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Box Breathing—A Quick & Easy Exercise to Bring Calm to Anyone, Anywhere

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

The Fight-or-Flight Response In Today's World

The fight-or-flight response is an incredible and ancient biological response to immediate danger. When faced with a threat, fight-or-flight performs beautifully and automatically thanks to our sympathetic nervous system. In a life-threatening situation, fight-or-flight kicks into high gear, physically equipping the body to survive. Stress hormones flood our bodies, the heart beats rapidly, breathing becomes shallow and rapid and our pupils dilate. A person in this fight-or-flight state is better equipped to evade an aggressive predatory animal or leap out of the way of a vehicle barreling toward them. Once a person has successfully evaded the danger, the body returns to equilibrium. Unfortunately, many people find themselves in this heightened state for long periods of time, induced by stress and ongoing anxiety.

Anxiety and stress hijack the sympathetic nervous system. The negative consequences of long-term anxiety are significant to our mental and physical well-being. Thankfully, there are many strategies we can employ to counteract these effects and leave ourselves in a calm, responsive state. Better yet, these strategies can be easily employed by kids, too! The technique described below is designed to elicit a relaxation response in a short period of time with no practice required.

The Relaxation Response

Dr. Herbert Benson coined the term “the relaxation response.” In fact, he wrote a groundbreaking book on the subject. Simply put, it is the antidote to a body and mind in a fight-or-flight state. His career is dedicated to studying the mind-body connection and demonstrating effective techniques for eliciting “the relaxation response.” Many credit his work of the 1970s and 1980s as demystifying meditation and bringing it into the mainstream.

Box Breathing

There are many strategies for eliciting a “relaxation response.” Many others will be highlighted in future posts. However, this technique stands out for its ease of use and effectiveness. It can be done by kids and adults alike. It’s especially appealing to kids because the technique is discreet--it could be done in the middle of a crowded cafeteria without anyone knowing. If kids are reluctant to give it a try, it may help to point out that a former Navy SEAL openly endorses the technique:

I have been known to employ it when waiting in a particularly slow grocery store checkout line. I highly recommend performing this technique with a visual in mind:

1. inhale for a count of four
2. gently hold your breath (keep your tongue loose with a soft gaze OR eyes closed) for a count of 4
3. exhale gently for a count of 4
4. hold for a count of four

Try to do this cycle a minimum of 4 times. Ideally, you would perform the box breathing for 4-5 minutes. As you become more proficient with the technique, you can begin to expand the counts to 5, 6, 7...experiment and find what is best for you.


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