Updated: Jan 27, 2021
We’ve all had moments in our lives where we’ve overreacted to a situation, whether it is an internal or external overreaction. Maybe you, like me, have wished in those moments you had a magic wand that would force you to calm down and return to a rational way of thinking.
Box breathing has become a magic wand for me. Box breathing is a simple exercise you can do in less than 30 seconds. It helps you remain calm and respond thoughtfully to challenging people and circumstances. But first, some background to explain why this exercise is so powerful.
Our brains are complex systems, but for the purposes of simplicity we can think of our brain in two parts. The first part is the rational brain. The rational brain is responsible for problem solving, planning, empathy, and social regulation. This is the thoughtful part of the brain. We know we are using this part of the brain when our breathing is under control, our bodies are relaxed, and we feel like we have space to think and respond.
The other part is the emergency part of the brain. This is the part of the brain that jumps into action when there is a threat. It’s the part of the brain that shoots us into fight/flight/freeze and ignites strong emotions like anger and fear. In order to deal with threats, this part of our brain is designed to be able to override the rational part of the brain. The emergency part of our brain is designed to shut down the rational part of the brain and trigger all our body’s energy to protecting us from a threat. This can be a good thing in some circumstances. For example, when we touch a hot stove, we shouldn’t take time to think about whether we should pull our hand away; our brain tells us to move our hand to protect us from a painful burn. We know we are using this part of our brain when our breathing becomes short and fast, when our bodies get tense, and we feel like we have little time to react.
However, there are times when we may feel threatened and we end up giving a thoughtless reaction when we really need a thoughtful response. Thoughtlessly reacting can happen when your 8-year-old talks back, your boss hands you one more project at 5:00 PM on Friday, when you stub your toe, or when they got your drive-thru order wrong (again). A thoughtless reaction here is not constructive. And, yet in these moments, our emergency brain can take over and it can be hard to find access to our rational brain. This is when box-breathing can help us. We have an opportunity to regain control of our breathing and this acts as a signal to our brain that we are safe enough to shift from using our emergency brain and re-engage our rational brain.
Here are the 4 simple steps of box breathing. You can visualize each of these steps as the sides of a square (hence the name box breathing).
Slowly breathe in your nose for 4 seconds
Hold that breath for 4 seconds
Slowly release the breath through your mouth for 4 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
Repeat until you feel calm.
Next time you find yourself in a situation when you feel your body tensing, your hands getting tight, and your breathing getting fast and short, try practicing this exercise before reacting. Or you can try it now to see if you don’t find yourself relaxing and thinking more clearly.
In fact, if you’re like me, it may be best to practice this exercise before it is needed.