Square breathing technique, benefits and how to get started

The square breathing technique is super-simple, easy to integrate into your daily life, and offers big benefits.

To give a little context: I’m not a big fan of meditation and I tried and failed with my mindfulness practice. I rarely exercise and I’m a little over-weight. I’m not exactly a master of self-discipline when it comes to personal health.

And yet I easily incorporate this square breathing technique into my daily life. It’s my ‘go to’ solution when I need to cope with stress and I see immediate benefits every time (more on the benefits of square breathing below!).

The square breathing technique

Square breathing is also known as box breathing or 4×4 breathing (or even four-square breathing!).

Did I mention that the square breathing technique is super-simple? Here’s all you need to know about the technique itself.

  • Step 1: Exhale your breath (to a count of 4)
  • Step 2: Hold your breath (to a count of 4)
  • Step 3: Inhale your breath (to a count of 4)
  • Step 4: Hold your breath (to a count of 4)
  • Step 5: Repeat

This is what it looks like:

The benefits of square breathing

Square breathing is a powerful tool for reducing stress, and it has an immediate impact. Square breathing is used by the US Navy Seals and in professions such as law enforcement and medical care, where managing high stress situations is a critical part of the role.

Here are some of the benefits identified by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Eases anxiety, depression, and other stress related issues
  • Increases alertness
  • Allows your body to release toxins more readily

The Mayo Clinic also identifies a neurological foundation to the benefits of square breathing:

Many studies have found that deep, yogic breathing helps balance the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions, such as temperature control and bladder function. This may help ease symptoms of stress-related disorders and mental health conditions such as anxiety, general stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

All very profound!

Here are the benefits of square breathing as I experience them:

Reduces stress instantly

I think of the square breathing technique as ‘the body regaining control over the mind’. The deep breathing triggers a relaxation response which regains control over the body’s fight or flight response to short-term stress.

When I’m feeling stressed at work a few minutes of box breathing really helps. And it’s so practical because I can do it at my desk (I don’t need a darkened room, and I don’t have to close my eyes to feel the benefits).

Increases focus and control

If I’m feeling nervous before a presentation, or getting frustrated in a meeting, or just sat at my desk fretting over emails, box breathing can help.

With the reduced stress comes an increased focus and control which enhances my performance at work.

A useful weight-control ally

This may seem like a strange benefit! Here’s how square breathing helps me manage my weight…

Towards the end of the afternoon I often get hungry and low on energy. My previous habit was to walk over to the snack cupboard in our staff canteen for some biscuits or a chocolate bar.

Now, when I get that little bit hungry / low energy feeling towards the end of the afternoon I do 5 minutes of square breathing.

It’s enough to refocus me and recharge me to get through the rest of the workday.

A quick and effective break from work

Ideally, we take regular breaks through-out the day, to recharge and refocus. But sometimes that’s just not possible. There’s just too much on.

When that’s the case, try just 3 minutes of square breathing, it really helps.

How to get started with square breathing

Try it out using the gif provided above. It’s super-simple, but a little practice will give you the confidence to use it when you need it.

Sit comfortably in your chair, relax your shoulders, have your hands comfortable (perhaps resting in your lap).

Practice: inhale, hold, exhale, hold, repeat.

When you first practice, don’t worry about how long you are practicing, just focus on the rhythm (even just for 3 or 4 cycles is fine).

Here are some additional tips:

  • Don’t strain your diaphragm by over-inhaling or over-exhaling, experiment with the level of inhale and exhale that is comfortable for you.
  • If at any time you feel a little dizzy, just stop, rest in your seat a minute and come back to the practice later.
  • As you become more practiced, you might want to set a timer on your phone and explore longer sessions of square breathing (though I’ve never felt the need to go beyond 5 minutes).
  • You can also explore the durations of the inhale, the holds and exhale. You can explore a ‘bigger box’ (eg: a 5 x 5 square breathing practice), or you can keep the holds to a count of 4 and extend the exhale and inhale (creating an oblong breathing practice!).

This is a simper-simple technique that can be extended as you become more confident.

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