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Think Inside the Box (Breathing) for Calm and Focus

This article is featured in the March 2024 issue of the Thought Tonic newsletter.

We often extol the value of “thinking outside the box.” After all, the benefits of creativity and innovation include fostering growth, driving progress, and unlocking solutions to complex problems. Nevertheless, when it comes to breathing exercises for reducing stress, improving focus, and promoting our overall physical and mental well-being, “staying in the box” can be surprisingly helpful. Sometimes a little structure makes all the difference! Take the example of box breathing. In this post, I’ll explain box breathing, its benefits, and how it works. I’ll then guide you through a step-by-step exercise to experience the benefits of box breathing firsthand.

What is Box Breathing?

In our fast-paced and often stressful lives, finding moments of calm and focus can be a challenge. Fortunately, in the practice of box breathing, we have a simple yet powerful technique that can help us achieve a state of relaxation and mental clarity in a matter of minutes.

Box breathing, sometimes called square breathing, is a controlled breathing technique practiced by US Navy Seals, firefighters, and athletes, among others. It involves inhaling, holding the breath, exhaling, and holding the breath again in a rhythmic pattern. The technique is called “box breathing” because, as a supporting visualization for the exercise, one can imagine tracing the outline of a box with each in-hold-out-hold cycle of breath.

What Are the Benefits of Box Breathing?

Box breathing has multiple benefits, including stress reduction, improved focus and clarity, emotional regulation, and enhanced mind-body connection.

Stress Reduction

When we engage in box breathing, we activate our body’s relaxation response, which triggers a decrease in stress hormones like cortisol. As a result, we experience reduced anxiety and a calmer state of mind.

Improved Focus and Concentration

The rhythmic pattern of box breathing, combined with the focused attention on the breath, can help enhance concentration and mental clarity. By directing our attention to the present moment, we’re better able to let go of distractions and maintain focus on the task at hand.

Emotional Regulation

The structured nature of box breathing can support emotional regulation. By consciously controlling our breath, we can regulate our body’s physiological responses, helping to stabilize our emotions and promote a sense of emotional balance.

Enhanced Mind-Body Connection

Box breathing facilitates a deeper connection between the mind and body. When we engage in this breathing exercise, we cultivate a heightened awareness of our breath, enabling us to tune in to sensations within our body and so create a sense of harmony between our mental and physical states.

In short, the practice of box breathing provides a range of benefits, empowering us to manage stress, improve focus, regulate emotions, and foster a stronger mind-body connection.

How Does Box Breathing Work?

Box breathing works by engaging the autonomic nervous system and influencing various physiological processes in the body. Here’s a breakdown of three physiological effects of box breathing:

Activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Box breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” system. This branch of our autonomic nervous system promotes relaxation, counteracting the effects of our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. By engaging the parasympathetic system, box breathing helps bring the body into a state of calm and balance.

Decreased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure

During box breathing, the slow, deep breaths help slow our heart rate. The inhalation and exhalation are typically done over a longer duration than usual, resulting in a lengthened breathing cycle. This extended breathing cycle, along with the focus on diaphragmatic breathing, leads to a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. In essence, box breathing helps counter the heightened physiological arousal associated with stress and anxiety.

Reduced Stress Hormone Release

Box breathing triggers a relaxation response that helps reduce the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are typically associated with our body’s stress response. By activating our parasympathetic nervous system, box breathing helps dampen the production of these stress hormones, promoting a sense of calm and relaxation.

Box breathing is generally safe for most individuals, but if you have any underlying medical conditions or breathing difficulties, please consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating any new breathing techniques into your routine. If you would like to give box breathing a try for yourself, here is a guided step-by-step exercise so you can experience the benefits of box breathing firsthand:

A Guided Box Breathing Exercise

Step 1

Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down, where you can relax and focus without distractions.

Step 2

Close your eyes and take a moment to bring attention to your breath. First, just notice the natural rhythm of your breathing without trying to change it.

Step 3

Now, begin the box breathing cycle.

Inhale

Slowly breathe in through your nose to a count of four. When I started box breathing, I found it helpful to say to myself, “IN-two-three-four,” using “IN” for “one.” If you find visualizations helpful, you can imagine starting in the bottom left-hand corner of a square and moving up, along the left side.

Hold

At the top of your inhalation, hold your breath for a count of four: “HOLD-two-three-four.” If you want, visualize tracing the top side of the square, left to right.

Exhale

Now, slowly exhale through your mouth to a count of four: “OUT-two-three-four.” You can visualize tracing the third side of the box, moving down.

Hold

Finally, at the bottom of your exhalation, hold your breath once more for a count of four: “HOLD-two-three-four.” Visualize tracing the bottom side of the box, right to left, returning to the corner where you began.

Step 4

Repeat the box breathing cycle for four rounds, or as long as you feel comfortable. When I do box breathing, I use the fingers on one hand to count out the number of rounds. Focus on the sensation of your breath, your counting, or the visualization of the box to keep your mind in the present moment.

Step 5

When you’re finished with the exercise, gradually allow your breath to return to its natural rhythm. Take a moment to notice how you feel, both physically and mentally. The hope is that you feel more relaxed, present, and clear-minded.

Tips

When you’re new to box breathing, you might want to start with just one or two minutes of practice. As you become more comfortable with the technique, you can gradually increase the duration to five minutes or so, if you need additional time to notice your body relaxing.

You can also adjust your breath count or pace, using a count lower than four or a faster pace of counting when you’re first starting out, and extending the count or pace over time, as you become more adept. The only requirement for the count and pace is that your inhalation, exhalation, and breath holds are of equal duration.

Conclusion

While “thinking outside the box” certainly has its place when we’re seeking creativity and innovation, when we’re looking for calm and focus, we may want to remember that gifts often come in boxes. This is certainly true in the case of box breathing!

Incorporating box breathing into our daily routine can be a transformative practice. With even just a few minutes of this simple structured exercise, we can tap into the power of our breath and experience the benefits box breathing has to offer. Stress reduction? Check. Improved focus? Check. A greater sense of emotional balance and mind-body connection? Check and check. With regular practice, box breathing can become one more valuable tool in our self-care toolkit for promoting our overall physical and mental well-being.

Additional Resources

For more resources related to mindfulness, meditation, and mental wellness, see the March 2024 issue of the Thought Tonic newsletter.


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