There’s a beautifully simple, yet powerful breathing technique I want to talk about called the 4x4 breath. Chances are you’ve come across it. There are a lot of names for the same thing. Box breathing, square breathing, four-count breathing, tactical breathing, four-kata breath. The Navy SEALs get a lot of credit for developing this, but as ex-Army I’ll never admit it.
How did one breathing technique get so much attention? I mean, I breathe every day, what’s the fuss?
Well, even though I’ve known about the technique for a while, I didn’t really start regularly practicing it until recently. And let me tell you, it works. It’s made me a better leader, a better partner, and a better parent, all because it really helps me calm down when I’m worked up.
How to 4x4
Pause and find a quiet spot. Put on headphones if you need calm background noise. Notice how you feel, notice where you feel your anxiety and stress. Close your eyes.
Take one breath in, slowly through the nose, taking a full four seconds to inhale. Try to breathe into the belly, not the chest
Hold at the top of the breath for four seconds. Count in the mind and hold.
Slowly exhale through the mouth, slowly over four seconds. Empty the lungs.
Hold as the bottom of the breath for four seconds.
Repeat this process slowly, deliberately, concentrating on your breath and on the rhythmic counting. After repeating the 4x4 breath (four stages of four seconds each) four times you’ll have done just over a minute of breathing.
How do you feel now? What do you notice about the anxiety or stress you felt earlier?
The reason this technique is so powerful is that it’s so simple. Breathing is usually an unconscious process, but by making it conscious we can more deliberately control our physiology. By focusing on counting, we also take our mind off of the day-to-day stressors and ground ourselves more in the present.
Even if you just have a minute or two between meetings, you can take the time for this technique.
I find this is helpful for me when I’m:
Running between meetings, noticing that I’m feeling frazzled
Feeling stressed or anxious about something I can’t quite put my finger on
About to give a speech or have an important conversation
Noticing I’m distracted or feeling under pressure
Other Adaptations of the 4x4 Breath
Try the simple 4x4 breath first, but later see if any other forms work for you, too.
Practice some embodiment and get some movement involved. Even if just sitting down, start with your hands by your side and raise them slowly to the ceiling with the top of the inhalation. Stretch out and reach for the highest point in the sky. Slowly lower them down with the exhalation and stretch toward the floor. Focus on being grounded.
Extend each stage to eight seconds. As long as it’s not uncomfortable, it can further trigger a physiological reflex to decrease the heart rate. It might require more concentration, too, which can be good if you’re struggling to get back to the present. Don’t worry about holding too long at the bottom of the breath, and don’t do this if it feels like a strain.
When inhaling, take a series of short, sharp breaths, two or three per second. We’re still inhaling for about four seconds and holding for four seconds. These staccato breaths can both require more concentration and help to really fill the lungs and get oxygen into the bloodstream.
Exhale with similar short, deliberate breaths before pausing at the bottom. I’ve been advised to not do this for more than one minute, you can get dizzy going at this for too long.
Activating the diving reflex
The mammalian diving reflex is a physiological response we all have. It’s our reaction to being submerged suddenly underwater, and it makes our hearts slow as our blood flow redirects to vital organs to help prevent drowning.
We can activate this during our breathing by exposing our face (our trigeminal nerves) to cold water. Do the 4x4 breath by somewhere you can splash cold water onto your face, like a bathroom sink. After the inhale, when you start to hold your breath, slap some cold water on your face.
This sends a signal to our nervous system that it needs to activate the diving reflex and slow us down. Be sure to get as much of your face and your nostrils (where a lot of the relevant nerves are) as possible, then repeat on the next inhale. You can also use a cold, damp hand towel.
I really enjoy this breathing exercise and get a lot of value from it. It’s a simple and straightforward way to bring a bit of calm into the day. As a reminder, the 4x4 breath is a simple process:
Breathe in through the nose, into the belly, for four seconds
Hold at the top of the breath for four seconds
Breathe out through the mouth for four seconds
Hold at the bottom of the breath for four seconds
Although this can be done in just a minute with four sets, I find value in trying to hold this process for longer.
What works for you? How did you like this exercise? What did you take away from it?
Originally published in Mind Cafe