What Is Box Breathing and How Does It Help You Get to Sleep? 

A favorite of both Navy SEALS and yogis, box breathing may be just the technique that will help you sleep.

black woman doing box breathing in bed
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

When it comes to reducing anxiety, don’t underestimate the power of simplicity. That’s the beauty of box breathing, a technique that can help you calm your nerves merely through breathwork and counting.

Often called “square breathing” or “tactical breathing,” box breathing anchors your mind to your breath as a form of intentional cadence breathing. Each side of the “box” represents one motion — inhale, hold, exhale, hold — and each lasts for four seconds. According to Bob Soulliere, an L2 Wim Hoff Method Instructor, the secret to box breathing, and any other kind of cadence breathing, is its repetitive nature.

“Because the brain is a pattern-recognition machine, when you give it a pattern, it pays attention. It says, ‘I’m taking control.’ This immediately calms the central nervous system,” Soulliere says.

Highly trained military individuals use box breathing — also called “the Navy SEAL breathing technique” — to steel their nerves and focus before entering high-pressure situations. So do professional athletes, police officers, and nurses. Although this breathing technique is regularly incorporated into meditation and yoga practices, it can also be used alone in anxiety-provoking situations or to calm a panic attack.

Soulliere says that no matter who or where you are, “If you have a racing mind, if you have panic, if you want to calm yourself for sleep, one of the first, best interventions is to slow and bring your breathing to a regular cadence.”

How to try the box breathing technique

According to certified yoga instructor Shelley Arthur, the “four-part breath” of box breathing is an effective relaxation technique. And it doesn’t require any special equipment to get started.

Box breathing works in a variety of environments, and is meant to help bring calm to environments that are anything but tranquil. But if you’re using box breathing to help fall asleep, your cool, dark, quiet bedroom may be the perfect place. Arthur says you can try this calming breathing exercise lying down or sitting up. Some experts recommend sitting so that it’s easier to take full, deep breaths. However, in Arthur’s personal experience, lying down helped release her from a sleep disorder she’d had for years.

When you’re ready to get started, breathe out slowly to release all the air from your lungs. Then, follow the four steps below. It can also be helpful to visualize a box while you’re performing the exercise, with each step representing one side. Arthur also suggests trying to stay curious about each breath and the feelings it invokes, to retain focus.

A graphic illustration depicting how to complete the box breathing method for better sleep and stress relief.
Ashlee Wadeson

1. Inhale to a count of four.
Inhale slowly. As you count to four, put your hand on your belly and feel it gently expand. Relax your eyes, your cheeks, and your mouth. Identify areas of tension using a body scan that moves from your face to your shoulders, upper body, and lower body.

2. Hold for four counts.
Tense every muscle in your body as you hold the inhale for four counts. Resist the urge to inhale or exhale.

3. Exhale for four counts.
On the exhale, relax all your muscles again. Let the air completely leave your lungs as you count to four.

4. Hold the exhale for four counts.
Don’t inhale or exhale for the next four counts. While you hold, repeat the body scan to make sure all your muscles are relaxed.

Once you’ve completed the four-part exercise once, go through the cycle again. “Repeat for at least six rounds, more if necessary,” Arthur suggests.

Simplified box breathing exercise for beginners and kids

When you first try box breathing, four counts might feel like too much. Whether you’re looking to introduce the technique to children, or you want to ease yourself into the breathwork, Arthur suggests the following modifications:

1. Start with a simple belly breath. 

2. Complete each step with two counts instead of four. This means you’ll inhale for two, hold for two, exhale for two, and hold for two. 

If you’re new to box breathing, you may want to set aside 20 minutes each day to practice this simplified two-count exercise. Once you’re completing it with ease, increase to three counts, and then four. You can also start to increase your exhale count for deeper relaxation as you master box breathing. But remember, this exercise should never feel forced.

If you’re looking for a simplified box breathing routine for kids, Arthur recommends “belly breathing” — a go-to exercise in her kids’ yoga classes. Tell your child to put their hands on their belly. Then, have them feel it rise as they inhale and deflate when they exhale.

Helpful box breathing GIFs, videos, and apps

GIF with arrows showing the 4 seconds each of box breathing, inhale, hold, exhale, hold.
Benji Raz for Sleep.com

When you’re just getting started with box breathing, it can be helpful to follow a video or visual prompt. These guides can help you establish consistent pacing, which is key to box breathing’s calming effect.

