Box Breathing for Lower Stress and Sustained Attention

Fraser deans
By Fraser Deans on Apr 16 2020

Ahhh, to breathe.

There’s nothing quite like lungfuls of chilled, undisturbed morning air. And what about that special kind of air you only breathe after a good rainfall. Or those first fresh breaths when you leave the city.

We breathe all day long, every day, from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

It takes moments where breath doesn’t come so readily – stuck under a surprisingly big wave, fighting a nasty cough, food blocking our windpipe, a panic attack, being hugged a little too tightly – that we realise how precious a breath is.

Breathing is so integral we don’t have to think to do it. It just happens. But unlike many of our other automations, we can override and control the breath.

Breathwork is the conscious control of one’s breathing. Over history different communities have developed different breathwork practices with different techniques. For example, within the ancient traditions of yoga there is a whole practice of breath control called Pranayama. More recently the world famous Wim Hof, a Dutchman who holds world records for swimming under ice and running barefoot half-marathons on ice and snow, teaches his own techniques.

Box breathing is a simple technique you can learn in minutes, practice anytime, leaving yourself calmer and more alert. Perfect when you’re in an energy lull during the work day, or feeling overwhelmed with deadlines and an overflowing inbox.

US Navy Seals, some of the most elite soldiers on the planet, often find themselves in life or death situations. They reportedly use box breathing as a calming technique. If it works for them, whilst being shot at, you bet it can work for you.

The box breathing exercise goes like this…

  1. Empty your lungs, exhale for a count of 4
  2. Hold, keep your lungs empty for a count of 4
  3. Inhale, fill your lungs for a couple of 4
  4. Hold, keep full lungs for a count of 4
  5. Repeat a number of times

Once you’ve got this down, breathe into your belly instead of your lungs, fill your torso from the bottom up. To get the most of the benefits of box breathing “diaphragmatic breathing” is important. Try to keep your belly soft (without tension) and notice the belly rise and fall throughout the cycle. If you practice meditation, you’ll be used to noticing the breath, use that experience here.

The readiness of the breath and the simplicity of this exercise means calmness is accessible anytime and anywhere you catch yourself feeling frantic.

Box Breathing for Anxiety

Long term breathing practices have been found to significantly reduce anxiety levels. Studies have been performed across very different sections of the population from pregnant women to primary school children to survivors of the 2004 South-East Asia tsunami. As such breathing practices are now widely adopted in clinical treatments for various mental conditions like phobias, PTSD and other stress-related emotional disorders.

Box Breathing for Stress

When we’re stressed our levels of the hormone cortisol rise in our bodies. Deep breathing techniques have been shown to reverse these cortisol spikes. Additionally, relaxation techniques lower inflammation in the body which ensures we are more prepared to deal with the next stressful activity. Anything we can do to reduce and lower our chances of chronic inflammation is a worthwhile endeavour.

Box Breathing for Attention & Alertness

We all experience energy fluctuations. Deep breathing reboots us, instead of grabbing another coffee, a short spell of deep breathing leaves you awake and pumped. Pumping our lungs full of oxygen fills our blood with the good stuff our body needs.

Throughout the working day we’ll often find ourselves distracted and liable to procrastination. We’ve all been there. Often those lost periods of mindless scrolling on Facebook or YouTube lead to feelings of anxiety (am I getting enough done?) to feelings of self-doubt (am I good enough to do this?). Over the long term, we can build our attention muscle keeping us focussed on the task at hand and prepared to refocus us when we find ourselves on Facebook or Youtube again.

Box breathing is now another tool in your mental health toolkit.

Box Breathing in Thyself

We’ve introduced a box breathing exercise into Thyself. As a proven method for developing calmness, follow our calming breathing technique when you take mindful moments throughout the day. Several times each day, follow along with our breathing exercise to calm yourself and find your centre again. Our days are busy, sometimes overwhelmingly so. By introducing a calming box breathing technique we can recenter ourselves.


[1] The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults

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