What Is Box Breath And How Can It Help You?

Breathing is one of those things that you often don't think about doing — that is, until you're feeling stressed or having a panic attack and suddenly taking a deep breath feels impossible. Shortness of breath is actually a common symptom of anxiety, according to Healthline. It may seem silly to have to exercise your breathing, but taking a minute or two to practice conscious breathing, like the box breath technique, could actually change a lot in your day.

Box breathing is simple, easy, and effective, according to Mindbodygreen. Breathwork teacher Gwen Dittmar recommends it for when you want to feel calm yet alert, like before going into a big meeting or when you're in a stressful situation. It's a popular exercise with athletes and the U.S. Marines, according to pulmonary medicine researcher and author Dr. Michael J. Stephen.

To try box breath, first find a comfortable position and close your eyes. Then use counts of four: inhale through the nose for four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds, exhale out of the mouth for four seconds, and again hold the breath for four seconds. Repeat four times, and if you would like, you can work your way up to longer sessions for as much as 20 minutes.

Why it works

This technique may seem simple, but don't underestimate it. When experiencing anxiety or stress, we often breathe from our chest, which doesn't feel satisfying. Taking shallow breaths reduces the diaphragm's range of motion, so the lower lungs don't get the proper amount of oxygen. This can amplify anxiety (via Harvard Health Publishing).

When you take slow, controlled breaths, you're engaging your diaphragm, which is the most efficient breathing muscle our bodies have (via Healthline). This type of breathing, called diaphragmatic breathing, can slow the breathing rate, decrease the body's demand for oxygen, and allow us to use less energy and effort to breathe. Research suggests that breathwork can also promote emotional control and psychological well-being.

If you notice any shortness of breath that seems to be due to stress or anxiety, you may be able to avoid an all-out panic attack by employing a breathing technique before it gets worse, according to Healthline. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.