  • Videos: The American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology offers this box breathing video tutorial, which guides viewers to breathe in, hold, breathe out, and hold as an arrow travels the perimeter of a box. Sesame Street also has a “Count, Breathe and Relax” video on cadence breathing featuring Cookie Monster and — you guessed it — the Count himself.  
  • GIFs: If GIFs are more your style, try this one from TwinklParents. The GIF features a calm-faced woman who sets your breathing pace to arrows traveling around a square.  
  • Apps: The XPT Wellness App leads you through a breath exercise program, while the Calm app offers various breathing techniques within its meditation and sleep exercises library. 

Benefits of box breathing

1. Help turn off the fight-or-flight response  
Deep, intentional breathing oxygenates us, reversing the shallow breathing that’s both a symptom of anxiety and a trigger for even more stress. The full oxygen exchange that takes place when we practice box breathing can lower our blood pressure and slow our heartbeat. This helps us move from the sympathetic nervous system — also known as the fight-or-flight response — to the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us relax.

2. Help manage depression, panic attacks, and stress  
In a recent systematic review of breathing techniques, the authors found that slow breathing can increase emotional control and wellbeing. The reviewers suggest that nostril breathing could contribute to this benefit, as receptors located in the nose help to regulate autonomic and brain activity. Automatic changes in heart rate variability also have positive effects on feelings of pleasure and relaxation.

3. Reduce stress and increase clarity 
In one randomized controlled study, researchers analyzed the emotional and physiological effects of intensive diaphragmatic breathing training. Over eight weeks of training, the participants — all healthy individuals — experienced decreased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone; less anxiety; and improved attention.

The researchers speculated that breathing connects the mind to the body, which could have a positive effect on the ability to process emotions and ideas. However, they also called for more research on the relationship among breathing’s physiological, emotional, and cognitive effects.

4. Improve sleep 
In one study, patients with clinical depression showed significantly improved sleep after being treated with cognitive and breathing interventions. Researchers attributed this to increased heart rate variability. They also suggested that nose breathing, often a feature of deep breathing exercises, stimulates areas of the cortex associated with altered states of consciousness and sleep.

In another study, researchers concluded that slow breathing interventions may improve the depth of sleep, although not necessarily its length.

Intentional breathing practice like box breathing could also help you better manage the negative effects of prolonged sleep loss. Science suggests that deep breathing turns on the relaxation response, which, in turn, encourages cellular resiliency and reduces vulnerability to stress.

5. Decrease reactions to pain 
In a 2012 study examining the effects of breathing interventions on pain, participants were taught deep, slow breathing techniques. One group’s breathing technique focused on concentration, the other on relaxation. When participants were administered hot and cold stimuli, the group focused on relaxation saw their pain threshold increase. Both forms of slow breathing reduced negative feelings, such as stress and anger, in response to the temperature triggers.    

Tips and tricks for box breathing exercises

Like other forms of intentional cadence breathing, box breathing is a quick, effective way to decrease anxiety and increase calm in the face of stress. As you practice box breathing, keep these tips in mind:

  • Inhale through the nose, not the mouth. Nose breathing has numerous benefits, especially as you breathe in.  
  • Having trouble pacing your box breathing? If a guided video isn’t your style, try using a phrase that has four syllables to time each step, like “time for sleep now.” 
  • When you’re getting started, try setting a timer for three minutes. Repeat the exercise until the alarm sounds. (Bonus points for choosing an alarm sound that’s calming, not jarring.) 
  •  Breathing should feel natural and under your control. If you experience symptoms like a fluttering heart or dizziness while breathing, consult with your doctor.         

Box breathing is just one technique of many. If it does not feel like the best breathing exercise for you, explore other breathing strategies until you find the one that works best for you:

  • The 4-7-8 technique: Breathe in for four beats and hold for seven. Then, exhale for eight counts and repeat. 
  • Nose breathing: Both Soulliere and Arthur recommend this technique. Soulliere also suggests taping your mouth shut at night for better sleep.  
  • Progressive relaxation technique: Progressive muscle relaxation involves thoughtful inhaling and exhaling as you tense and relax your muscles, has been shown to promote relaxation.  

Breathing is one of the most accessible, immediate, and easy ways to create calm for ourselves. Why not try box breathing tonight?