Stressed the Eff Out? Use Box Breathing As the Ultimate Chill Pill

Before you can take control of your mind, you must first calm it down. The fastest way to calm your mind, along with your body, is through slow and controlled deep breathing. 

– Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL Commander, author of ‘Unbeatable Mind,’ & creator of Sealfit

Stressful situations are part of everyday life.

Often there’s little we can do to control them, and yet, we’re still impacted by them.

This can feel increasingly frustrating. 

So what can we do to feel more in control during high-stress situations?

While we may only have limited influence over what happens in the external world around us, we do have the power to influence our inner world.

Your inner world includes your body and mind, your feelings and thoughts, your perceptions, beliefs, memories, and reactions.

The first point of entry into it is via the breath.

Correct breathing is one of the most powerful stress relievers we always have at our disposal.

Intentional and slow breathing exercises function as a much-needed reset button that helps us keep our cool in the midst of chaos…

Why your breath is nature’s ultimate chill pill: 

Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health.

If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. 

There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and wellbeing than breathwork.

– Andrew Weil, MD, author of Spontaneous Healing 

Your breath is intimately tied to your nervous system by way of your autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Via its two branches, your ANS oversees basic bodily processes and helps to regulate functions like blood pressure and heart rate.

Its two branches act like two complementary opposite gears:

1) The Accelerator (aka sympathetic nervous system): oversees the fight-or-flight stress response.

2) The Brake (aka parasympathetic nervous system): oversees the regenerative relaxation response.

Stressful situations impact our breathing by making each breath short and shallow.

These changes in breathing rhythm then send distress signals to your nervous system and your fight-or-flight reactions are further activated.

When we’re in fight-or-flight mode our ability to think clearly and make sound decisions is affected.

Instead, our impulses take over and we have knee-jerk reactions rather than mindful responses. 

Being in fight-or-flight also negatively impacts mental and physical performance.

This can all be reversed though, by simply retaking control of your breath.

Remember - if you don't learn to control your breath, your breath will control you. #boxbreathing #chillax #breatheslowly

This is how you can override the impact of stressful events – by bringing attention, awareness, and intention to your breathing rate. 

Breathing slowly and deeply from the lower belly influences your autonomic nervous system (ANS) and causes it to switch gears from the accelerator to the brakes.

This helps to create a more calm state of mind that enables us to function from higher brain centers, which automatically improves mental and physical performance. 

Breathing from the lower belly is called diaphragmatic breathing because it activates the diaphragm – a dome-shaped muscle that separates your belly from your chest.

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Activating this muscle helps to turn on your relaxation response, which helps to: 

– regulate your heart rate

– contributes to lower blood pressure.

– strengthens the immune system

– improves lung capacity

– supports mental health

The Box Breathing Technique is your best ally under pressure:

It’s hypothesized that slow and deep pranayama (yogic breathing) techniques can actually reset autonomic nervous system imbalances, so just remember to come back to your breath as a way to pause and hit the reset button whenever you need it. (1) 

According to the Mayo Clinic, the regular practice of slow belly breathing can retrain your nervous system to function more calmly. (2)

This is where a simple technique called Box Breathing really comes in handy.

This one little exercise has really withstood the test of time.

Box Breathing is a modern name for an ancient pranayama (yogic breathing) technique called Sama Vritti. 

“Sama” means “calm” and “quiet” in Sanskrit.

“Vritti” means “mental chatter” or “fluctuations of the mind.”

The mind experiences more fluctuations or mental chatter during high-stress moments.

By practicing Sama Vritti we begin to center ourselves and soothe and calm the over-active monkey mind.

Box Breathing is also called combat breathing, tactical breathing, equal breath, or four-square breathing.

This same technique used by yogis thousands of years ago is also used by U.S. Navy SEALs as part of seal training as well as Olympic athletes, first responders, police officers, and firefighters. 

Why?

Because it works when you’re under pressure.

Don’t let the simplicity of this exercise fool you – if it works for Navy SEALs why wouldn’t it work for you?

How to practice box breathing: 

We’re going to be breathing for the same number of counts for each step of the breathing process – inhale, hold, exhale, hold. 

Step-by-step guidance:

  1. Sit upright comfortably with your mouth, face, neck, jaw, and shoulders relaxed 
  2. Try not to move your shoulders, neck, chest, or upper body throughout 
  3. Breathe through your nose
  4. Inhaling for four counts 
  5. Expand your lower belly outwardly on your inhale (this will activate the safety signals to the calming and soothing part of your nervous system) 
  6. Holding for four counts 
  7. Exhaling for four counts 
  8. Contracting your lower belly inwardly on your exhale 
  9. Holding for four counts 
  10. Repeat for a minimum of 12 rounds (just over three minutes) 

Follow the prompts below for a guided little mini-session:

Use this technique whenever you need it – when sh*t hits the fan or during moments of frustration, anger, or overwhelm.

