Box Breathing – The Cheat Code to Stress Management

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Stress Management is one of our 5 Circles of Health, our approach to forging happy, healthy, hard to kill humans. We know how important a healthy mind is in creating a healthy body, and vice versa.

Stress management has a multitude of faces. We can manage our physical stress by applying the correct stimuli and progressions, by dialling in our recovery and sleep, and by correctly fuelling our endeavours.

Mental stress can be managed by mindfulness and re-framing, movement practices, by dialling in our recovery and sleep, active avoidance of triggers, and by the foods we eat and how we treat our gut microbiome, to name but a few.

As you can see there are a fair few overlaps between physical and mental stress. The reality is that if you have one kind of stress you are more than likely to experience the other. The mental and the physical, the mind and the body are inextricably linked.

“Oh great! Double whammy!” I hear you exclaim. But wait. This is actually a good thing.

We are all very aware of how our mental state can affect our physiology – That ‘Brown Pants’ moment when your mate jumps out on you at night in the graveyard; the hugely inconvenient sweaty palms you get just at the point you decide to hold that girl/boy’s hand for the first time; that jolting nausea at the realisation that you have just left your newborn daughter in the magazine aisle of the newsagents (it only happened the once!).

a man in red shirt covering his face

Our emotional stress has a very real physical reaction.

The good news is that it is a 2 way street. If our mental state can elicit a physiological reaction, and our physical state can affect how we feel mentally.

This means we have a tool for change.

Let me explain. We can usually get a good idea of how someone is feeling by looking at their posture. If you are feeling down, miserable and apathetic you’ll general carry yourself shoulders down, arms hanging lifelessly, head stooped. But research has shown that mimicking the stance of the emotion that we’d like to exhibit can actually bring out that emotion in us. Why else would there exist such a thing as the Tory Power Stance.


In fact, a boat load of research has shown how posture and facial expression can shape our mood. In short smiling makes you happier and frowning makes us sad.

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity”

William James

One clear response to our mental state is how we breathe. When any mammal is exhibiting the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), the classic ‘fight or flight’ response, heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate all increase. But, when we are in the ‘rest and digest’, Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) state, our breathing calms down to nice slow, deep breaths.

Because we are so awesome, humans can reverse engineer the whole system. By making our bodies perform the breath pattern related to the PSNS, we can influence our minds and emotions and cancel out the SNS response.

By breathing like a calm, chilled person, we become a calm, chilled person.

Enter The Box

I always struggled to meditate (see how I finally leant how). My erratic mind and fidgety self always seemed at odds with sitting still and contemplating. Basically, I was the textbook candidate of someone who should meditate. But, I just kept feeling like I was failing in my attempts. That was until I discovered BREATHWORK.

It’s simple, just focus on your breath. To up your game you can focus on using differing timings for inhalation, exhalation, and the pauses between.

black girl meditating in room with eyes closed

Box Breathing

Box breathing was a game-changer for me. Used by ancient mountain dwelling yogis and high stress special force combatants alike, it was the key that opened up mindfulness and meditation for me.

It’s dead easy too. Sit down, lie down, or stand, it’s up to you. I like to sit with my back supported but my neck free. This way I’m comfortable, but not so comfy that a 5 minute breathwork session ends up being a 40 minute power nap.

I then spend a moment focusing on my breath. When I’m ready, I breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. I repeat this anywhere from 3 minutes to 20 minutes or beyond.

When you do this, try to only breathe through your nose for the entire practice. If you struggle to breathe out nasally then do so through pursed lips.

And, we are aiming for deep, diaphramatic breaths. So, when we inhale we feel our bellies expand. This is a really good thing despite what fashion magazines and TikTok might tell you. Screw those guys! When we breathe out we feel our bellies contract back down.

One of my coaches used to cue me to “Breathe into your balls!” If that helps, by all means use it.

To help you in your breathwork journey I have made the handy Box Breathing animation at the top of the page. Just hit play and follow along.

Alternatively, you can follow along with the video below. If four seconds feels like too long for each segment, simply turn the playback speed to 1.25x. This will give you segments of 3 seconds. And if 4 seconds feels too short, set it to .75x for a 5 second segment.

I still use visual and audio aids at times, but find I can be much more mindful by doing the counting in my head. Start with the animation and see how you get on.

If you feel stressed or anxious this is absolutely brilliant for balancing yourself out. It is my number 1 go to when I need to flip that switch from feeling out of control into being as solid as a rock.

Whether it’s calming myself before a public speaking event, down regulating post confrontation, or even kick starting my recovery from a hard workout, 3-5 minutes of Box Breathing is all it takes.

Fear is excitement without breath.

Robert Heller

This is just one tool to help manage stress. There are many others.

And it’s worth remembering that stress is neither good nor bad. We need it to develop, to grow, to get stronger. But like anything, too little or too much can cause us problems. This is where tools like Box Breathing come in.

Give it a go, and please cycle back around and let us know how you got on.

Happy Breathing, Wildlings.

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