This 4-Step Breathing Practice Can Help Focus Your Mind

When the emails won't stop coming and you haven't gotten dinner on the table and everyone seems to be calling your name at once, peace and harmony can feel like foreign concepts. Whether it's a high-demand job, wedding you're planning, the many responsibilities of being a parent or a stressful decision you're struggling to make that’s making your head feel cluttered and stressed, the feeling of being overwhelmed is draining no matter who you are. While some stress can be positive, motivating and even invigorating at times (looking at you, skydiving!), we also know stress can wreak havoc on our physical and mental well-being.

While there are many proven ways to slow down and focus your brain, utilizing the power of your own breath might be the simplest way to finally reclaim harmony in your day. Box breathing—which has also been called Four Square Breathing or Square Box Breathing—is a simple breathing sequence that can be done by just about anyone, just about anywhere stress strikes. Developed by Navy SEAL Mark Divine, box breathing is a four-part practice that allows for a slowed breathing rate and deepened concentration. The reduction of stressors in your day-to-day can lead to improved health and well-being.

Thanks to its simplicity, you can call on box breathing anywhere you feel stress or anxiety: before dental appointments, taking your driver's test, flying or pitching the championship baseball game. Not only is it free and portable, but the Mayo Clinic says techniques such as box breathing can also improve health and wellness. According to the Mayo Clinic, those who practice relaxation techniques can benefits including lower blood pressure, improved digestion, the ability to slow the heart rate, reduced activity of stress hormones, improved sleep quality, reduced muscle tension and a reduction in feelings of anger and frustration, among other things. Plus, the American Institute on Stress writes that relaxation response methods like box breathing and yoga create a physical state of deep rest that can change the physical and emotional response to stress. Anyone with 16 seconds to spare can benefit from having the box breathing method in their toolbox.  

Deep Breath In

Remaining cool, calm and collected doesn't come naturally to everyone, but by understanding how to control and use your breath to distract and relax your mind, you can at least momentarily regain control of overwhelming situations and feel at ease. Box breathing is easy to learn and can be effective in reducing stress quickly. In fact, a single cycle can be completed in just 16 seconds, or you may repeat the breathing sequence cycle as many times as you like until you reach a calm state of being. The next time a big project, upcoming trip or anything threatens to disrupt your sense of calm, try these four steps:
  1. Breathe in for four seconds. Make sure all of the air has been expelled from your lungs before you start your inhale. Once you start breathing in, focus on really filling the lungs to their capacity.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds. Do not try to inhale anymore at this point and don't allow any air to escape just yet.
  3. Exhale for four seconds. Allow the air out of your lungs at an even rate for the entirety of four seconds. Fully empty the lungs at the bottom of your count.
  4. Hold your lungs empty for four seconds. While it may be tempting to suck in some more air immediately after exhaling, do your best to hang on for the entire four seconds.
Box breathing is most effective in a quiet setting, and you should sit in a comfortable position. Scan your body for any signs of tension, and do your best to keep your head, neck and shoulders relaxed as you breathe in and out. The more you practice, the easier it will be to use the technique in stressful settings.

If you have a high-stress job or find yourself feeling overwhelmed often, consider using box breathing in tandem with other stress-relieving activities such as exercise, socializing with friends or hobbies. You can also find apps such as the Box Breathing App that will help mindful stress reduction become a more natural and comfortable part of your daily routine.

The next time you are feeling under duress, fearful, anxious or overwhelmed, channel your inner Navy SEAL and use your breath to focus your mind.