Stories > Mental Health Series: The Square (and Rectangle)
Mental Health Self-Care: The Square (and Rectangle)
By Brianna White, Intrepid Counseling
Mental Health Geometry 3 The Square (and Rectangle) a.k.a. Box Breathing
Sometimes you are in a tense situation and the best choice is to stay in it. The wise, kind, compassionate, or only option is to stay. What can you do then to stay calm enough to think well to keep making the right choices, saying the right things? A lot of research has gone into this question. One answer that has emerged is called Square Breathing, or Box Breathing.
To do box breathing, breathe in for a count of 4, then hold your breath for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of four and then hold your breath for a count of 4. As you do this, you can visualize the top, side, button and other side of a square. Here’s a how-to video from one of my favorite mental health YouTubers.
What is happening when you breathe intentionally this way is you are accessing your autonomic nervous system and directing your nervous system to calm down. Usually breathing is automatic, no need to pay attention, it just happens. When we’re anxious we breathe anxiously, fast, shallow, holding breath, which is useful to mobilize our body to respond to danger. But if we sense we’re safe we breathe slowly, deeply, using the diaphragm. If we’re anxious but not in danger, we want to calm down. Even though we usually do not pay attention to our breathing or need to, we can control our breathing by choice and intentionally breathe in a caming way. Our nervous system follows along and calms down according to how you are breathing.
This next video gives you a visual while you practice. In it the square is stretched, more like a rectangle so that the out breath is longer. The most simple definition of a calming breath is one where the out breath is longer than the in breath.
One more pattern of breathing that you can try is called the physiological sigh. In this method, the in breath is two parts: a long sniff, then a short sniff. The out breath is as long as it takes to blow the air out. Researchers identified this pattern by observing how people, and even some other mammals naturally breathe when we need to get rid of excess carbon dioxide. This is calming and like the other patterns, research has shown that it is a highly effective way to calm your nervous system from a state of activation to rest. One two or three breaths like this can be enough to help you feel calm enough to function in the situation that is making you anxious.
Imagine all that you can do if you have the ability to stay calm in very difficult circumstances. Maybe you can confidently face the kinds of difficult conversations that can deepen a friendship, or solve a problem with a supervisor at work. Maybe you can face anxiety provoking social situations where new friends can be found. Maybe you can stay feeling sane in a chaotic family or travel situation at Christmas. Experiment, choose and practice a breathing method and it will pay off immensely.