Box Breathing for the Busy Brain

Many clients I meet have busy brains. There is so much going on up there; so much processing, so many thoughts, so many things to think about across many dimensions. Many of them know they need relief from this and are seeking help to calm their minds. Given how much has been written about mindfulness and meditation, many of them try out exercises in both areas but can’t quite seem to get it to work.

The truth is, mindfulness techniques and meditation may not resonate with many people. Or it may not be viable given where they are now. Despite the researched power of either domain of techniques, they may not have the capacity just yet to deploy either.

What is someone to do right now if they are seeking relief from the constant buzzing of things in their brain?

Lately, I have been offering that box breathing can be a great way to begin calming the busy brain, and preparing them for further progress and healing.

What is box breathing? It’s pretty simple actually. First, two preliminaries: 1) breathe only through your nose, both in and out. 2) Use your diaphragm to breathe as much as possible. If either of those are difficult, we can definitely talk further about how to improve on both.

Then, when you breathe, you’ll be closing your eyes and drawing a box in your mind. As you inhale, count as you follow along one edge of the box, say going from bottom to top on the left side. Then as you exhale, count as you move along the top of the box. Then inhale again, counting as you follow now from top to bottom on the right edge. And finally as you exhale, count as you follow the bottom edge of the box back to where you started. Then repeat.

When you count, your first goal is to have equal counts both inhale and exhale. Thus the box you’ll be imagining is a square and all sides have equal length, or in our case, equal counts for both inhale and exhale. You may start with a 2 count. As you breathe and get calmer, try next to increase the counts to 3. Then try to move to 4. If it is difficult, then just remain at a count you can sustain while staying calm.

The next level is lengthening the exhales versus the inhales, and the box turns from a square to a rectangle. When you do this, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms you even further. So if you start with a 2 count for inhale, try for a 3 count exhale. When this feels comfortable, then try for a 4 count exhale. A good goal is typically a 1 to 2 ratio of inhales to exhale.

After you reach 2 count inhale to a 4 count exhale, try the same progression with a 3 count inhale, and attempt to raise your exhale count to 6. When this is comfortable, you may then start with a 4 count inhale and attempt to progress your exhale count to 8. A good goal for this breathing exercise is 4 count inhale with an 8 count exhale. You can also go for a 5 count inhale, if you want to further this exercise, but if you make it to a 4:8 that is usually good enough.

Give that a try and then see what happens. What is happening to your busy mind?

You might notice that the focus of counting and moving your attention along the edge helps center you and takes attention away from all those things that are shouting for your attention in your brain. In fact, what you are practicing is a version of meditation, perhaps even a form of mindfulness. As you practice this more often, take notice of what is happening to your busy mind, and also, if you desire, your capacity to try other mindfulness and meditation practices. Also, notice your ability to make changes in your life, once the multiple distractions are quieted somewhat. You may be surprised at your ability to make changes, once you remove all the noise in your head!