new to this exercise, and increase when you become familiar with it.

It’s up to you whether you want to keep your eyes open or not, whichever helps you better visualize drawing a square. You may do the breathing exercise while sitting up or lying down.

1. Sitting upright, slowly exhale through your nose until empty. Focus on this intention and be conscious of what you’re doing.

2. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of five. Feel the air fill your lungs, one section at a time, until your lungs are completely full and the air moves into your abdomen.

3. Hold your breath for a count of five seconds. Your body should be relaxed, with just a mild “lock” in your throat area.

4. Exhale evenly for a count of five seconds.

5. Hold all air out of your empty lungs for a count of five seconds. This may sound like it wouldn’t be nice, but most often of all people experience waves of peace in this phase.

Repeat until you feel content — give it at least a count of 5 rounds.

It’s helpful to perform the exercise every time you feel stressed or anxious, but you can also do it at the same time every day to form a consistent routine and have long-term health benefits.

a man in a blue t shirt box breathing with one hand on his chest and another on his abdomen

How Box Breathing Works

In a heightened state — commuter rage, public speaking, interviews, or a family confrontation, we revert to holding our breath, which is a stress response. If we’re walking around with our mouths open, it’s a clear sign we’re in a sympathetic (stressed) state. That means that we can’t learn, utilize our creativity or respond from a place of context.

If you find yourself during the day gasping for air without relief, what you’re responding to may actually be your body’s decreased tolerance to carbon dioxide (C02), rather than a need for more oxygen.

Oxygen is the most vital gas we have. Manipulating its use is done via the removal of or increase of carbon dioxide (C02). This has a direct impact on our physiology and our state of mind.

It is a common misconception that breathing in a larger volume of air increases the oxygenation of the blood. It would be like pouring more water into a glass that is already filled to the brim. Increasing oxygen in our body is not the answer, but improved delivery of oxygen is!

Carbon dioxide is an acid that is responsible for optimizing oxygen from our red blood cells so that it is actually usable. If we have limited carbon dioxide in an environment where we don’t need large amounts of oxygen, such as breathing and puffing through our mouth at a time of rest and not doing anything stressful, our bodies are in more of a sympathetic (stress) response.

yoga equipment and a sign saying 'inhale exhale' written on it

With dedicated areas in the brain to breathing (the reactive reptilian brain) and sensors in close proximity to the brain that detect carbon dioxide (along with pressure), our breath is literally a first responder to a threat. Everything works for the brain. Because of this, the signals closest to the brain are first responders to it all.

So by practicing box breathing, we are improving our C02 tolerance, and therefore improving our resiliency to stress.

Try These Box Breathing Apps

There are several apps that can help you practice box breathing. What’s great about these apps is that they can add a visual element to your practice.

If you’re a visual learner, you can practice these breathing techniques with the app to the point that you really connect with them, then visualize what you experience in the apps even when you’re not using them, like in the shower or while driving.

a woman box breathing with one hand on her chest and another on her abdomen

This makes it easier for many people to both learn the techniques, and enjoy them more. Here are 3 of the top apps for box breathing:

1. Box Breathe App

Box Breathe is a box breathing app for iPhone that’s designed to help people easily practice box breathing, as well as other techniques. Its simplistic design and customizations help users to follow breathing exercises that are most beneficial to them.

The app can also track progress and send customized reminders to help users successfully achieve their breathwork goals.

2. Breathwrk: Breathing Exercises

Another box breathing app that offers a wide range of breathing exercises is Breathwrk. Its library is full of different exercises and classes covering different techniques – like box breathing and providing many different benefits.

You can also customize your sounds, visuals, haptics, and even breath coaches to help create your desired breathwork sessions.

3. Steady: The Breathing App

Steady is a box breathing app for Android and iPhone that helps you fight stress and anxiety. It uses simplistic imagery to guide you through several helpful breathing exercises, like box breathing or 4-7-8 breathing.

You can also use the app to set monthly goals, and receive badges for achieving different milestones.

a man looking out over the ocean

4 Tips to help you box breathing

There are a number of steps I have found that people can take to make box breathing easier.

1. Try to find a quiet space to begin your box breathing practice. You can do this anywhere, but it is easier if there are few distractions.

2. With all deep breathing techniques, placing one hand on the chest and another on the lower stomach can help. When breathing in, try to feel the air and see where it is entering.

3. Focus on feeling an expansion in the stomach, but without forcing the muscles to push out.

4. Try to relax the muscles instead of engaging them.

Above all, I highly recommend that you incorporate box breathing into your daily routine, and it can be an added benefit using it alongside other mindfulness exercises you practice.

Conclusion

With only four steps, mastering box breathing is possible for anyone looking to add more consciousness and relaxation to their daily routine.

Box breathing is one of many breathing techniques that can be useful in the reduction of day-to-day stress, whilst also providing immediate and long-term benefits.

Box breathing is a powerful tool in managing stress, regaining focus, and encouraging positive emotions and state of mind.

I hope you find this guide on box breathing useful. Like anything, consistent practice is what delivers the best results. To go deeper in your breath practice journey, I highly recommend the book Breath by James Nestor.

Photo of author
Richard specialises in men's work to guide them into deep layers of self-awareness. He loves riding bikes, being in nature and swimming in the sea all year round. His other loves are his daughter Stella and wife Anna.

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