Free Your Wandering Mind with Box Breathing
Last summer, my anxiety levels were higher than usual - my heart would be beating faster than what was the average resting rate, I was unable to fall asleep at night, my mind was filled with very loud thoughts all through the day, and my body was always full of tension as if it were exhibiting fight-or-flight responses. The problem was that my thinking was very distorted at the time, and my mind was wandering to both the past and the future, rather than staying grounded in the present. I knew that deep breaths, mindfulness, and bodily awareness techniques could help one come back to reality. I started practicing some meditation, but it wasn't really working for me, so I decided to see a counsellor for some pointers.
She gave me a lot of good exercises, but the one I found most effective (other than her Gremlins analogy) was BOX BREATHING.
Disclaimer: This content is comprised of my own personal experiences, learning, and opinions, and is to be used for informational purposes only; external research is recommended. Should you have any questions, please seek the advice of a professional.
Your Step-By-Step Guide to Box Breathing
- Find four focal points within your environment - they should create a square (the farther apart these points, the better)
- Deeply exhale so that all the air has left your diaphragm
- Start at the upper-left corner, and inhale for four seconds, while your eyes slowly move to the upper-right corner
- At the upper-right corner, hold your breath for four seconds, while your eyes slowly move to the lower-right corner
- At the lower-right corner, exhale for four seconds, while your eyes slowly move to the lower-left corner
- At the lower-left corner, hold your breath for four seconds, while your eyes slowly return to the upper-left corner
- Repeat the box breathing with eye scan
Remember to take DEEP breaths, and fill your diaphragm with air.
Here is a little interactive animation from QuietKit to help you with your breathing.
How and why does this work?
As I mentioned earlier, anxiety is associated with the fight-or-flight response, which is stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system works in conjunction with the parasympathetic nervous system to maintain homeostasis (equilibrium, balance) in the body, and both make up the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the heart and respiratory rates, among other things. Essentially, when this fight-or-flight response is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system goes whack because there is no longer homeostasis in your body, and you get all these unwanted physical effects like increased heart and respiratory rates, tunnel vision, shaking, restriction of blood flow, slowed digestion, and increased muscle tension, just to name a few. (Yes, as a psychology student, I learn a lot about this stuff.)
Deep breathing helps you regulate your respiratory rate, as well as allows for more oxygen to flow throughout your blood and body. The eye scanning portion is an added technique to box breathing, and encourages you to regain awareness of your surroundings, thus promoting mindfulness and consecutively, relaxation and grounding.
It may seem very preliminary and basic, but breathing is one of the best tools you can have to decrease anxiety, stress, mind wandering, and promote focus. It is also the most accessible (because you don't need anything but yourself). When I had my panic attack last term, my instinct was to take deep breaths and to try to re-focus my attention on something neutral within my vicinity, kind of like what box breathing prompts you to do. This technique has become quintessential to immediately improving (even if it's just minimally) my well-being, though I feel I could further and better integrate its use into my lifestyle.