Box breathing

Box breathing is a simple breathing technique you can use at any time to help you calm down and destress.

Short version

Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat for 5-10 minutes to destress and calm the nervous system.


  • Reduced stress / amxiety
  • Better focus and performance when under pressure
  • Increased heart rate variability


Box breathing (some people call it ‘square breathing’) is a simple breathing technique you can use at any time to help you calm down and destress.

It’s called ‘box’ breathing because with this technique you breath in four stages – inhale, hold, exhale, hold. And a box has four sides.

I know, very creative.

How to do it

  1. Inhale in for 4 seconds
  2. Hold for 4 seconds
  3. Exhale for 4 seconds
  4. Hold for 4 seconds

That’s all you need to do. It’s the timing that matters – you’ll be breathing more deeply than usual, but it’s not a challenge, you don’t need try fill your lungs as much as you can in four seconds, nor do you need to try to empty your lungs on the exhale. Just breath calmly and maintain the rhythm.

Told you it was simple.


This pattern is not the only one you can use, although it seems to be the most common one that’s described when the term ‘box-breathing’ is used.

A common variation is to make the exhale longer than the inhale. The reasoning is that when exhaling, the parasympathetic nervous system is more active, and when inhaling, the sympathtic nervous system is more active. So, if you do say, 4-2-6-2 (inhale-hold-exhale-hold), you’ll be spending more time in the ‘calming’ part of the breathing cycle.

Experiment to see which pattern you prefer.

Another variation (or more of an addition really) is, try to release any tension in your body at the same time as you exhale. So think of the exhale as a general letting go. This is more easily done when you’re doing this in a comfortable place, like lying in bed or in a comfortable chair.


This is one of those techniques that you can either do in-the-moment as needed as a kind of first-aid tool (e.g., before a presentation, before a sporting event, or whenever you start to feel stressed for no apparent reason), or as a daily routine to help keep your general stress levels down a bit.

Try to maintain the breathing pattern for 5-10 minutes.

Of course, if you feel dizzy or lightheaded when doing this, then stop.

Why it works

Stress and anxiety trigger a number of physical changes in the body. One of these is faster, shallower breathing.

This is part of the fight or flight system (aka the sympathetic nervous system). The purpose is to prepare you for physical danger – the body is trying to get a load of oxygen in, just in case you need to suddenly burst into action.

However, that connection between stress and breathing is actually a two-way street. In other words, if you deliberately take slower, deeper breaths, the stress response will calm down, and the rest and digest system (aka the parasympathetic nervous system) will start to activate.