Just about all of us face some form of stress day to day. You have a big deadline to meet at work, your to-do list keeps growing, or your pet just ruined the carpet. Whatever it is, stress can feel inevitable, and come nighttime, it can prevent your ability to get quality sleep.
Enlisted military personnel has been named the most stressful job in the world, so it should come as no surprise that the military has both developed and adopted strategic methods for managing stress.
One effective method is breathwork. According to one 2021 study, military and law enforcement personnel employ a specific form of stress reduction known as tactical breathing to quickly lower stress and maintain their mental sharpness in dangerous situations. Researchers describe the method as a division of the breathing cycle (for example, the inhale and exhale) into four phases of equal length. The study describes the surprisingly simple practice as “counting from one to four while taking a deep abdominal breath through the nose, holding the breath while counting to four, exhale through the mouth while counting to four, and finally make a post-expiratory pause while counting to four.” So what is it about the four-phase pattern that makes it so potentially powerful?
How breathing impacts the nervous system and, in turn, sleep
“When we practice breathing exercises generally, it calms our autonomic nervous system,” says Dr. Funke Afolabi-Brown, sleep medicine physician and founder of Restful Sleep MD. “Tactical breathing slows down the sympathetic nervous system, which typically directs the body’s response to dangerous or stressful situations, while engaging the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s ability to relax. The pressure changes in your chest and abdomen change the blood flow dynamics to your heart and reduce your heart rate.”
The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as “rest and digest” mode because it’s the bodily system that helps maintain essential functions like breathing, heart rate, and metabolism. According to Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, and author of “The Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution,” engaging this system at bedtime through practices like tactical breathing may have a positive impact on sleep.
“By engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, the heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and the mind begins to relax and let go,” Winter says. “The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system — ‘fight or flight’ — which all too often gets revved up when certain individuals struggle to sleep. They begin to ‘try’ to fall asleep, which leads to frustration and anxiety — not good for engaging sleep.”
Is tactical breathing beneficial for sleep?
While there isn’t yet enough solid evidence to demonstrate tactical breathing as a more effective form of sleep-inducing stress relief than any other type of breathing method, many experts consider conscious breathing techniques to be forms of mindfulness meditation, a practice often recommended to reduce stress or anxiety related to sleep. According to one 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis, researchers found that mindfulness meditation — defined as paying attention “on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” in a way that is “curious and kind” — may be effective in treating some types of sleep problems. While further research is needed to explore the connection, scientists found no significant difference between the effects of mindfulness meditation and evidence-based sleep treatments. A new study, published in 2023 in Cell Reports Medicine, found that breathwork, including cyclic sighing, was effective at improving mood and reducing respiratory rate.
“There are various methods of breathing, and tactical breathing is one of them; there are no specific studies that show that tactical breathing is more beneficial than others,” Afolabi-Brown says. “The important thing is finding the one that works for you and doing it consistently. Research using this method specifically has not been sufficient to recommend it over other breathing techniques.”
One breathing technique that’s gotten a lot of attention for its effect on stress is called box breathing. While it may seem like box breathing and tactical breathing are the same, the difference is the intention while breathing. Uniformed Services University defines tactical breathing as “a method of using your breath to change how you feel physically and emotionally to focus your attention and improve your performance.” Former US Navy SEALs Commander Mark Divine told Forbes in 2019 that this method is generally employed in acute stressful situations, while box breathing can be considered more of a daily practice for stress management and emotional awareness, as well as mental sharpness.
“Box breathing really involves taking breaths through your nostril while picturing a box with equal sides,” Afolabi-Brown explains. “You count to four slowly on the inhale, hold your breath, exhale for four, and then hold your breath as you complete the side of the square. Some people consider box breathing as a form of tactical breathing and they are used interchangeably. The main idea is that you partition your respiratory cycle into four phases of equal length (like a box). They both have benefits that can improve our sleep.”
Is tactical breathing worth a try?
While there have been no studies on tactical breathing’s benefits for sleep, experts say there’s no harm in giving it a shot.
“There are no studies that look at contraindication to tactical breathing,” Afolabi-Brown says. “Diaphragm breathing (which includes tactical/box breathing) is a form of mindfulness that has been shown to improve sleep. Again, I would emphasize not focusing on the specific type of breathing, but more on adopting one and doing it with consistency. I do like tactical breathing because it is easy to adopt and helps with focusing on my breath.”
Winter believes that for most sleep-seekers, tactical breathing is likely a good option to try, as it could be beneficial to sprinkle sessions throughout the day rather than save the method for bedtime. “Safe, easy, and free: three of my favorite criteria!” Winter says. “Practicing this throughout the day can be better than just in the moment you are trying to sleep.”
Afolabi-Brown agrees, noting that because the accumulation of everyday stress can take a toll, it’s best to set aside small increments of time for intentional breathwork to help curb overall anxiety. “It’s beneficial to take time to practice breathing during the day rather than waiting until bedtime,” she says. “Over the course of the day, with the demands placed on us, we forget to breathe deeply and may have a lot of tension built up.”
And while a variety of breathing methods may help lower stress levels and improve the odds of a better night’s rest, Afolabi-Brown adds that all the regularly recommended sleep hygiene habits are still essential. “While tactical breathing is a way to decrease stress and anxiety and can improve your sleep, it is important to also practice healthy sleep habits like having a consistent sleep time and wake time; establishing a routine; limiting electronics at bedtime; keeping your room cool, dark, and noise free; as well as avoiding caffeine or other stimulants before bed,” Afolabi-Brown says. “If you think you have a sleep disorder or you constantly feel overwhelming stress and anxiety, it’s time to seek medical help.”