You’re always breathing so you might as well use it to your advantage!

Even better yet, you can also add Box Breathing to your daily routines as a stress-management tool.

One full round of 4-4-4-4 breathing is 1 complete breath.

Can you commit to just 12 mindful breaths a day? Of course you can 🙂

Each day you’ll take about 17,000 breaths so dedicating 12 to your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing should be easy peasy.

(That’s only .0007% of your total daily breathing output, btw.)

The beauty of Box Breathing/ Sama Vritti is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. Practice it while you’re driving, waiting in line, showering, or even at the doctor’s office and no one will be able to tell. 😉

References:

(1) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306987706001666 

(2) https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/decrease-stress-by-using-your-breath/art-20267197?pg=2

Eliminate Stress

Entry #2

Eliminate Stress

In the last blog I invited you to take a vow and go on a journey with me. I mentioned that this journey, starts with a breath. “Every new life starts with an in breath, as it’s an invitation to life to fill us.”

But what if we feel full already?  And empty at the same time?

Trying to have a baby can fill us with doubt, pain and sadness.  We have a reminder every month that we are falling short of our goal, and with it comes a whole slew of insults to ourselves because we have another failed cycle or the economy is not helping us plan for IVF and our clock is ticking, or we just plain feel overwhelmed with the choices or for some, the apparent lack of choices.  It’s hard to know how to start to manage our emotions when they pull us in so many directions at once. Not having what we desire can leave us feeling empty and filled with anxiety at the same time.


The only thing we can really manage is our reaction to what is happening.  The old adage, “stress is not what happens to you, it’s your reaction to what happening to you” is true.  What you need, is to be able to create some “breathing room” between what’s happening to you and YOU.

When I was a new Yoga student I would be in the middle of a really hard pose, sweating, in excruciating pain, my face would be contorted, my breath came in grunts and I was fighting what I was going through to the point that I was struggling.  The teacher would say ”if you resist what’s happening you are going to suffer, scrunching up your face is not going to make the pose any easier!  Breathe, watch, observe what’s happening and don’t attach to it.”  All of a sudden the concept of breathing became a lifeline between having the experience and watching the experience.  If I focused on my breath, the only moment that was real, that I had to deal with, was this moment, this breath.  And one breath at a time, 90 minutes would go by, my body would open, my mind would quiet and I would make it.  Was my body still filled with the discomfort of stretching beyond where I was comfortable? Yes.  Was I suffering anymore? No.

In Yoga we call this “equanimity.” It is the ability to experience something that is causing us a lot of discomfort physically, mentally and emotionally and not react to it.  Learning to breathe into what is happening to us releases the tension and stress of the experience.  Go ahead-give it a try!  The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll breathe a little deeper.

We talked about the word “equanimity” in the last blog.  Having the ability to not react to what is happening to us, but watch it. Having a little distance between what is happening to you and YOU is healthy.

When I was little and came home crying because life was unfair and things weren’t going my way, I remember my mother asking me to go to my room and get my Yo-Yo.   Not understanding why, but trusting my mother, I did.  She had me put it on my finger and asked me to make it go up and down.  She had me do this for a few minutes and then she said, “Brenda, life is like a Yo-Yo, it is constantly going up and down; one minute things will be going your way and the next they won’t.  The nature of life is ever changing.  Now, you can go on the ride like that Yo-Yo in your hand and be happy when things are going your way, and sad when they aren’t and be a victim to the ups and downs, OR you can be the finger holding the Yo-Yo and simply watch it go up and down because that’s what a Yo-Yo does.”  It was her way of teaching me about equanimity and accepting the ups and downs as part of the ever- changing nature of life.  The fertility journey is filled with ups and downs, its just part of the journey.

Start to notice when you are resisting this process, where you are adding your own judgment, feelings of anger or inadequacy to the information you are getting.   Notice where you are attaching to the outcome and allowing yourself to be devastated when it doesn’t work the way you think it should. See if you can take yourself off the Yo-Yo and become the finger, by watching the process without judgment.

Like my Yoga class where I stopped reacting to the discomfort of the pose and started to breathe into the discomfort and watch it, see if you can give yourself a little “breathing room” when you are stressed or overwhelmed.

When you feel out of control like the up and down Yo-Yo, close your eyes and watch your breath.  When you inhale, let yourself be filled from the bottom of your tailbone up to the top of your collarbones.  When you exhale, keep the space you created inside and just soften any tension in your body around this space, releasing your need to grip and hold yourself safe.  Allow yourself to breathe, and watch your breath, like the Yo-Yo going up and down inside your body.  Become the finger holding the string and notice how much more able you are to “be with” the changes inside and outside as you breathe.  This is the beginning of being able to manage life’s ups and downs and learn how to cultivate “equanimity.”

Next time, we will learn the ancient Yogic “Breath of Victory” or “Conquerors Breath” which will help empower you to manage your stress.