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Breathwork For Stress Tolerance: Box Breathing

February 16, 20242 min read

““Face the demands of life voluntarily. Respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for catastrophe.” - Jordan Peterson

Introduction:

The most common question I receive from clients is what Breathwork is best for anxiety. I always prescribe box breathing. While box breathing's immediate effects in the moment actually increase anxiety levels, it translates in the long-term to what the scientific community calls stress resilience — our ability to remain calm in high-adrenaline moments.

box-count

Image: Counting off a group in box breathing before we begin an intense Breathwork session.

Box Breathing

Box breathing is a powerful technique for stress reduction, mood improvement, and enhancing sleep quality. What we are training is the ability to control our diaphragm via intentional pauses between breaths, plus specific timing on when to inhale and exhale. This translates to real-time control of our excitability in big moments: the next time you encounter something stressful, instead of taking a sharp inhale (which cues a whole host of other physiological changes), you’ll remain in control of your breath and therefore your composure.

Science

Breath Control: We control our breathing through the phrenic nerve, which extends from the brainstem down to the diaphragm. Similar to how training of a specific muscle movement for any sport will increase your brain’s ability to make controlled, fluid movements, box breathing trains our ability to breathe in a coordinated, smooth way.

Carbon Dioxide Tolerance: Box breathing is different than other rhythmic breaths like 5-7-8 or 4-4-4 in that you will find your own edge of comfort and then practice taking slower and slower breaths to improve your carbon dioxide tolerance.

Interoception: Because the diaphragm is inside us, we are practicing interoception. If we are too focused on external events, this can be a great reminder to feel what’s going on inside.

Protocol

Use as a daily breathwork practice (perhaps a habit anchor?) or if you need to get out of your head.

Walkthrough

  1. Inhale through nose for 4 seconds

  2. Hold for 4 seconds

  3. Exhale through nose for 4 seconds

  4. Hold for 4 seconds

  5. Repeat for several minutes

  6. 🚨 Important: Over time, build up to 5, 6, 7 seconds, and so on.

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Alexander Gouyet

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