Navy SEALs Use a Technique Called ‘Box Breathing’ To Relieve Stress and So Can You (Well + Good)

Even as hope appears on the horizon with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic now that vaccine rollout is ramping up, Americans remain besieged by unprecedented anxiety. As such, your personal threshold for stress is probably lower right now, which means you may find yourself going from zero to panic in mere moments. To combat this overwhelm, it’s helpful to have a number of tools on tap—and you’d be hard-pressed to find one with a better endorsement than box breathing, a calming technique used by elite U.S. Navy SEALs.

Box breathing is rooted in an Ayurvedic form of breathwork called pranayama that originated in India and is practiced in yoga, explains Tal Rabinowitz, founder and CEO of The DEN Meditation in Los Angeles. “It has incredibly ancient roots, with different techniques for calming, bringing in energy, refining focus, and relaxing the nervous system; however, the military popularized it and brought it mainstream,” she says. “Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL who is also a very experienced martial artist, introduced it to the special operations community in the military, showing the world that by simply breathing, you can achieve the desired calming effects in just moments.”

On the civilian side, box breathing’s received some pretty high-profile praise from health and wellness pros, too. Among them is Patrick K. Porter, PhD, neuroscientist, author, and creator of the meditation app, BrainTap, who says it’s a useful way to reboot your brain after a year’s worth of pandemic stress.

The practice itself, which gets its name because there are four equal parts to it, is super simple. It works on the principle that slowing down your breathing helps you to relax, increases your oxygen intake, releases tension, and stimulates the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in your body and starts in the brain. One of its main functions is to slow the sympathetic stress response, says Erika Polsinelli, a Kundalini yoga teacher and founder of Evolve by Erika, a virtual wellness center. She points out that some pilot research published in the journal, Brain Stimulation, shows that stimulating it may improve anxiety.

And the more you do box breathing on a regular basis, the more you will notice stress doesn’t affect you the same way, says Rabinowitz. “So absolutely use it when needed, but don’t just wait for a stressful moment,” she suggests. “Find five minutes wherever you can, and watch the way you react to life start to change.”

How to do box breathing

  1. Set a timer for five minutes.
  2. Sit with a straight spine on the floor or in a chair with your feet flat.
  3. Close your eyes and inhale for a count of four.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of four.
  5. Exhale for a count of four.
  6. Hold for a count of four.
  7. Repeat until the alarm sounds.

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