Box Breathing Is The Low-Key Stress Relief Tool We All Need

Adulthood can be stressful at the best of times, and many might argue that these times are more on the rocky side. With global shakeups to peace, public health, and the economy, there are many reasons you might be feeling a little anxious. Add in normal day-to-day stressors like challenges in your career, relationships, or home life, and no one could fault you for needing a little help managing the pressure.

According to the American Psychological Association, 34% of adults feel overwhelmed by their stress on most days. Younger adults are feeling this even more keenly, with 56% of people between 18 and 34 falling prey to consistently incapacitating levels of stress. And it's tough to avoid — even if you take steps to remove obstacles in your life and indulge in positive self-care, you could end up catching secondhand stress from those around you.

But if it isn't possible to avoid stress altogether, what can be done to keep it in check? There are many different ways to adjust your mindset and physical reaction to anxiety. One of the simplest and most reliable is box breathing, an easy stress relief tool that can be practiced anytime, anywhere.

What is box breathing?

Even if the term "box breathing" doesn't ring a bell, you may have unwittingly crossed paths with this practice before. Box breathing is a technique that goes by many names, such as square breathing, tactical breathing, equal breathing, and 4x4 breathing. Some call it box breathing because it consists of four equal steps, like the equal sides of a square. But regardless of what you call it, this method is hailed as a quick, accessible way to keep your nerves in check.

Essentially, box breathing is a way to practice deep, mindful breathing to distract your mind and calm your body. Purportedly used by groups like the Navy SEALs, box breathing has its roots in ancient practices from India. More specifically, it and many other breathing techniques are based on pranayama, a form of Ayurvedic breathwork. As a whole, pranayama is said to promote calm, positive energy, and heightened focus. In a similar vein, box breathing is now gaining popularity for its potential health benefits.

The health benefits of box breathing

Any mindfulness exercise is a good way to pull your thoughts away from spiraling worries and give yourself something else to focus on. But breathing techniques like box breathing aren't just psychosomatic — they can have a direct physiological impact on your well-being.

"When we're anxious, we breathe shallowly and quickly, which actually creates more anxiety within your body," integrative medicine specialist Melissa Young, M.D., tells Cleveland Clinic. If you've ever found yourself hyperventilating, you may be familiar with this sensation. But Dr. Young continues, "We can use breathwork to move out of the fight-or-flight state and into that parasympathetic nervous system."

As Healthline explains further, the parasympathetic nervous system helps keep your body's basic functions operating normally. One important aspect of this includes managing your heart rate, which can either calm or contribute to your fight-or-flight response. By using breathwork to trigger this system, you can indirectly slow a rapid heart rate and potentially decrease physical sensations of anxiety or fear.

How to practice box breathing

Like some other breathing techniques, the method behind box breathing revolves around counting the span of your breaths. If you want to give it a try, close your eyes and do the following. First, take a deep inhale while counting to four. Hold that breath for another four seconds, then exhale through your mouth — also on a count of four. Finally, wait four seconds with your lungs empty before taking your next inhalation, then repeat the cycle (via Anahana). In other words, breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four, and hold for four again. Try this pattern for five minutes, or however long feels right to you.

If four seconds feels too challenging, you can start by doing each count for two or three seconds and working your way up as your lung capacity improves. Or, on the reverse, you can also extend this timing up to eight seconds per step. Ultimately, the length of time you use is less important than the rhythm and mindfulness inherent to the pattern of box breathing.

As Dr. Young says, "It allows you to slow your breath, and it also has an aspect of meditation. As you're breathing, you're also silently counting, which is a kind of mantra meditation that, again, calms the nervous system and brings you into the present moment."

Incorporating box breathing into your routine

When you want to invite a little more calm into your daily life, breath techniques like box breathing are a great addition to your routine. And because box breathing is so simple and flexible, it's a snap to incorporate — even into the most hectic schedule.

If you already have time set aside for meditation, prayer, or another mindfulness practice, try adding box breathing as an extra way to quiet your mind and center yourself. If you tend to get stressed at work, consider practicing box breathing right before your shift, or even taking some time for this technique during your break. And if you're the type who lays awake rehashing all your missteps during the day, box breathing before bed may help you get a handle on your sleep anxiety.

Of course, you don't have to practice box breathing on a strict regimen. Instead, you can keep this method in your back pocket to use at any moment that feels stressful or overwhelming. The key is to figure out what works best for your needs and lifestyle.

Other breathing techniques to try

Box breathing is an easy-to-remember and easy-to-practice method for grounding and stress relief. But there are also plenty of other deep breathing techniques that can help you center yourself. So if box breathing isn't your favorite, you don't have to write off breathwork altogether. Instead, consider trying out alternate approaches.

One straightforward method popular amongst yoga practitioners is ujjayi breathing. Also known as a victorious breath or oceanic breath, this is a yogic technique intended to be both relaxing and energizing. To try ujjayi breathing, take a deep inhale through your nose. Then, push the breath out through your nose again, tightening your throat muscles to give it some force (via Chopra). Together, this creates a rhythm of inhalations and exhalations that should sound like waves hitting the shore.

If breath counting appeals to you, you can also try the 4-7-8 method. To get started, place the tip of your tongue behind your teeth and breathe in through your nose for a count of four. Hold the air in your lungs for seven beats, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight, repeating as necessary until you feel your stress begin to recede (via CNN).