If you're experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety these days, you may be looking for solutions to ease your symptoms. While we know exercise can make a huge difference in our mood and energy levels, the simple act of breathing with intent can lower your racing heart and calm your senses.
While many breathing techniques are effective, box breathing, also known as square breathing, 4x4 breathing or four-square breathing, is one of the easiest to try for beginners. Here, discover the health benefits of deep breathing and how to get started.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
3 Benefits of Breathing Exercises
It's necessary for our life, and yet, few of us think about the role our breath plays in our movement, mental health and overall state of being. While yoga utilizes the power of inhales and exhales, you don't have to be in Downward Dog to turn to your breath for strength and stability. Here's how regularly practicing breathing exercises can help:
1. It Can Calm and Regulate the Autonomic Nervous System
Breath has a natural way of allowing our nerves to release and relax, says asthma and allergy specialist and clinical advisor for the health essential startup Cabinet, Vandana A. Patel, MD, FCCP. In fact, intentional deep breathing can calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic.
This system regulates involuntary body functions, including temperature, Dr. Patel explains. It can also lower blood pressure and provide an almost immediate sense of calm. "The slow holding of breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood," she says. "Increased blood CO2 enhances the vagus nerve's cardio-inhibitory response when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic system. This produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body."
"When the body is in a state of stress, its most important defense mechanism — the immune system — is compromised."
2. It Supports Immune Function
There's no way around it: Your mental state influences your physical state. This is why continually existing in a state of stress increases the production of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, according to Jessica Svec, yoga and breathwork practitioner at Saffron & Sage Holistic Health Club in San Diego, California.
Too much stress can heighten susceptibility to viruses and contribute to risk of depression, anxiety and heart problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "When the body is in a state of stress, its most important defense mechanism — the immune system — is compromised," Svec says. Breathing exercises, like the box breathing technique, have been shown to reduce the production of cortisol, she explains.
3. It Helps You Concentrate
The next time your afternoon is suddenly filled with back-to-back meetings, sneak away for 10 minutes to try a breathing exercise; it could make or break your productivity. Dr. Patel says box breathing in particular can help shift your energy, connect you more deeply to your body and allow you find your center of concentration.
Box Breathing Exercise: The Basics
Four-count breathing is famous for being used by Navy SEALs as a method to keep calm under tense circumstances, according to Max Gomez, the co-founder and CEO of the app Breathwrk. Because it can be utilized whenever and wherever, you can consider this breathing technique a back-pocket secret superpower.
Many people think of box breathing as a square, since you breathe in a sequential pattern for four seconds at a time. It can be helpful to visualize drawing the perimeter of a box to stay focused in the moment.
How to Do the Box Breathing Exercise
So, how can you try box breathing? Here, Dr. Patel provides a helpful, easy step-by-step guide.
- Inhale. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose as you count slowly in your head to four. As you do so, pay attention to your senses: "Feel the air fill your lungs, one section at a time until your lungs are completely full and the air moves into your abdomen," Dr. Patel says.
- Pause. This is a necessary pause since it requires your attention and focus, rather than effortlessly inhaling and exhaling. Make sure to hold your breath for another slow count of four.
- Exhale. Now, exhale through your mouth for the same slow count of four, expelling the air from your lungs and abdomen. Notice the feeling of the air leaving your lungs, Dr. Patel says.
- Pause again. Hold your breath for the same slow count of four before repeating this process.
You can build up to doing this breathing technique for five to 10 minutes, says Mary Weisheit, the general manager of Tree Spa at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, Maine. "You also may extend the exhale for a longer period if you choose by doing it for up to six to eight seconds.
Most importantly, you should take the four-breath count as a consideration, but do what feels natural to you," she adds. This might mean a three-count, six-count or whatever number is best for your body.
What to Keep in Mind Before You Get Started
Even though box breathing can be done anywhere, it helps to think through your position. Sit in an upright, comfortable chair where you can rest your feet flat on the floor, Dr. Patel suggests. "Try to be in a stress-free, quiet environment where you can focus on your breathing. Keeping your hands relaxed in your lap with your palms facing up, focus on your posture," she says. "You should be sitting up straight. This will help you take deep breaths."
If you have trouble focusing or staying on track during box breathing, try tapping each finger pad to your thumb to keep track of your four counts, Svec says. The goal is to have each "segment" of the box be the same length. Since you can't say the numbers out loud and breathe at the same time, touching a table or the inside of your hand is an easy way to be present and keep count.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic: