Have you ever stopped to notice how you breathe when you are relaxed, versus when you are anxious or stressed? You likely don’t think about how you are breathing that often, but if you were to take a minute to notice you would notice that in times of anxiety or stress you breathe faster and quicker. This is because you are in an acute stressed state, or in the flight-or-flight response. The fight or flight response is just as it sounds, it is your body’s way of preparing you to fight or flight. In order to prepare you, your autonomic nervous system attempts to get more oxygen to your muscles, by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, and breathing rate. This fight or flight response is hardwired to keep you safe, however, here is where it gets tricky, things like giving a big presentation at work or thinking about something that really scares you can trigger this response sometimes without you even noticing. When this happens you can be stuck in a prolonged state of fight or flight and this can be very detrimental to your health.
This is where breathing exercises come in. These stress responses, unfortunately, do not come with an on / off switch, however, your body is equipped with the next best thing. Your breath. Deep breathing can signal your nervous system to calm down and switch from fight or flight to rest and digest. Rest and digest is the opposite autonomic nervous system response to fight or flight, and it means just how it is named, it slows heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate as well as increases digestion. Practicing breathing exercises can help you master the on / off switch for stress. One particular breathing exercise that works really well for this is box breathing.
What is box breathing?
Box breathing is a breathing exercise that has 4 steps, as the 4 sides of a square or box, hence its name. These are the steps:
Step 1: Inhale for 4 counts - start by sitting upright and slowly inhale to the count of four,
Step 2: Hold for 4 counts - gently hold your breath to the count of four,
Step 3: Exhale for 4 counts - slowly exhale to the count of four,
Step 4: Hold for 4 counts - gently hold your breath to the count of four.
Repeat for 2-5 minutes to start and work up from there. It is not suggested that you do this breathing exercise for more than 20 minutes at a time.
What are the benefits of box breathing?
Like any type of breathing exercise, the ability of the breath to take you out of that fight or flight response is beneficial enough for us. However, box breathing is also known for its ability to stimulate increased mental clarity and concentration. Box breathing is often used in situations where you wish to be calm but alert, because of the focus required to maintain the counts it is an effective way to reduce stress but still stay focused. Box breathing is also effective in decreasing symptoms of anxiety and anger.
Breathing exercises are incredible tools to promote mind-body health, as well as the least expensive since you don’t need any fancy tools to just breathe. Incorporating any breathing exercise into your routine is going to make a world of difference for managing stress.
To help you get started on your breathing exercise journey we added some of our favourite mindfulness apps to this download.