Stress is an unavoidable part of life. When you are stressed, your heart and breathing rate increase, and so too does your blood pressure. Your body releases lots of glucose and adrenaline, and your muscles become tense. Your pupils dilate, and your hearing becomes more sensitive. Blood is diverted away from your internal organs and into your skeletal muscles.
This series of events, called the fight or flight response, is designed to make you harder to kill. It gives you the energy and increased focus you need to quickly escape dangerous situations.
Unfortunately, modern stresses do not usually require you to run or battle for your life.
Instead, the causes of stress are generally mental or emotional rather than physical. In addition, unlike most bouts of physical stress, which last mere moments, modern stress can be unrelenting.
Work demands, relationship difficulties, money worries, low self-esteem, lack of sleep, chronic health issues – all of these things can cause stress to build up. Many of us move from one source of stress to another and have few opportunities to decompress.
Unrelenting stress is a huge problem, seriously impacting your health and even your lifespan.
The dangers of chronic stress include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic neck and back pain
- Digestive issues, including IBS
- Erectile dysfunction
- Increased cancer risk
- Increased risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke
- Suppressed immune system
- Weight gain and obesity
It’s probably not practical to quit your job and go and live in a cabin in the mountains, as appealing as that might be! However, there are things you can do that will make stress less impactful.
Stress-busting strategies include:
- A healthy diet
- Avoiding perfectionism
- Getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night
- Learning how to manage your time better
- Learning to delegate
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Regular exercise
- Talking about stress with a trusted friend or partner
And now you can add another stress-coping strategy to the list: The Navy SEALs box breathing technique.
What is Box Breathing?
Breathing is a unique bodily function because you breathe automatically and can also control it voluntarily. For example, you don’t have to think about breathing when you are asleep, but you can hold your breath if you need to.
Your breathing rate increases when you are stressed. This supplies your muscles with an abundance of oxygen. However, stress tends to cause rapid, shallow breathing, stimulating your sympathetic nervous system and increasing the stress response.
So, in addition to the cause of your stress, e.g., a frozen computer screen and hours of lost work, your body conspires to make this event even more impactful. As your breathing rate rises, so does your anxiety.
There are lots of different breathing exercises you can use to lower your stress levels. However, one of the most popular and effective is box breathing.
Box breathing puts you back in charge of your respiration and helps stop your stress response from spiraling out of control. It is designed to trigger a parasympathetic nervous system response, which calms you down and puts you on more of an even mental and physical keel.
Box breathing is used by Navy SEALs to stay calm under pressure. The US Navy SEALs are an elite special forces unit trained to operate in the most hostile environments on Earth.
Facing danger on an almost daily basis, it’s safe to say that life as a Navy SEAL is very stressful. And yet, the SEALs must continue to operate effectively as their lives depend on it. There are no time-outs or safe spaces in warfare, and losing control could have disastrous consequences.
Box breathing is the SEAL’s best defense against stress, and if it works on the battlefield, it’ll probably work in the office, in traffic jams, and at home, too.
How to Do Box Breathing
Box breathing is as simple as it is effective. That’s good news because it means you can do it almost anywhere and anytime that stress strikes. It requires no equipment and no special apps. It’s completely safe and, unlike some medications used to treat stress, has no harmful side effects or addictive qualities. And best of all, it’s free, so it won’t add to your financial worries.
However, box breathing is so simple that it’s also easy to dismiss. But if it can help a Navy SEAL stay calm while facing enemy gunfire, it’ll definitely help you handle the stresses of your work and home life.
To do box breathing, imagine a square where each side represents four seconds:
- Inhale for four seconds
- Hold your breath for four seconds
- Exhale for four seconds
- Hold your breath for four seconds
As you inhale and exhale, imagine your breath travelling around the sides of the box. This helps connect your mind to your breaths, multiplying the stress-busting effect of this exercise.
For best results, breathe through your nose and into your abdomen rather than with your chest. Nasal and abdominal breathing is especially good for lowering your stress levels.
Continue for as long as it takes to start to feel calmer and more relaxed.
How Does Box Breathing Work?
Box breathing works on a couple of different levels to help lower your stress levels and make you feel calmer. The main mechanisms that make box breathing so effective are:
Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system
Your body has several nervous systems. The central nervous system is your brain and spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous system is how your CNS communicates with and controls your muscles.
Additionally, there is the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is, in turn, made up of sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems, which control your reaction to stress.
The SNS is responsible for triggering the fight or flight response. It revs you up and charges your body with the energy it needs to survive what it perceives as a dangerous situation.
In contrast, the PNS is all about calm and energy conservation. As such, it’s also known as the rest and digest system. The PNS takes your foot off the gas and allows you to return to a more neutral mental and physical state.
Breathing slowly and in a controlled manner increases PNS dominance which decreases the influence of your SNS. It’s like putting water on a fire or ice on a burn.
Many sources of stress are imagined rather than real. We imagine losing our jobs, being unable to pay bills, or being late for an important meeting. We worry about things that have yet to happen and may not even come true or make the consequences seem worse than they really are.
Once the seeds of worry and stress are sown, they can grow and become so big that they’re all we think about. Box breathing forces you to concentrate on something else. It short-circuits those stressful thoughts and provides your brain with a well-deserved break.
Box breathing is a form of meditation that focuses your mind on a) your breath and b) the image of the box. This helps distract you from whatever stressful thoughts are invading your mind.
Sometimes, breaking this circuit is all you need to realize that whatever was bothering you is not actually that big a deal. You may even come up with solutions during these periods of calm.
Breathing in a slow, deep, controlled manner increases carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in your blood. CO2 is a byproduct of aerobic respiration. As CO2 levels rise, your heart rate naturally decreases, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress.
When to Do Box Breathing
The great thing about box breathing is you can do it almost anywhere and anytime. After all, it’s just a controlled breathing exercise. Do it whenever you start to feel anxious or anticipate having to confront a source of stress, e.g., before an interview, meeting, or exam.
You can box breathe for as long as you wish, but five minutes is usually sufficient to be effective.
Box breathing is also a sleep aid, so you can do it in bed. A few minutes of box breathing combined with lying relaxed in a darkened room could be the perfect way to ease your transition into sleep.
However, box breathing can cause dizziness or lightheadedness, especially when you first start doing it. Therefore, it’s best not to do it while standing or operating machinery.
Box Breathing – Closing Thoughts
Few situations in life are more stressful than combat. Navy SEALs use box breathing to remain calm when their lives are literally on the line. Remaining calm despite the dangers they face allows Navy SEALs to carry out difficult tasks in the most hostile environments.
While the stresses most people face are not as life-threatening as those facing the SEALs, your body doesn’t know the difference. Instead, it perceives your demanding boss or screaming kid as the same type of threat as gunfire, triggering the fight or flight response.
Getting your breathing under control is the first step to regaining your calm, and box breathing defuses your mental and physical reaction to stress.
So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by stress, try box breathing. In five minutes or less, you could feel calm, relaxed, and ready to face the demands of the day.