Box Breathing: Mental Health Benefits and Tips for Beginners
Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT — By Susan Fishman, NCC, CRC
If you’ve ever taken a long, deep breath at the end of a stressful day, you probably know the calming effect it can have. Research shows the practice of controlled, deep breathing offers a number of positive effects on the body and mind. One such deep-breathing exercise is box breathing. This simple, four-step technique not only helps you de-stress, but it may also be helpful in treating anxiety, depression, and even pain.
What is box breathing?
Box breathing is a deep-breathing exercise that helps promote relaxation. Deep breathing is also known as “diaphragmatic breathing,” “abdominal breathing,” or “belly breathing.”
The exercise is called “box breathing” because it uses the image of a box, which has four sides, to help you pace your breathing in four steps. It’s also known as “square breathing,” “four-square breathing,” or “4×4 breathing.”
Using visualization, you can practice box breathing almost anywhere. You don’t need a calm environment to reap the benefits. It’s often used by Navy Seals to help calm the mind and decrease tension in high-stress situations.
Benefits of box breathing
When you become anxious or stressed, your body prepares as if it’s confronting danger. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your muscles tense, and your breathing becomes shallow. Some people may feel short of breath, which can make them feel even more anxious.
Box breathing helps counter the stress response by bringing on the relaxation response. As your breathing becomes deeper, your heartbeat slows, muscles relax, and your blood pressure decreases or stabilizes.
A 2023 studyTrusted Source of breathing exercises, including box breathing, suggests that daily, 5-minute breathwork reduces anxiety and improves mood.
In fact, participants in the study showed greater improvement in mood and physiological responses with breathwork than with mindfulness meditation.
Other research has suggested box breathing can be helpful in:
- reducing negative emotions
- improving attention and cognitive performance
- loweringTrusted Source blood pressure
- improving symptoms of depression
How to practice box breathing
Box breathing involves four simple steps.
As you do the exercise, the idea is to visualize a box with four equal sides. You can do this with your eyes closed or with a soft gaze.
With each step, imagine you’re following or tracing one side of the box. Start at the top corner, and work your way around the box until you return to the starting point.
- Following the top side of the box, breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four.
- As you follow down one side of the box, hold your breath for a count of four.
- Following the bottom side, breathe out slowly for a count of four, releasing all the air from your lungs.
- Going up the other side of the box, hold your breath for a count of four.
If 4 seconds feels too long or too short, you can adjust your count for each step (for example, breathe or hold for 2 or 3 seconds, instead of four). Try to repeat this sequence three to four times.
Other breathing techniques
There are several other deep-breathing techniques that can help when you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious. You can practice the following two techniques while sitting, lying down, or even standing in a comfortable position.
Mindful breathing is simply focusing your attention on your breath. Much like observing your thoughts in mindfulness meditation, the idea is to observe your breath without trying to change it.
- Take a deep inhale through your nostrils for a count of three.
- Hold your breath for a count of two.
- Exhale completely through your mouth for a count of four.
Try to repeat this cycle for 5 to 7 minutes. If your mind wanders, simply make note of it and try to gently shift your attention back to your breath. It may also help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest.
Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, 4-7-8 breathing is another mindful breathing technique. It’s based on the pranayama yogic practice of controlling your breath.
- Place the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, behind your upper front teeth.
- Part your lips, and make a whoosh sound as you exhale completely through your mouth.
- Close your lips, and inhale silently through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Making another whoosh sound, exhale completely through your mouth for a count of eight.
Try to repeat this cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Box breathing is a simple technique to help calm the mind and body during times of stress. Research suggests it may also be helpful in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression and improving attention and cognitive performance.
Along with box breathing, there are other breathing techniques you can practice almost anywhere, with similar effects. You can experiment with the 4-7-8 technique and mindful breathing, and see what works best for you.