Controlled breathing exercises are some of the simplest biohacks to improve stress management, increase feelings of wellbeing, and improve heart rate variability (HRV). Many people find meditation challenging, as it can be difficult to stay focused on the present moment without the mind wandering. Controlled breathing exercises approximate many of the effects of meditation, while providing a framework of steps to follow, making it easier to stay focused on the breath and allow the mind to empty of other thoughts. And breathing exercises don’t require any special preparations or setting, giving them great flexibility to be practiced throughout the day.
Box breathing, sometimes called four-square breathing, is a very simple breathing technique that can practiced anywhere, anytime to reduce feelings of stress and increase your groundedness in the present moment. It can help alleviate feelings of anxiety and nervousness, and promote a calm, relaxed state of mind by helping strengthen the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) response, and quiet the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response. It is one of many controlled breathing techniques that may help increase HRV. Though it wouldn’t be considered physically strenuous, this controlled breathing technique will give the abdominal and chest muscles a very slight workout.
Find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted for at least four minutes. There should be minimal noise intruding, and make sure to silence your cell phone, laptop, or other devices. If possible, leave devices in another room. Dim the lights if you can, and close your eyes.
Sit up straight in a comfortable but firm chair, or if you are used to sitting yoga poses, use a basic seated pose such as Sukhasana (Easy Pose). If using a chair, place your feet flat on the floor. Relax your hands in your lap, either overlapping or lying separately with palms up. Your back should be straight, and your posture held in a neutral alignment without any strain. Your chest and belly should be able to expand easily without any resistance.
With your mouth closed, inhale through your nose for a count of four. Feel the expansion of your belly and chest as your inhale.
Hold your inhaled breath for a count of four. You shouldn’t feel any strain holding for a count of four, as the goal isn’t to deprive your body of oxygen, but rather allow a few seconds for the inhaled breath to spread fully through your lungs.
Partially open your mouth, and slowly exhale for a count of four through your mouth. Feel your belly and chest gently contract inward as you breath out.
After you have fully exhaled for a count of four, hold on the exhale for another count of four. Again there should be no strain to hold at the bottom of a breath for four seconds. Repeat step 3, inhaling through your nose for a count of four, and so on. It’s best to repeat the process for at least 4 minutes, but if you don’t have that much time just a few sessions can help alleviate stress.
One of the benefits of box breathing is that it brings the respiratory system out of the pattern of shallow breaths that tends to result from feelings of stress, when the sympathetic response is active. In addition to reducing stress and increasing HRV, it has been found to help treat depression, insomnia, chronic pain, and anxiety. For those that have difficulty with meditation, this technique can be helpful because mentally keeping track of each four count can keep your mind from wandering, and allow you to settle into a relaxed state of calm and focus.
Once you’ve become comfortable with the box breathing technique in quiet, calm environments, you may find you can do a modified version of it with your eyes open. This allows you to have a powerful tool for stress reduction even when you are in stressful situations, such as at work or sitting in traffic.