‘Box Breathing’ to induce your ‘Rest-and-Digest.’
You know that feeling when something goes wrong? The moment you realise you’ve misplaced your wallet or left your phone in the Uber. The panic, fear, or anger sets in.
But it’s not just about emotional responses. It also causes immediate physical reactions – your heart beats faster, and breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. You also release more glucose into your bloodstream, and you may feel a knot in your stomach. This is your body moving away from its state of ‘rest-and-digest’ and getting ready for ‘fight or flight.’
What stress does to our gut health
Stress is communicated to the gut via bidirectional nerve pathways connected with the brain. This reaction is known as an automatic physiological response. This means the functions take place without any thought, such as the heart beating or the digestion of food.
When we are in a ‘fight-or-flight’ response, the blood moves from the gut to the larger muscles to get ready for action so we can avoid a threatening situation. This interferes with digestion, which is happening in our ‘rest-and-digest’ state.
The change doesn’t last for long, and in the short term, it isn’t considered harmful. In fact, it can be lifesaving.
But if this physiological response happens regularly or for too long, it can weaken the immune system and increase inflammation. This definitely negatively impacts your health. Stress can affect how quickly food moves through the body, which can cause either diarrhea or constipation. It can also affect what nutrients the intestines absorb and increase gas production leading to bloating. Stress can make the intestinal barrier weaker and allow gut bacteria to enter the body. Although most of the bacteria can be quickly taken care of by the immune system, the constant need to quell the inflammatory response can lead to mild chronic inflammatory symptoms.
How breathing helps reduce stress
There are basically two types of breathing – chest, and abdomen. Chest breathing tends to be shallow. There is a rise and fall of the shoulders with each breath, and only the chest expands. Less oxygen enters the blood, which affects digestion. There tends to be an increase in your heart rate and a tensing of muscles. It’s usually the way we breathe when we are stressed, anxious, or in pain. Unfortunately, you will find most people have adapted their relaxed breathing to this technique without realizing it.
The other type of breathing – abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing – is how you can turn off this automatic stress response. It’s one of the most effective ways to reduce muscle tension, calm the mind, and stop the fight-or-flight response in its tracks.
It’s the natural breathing of newborn babies and sleeping adults. It starts with the stomach expanding as the diaphragm moves down to allow the lungs to fill with air. When you do this type of breathing, it will feel like a balloon is softly expanding with each inhalation and falling back down with each exhale.
There is a particular type of deep breathing, called box breathing, but it’s also known as resetting your breath, or four-square breathing. It’s commonly used by people in high-stress jobs, such as soldiers, police officers, or emergency staff who have to deal with stressful situations for prolonged periods.
It’s a handy, on-demand tool that can help with overwhelming stress.
The benefits include that it reduces physical stress symptoms in the body by significantly reducing the production of hormones linked with stress, such as cortisol. It has been shown that after deep breathing, not only do participants have lower levels of cortisol, they have increased attention levels (Ma, et al., 2017). It was also found in this study that box breathing is useful in the reduction of anxiety, depression, and stress.
Levison et al. (2014) were able to show that deep breathing techniques could bring about better focus, a more positive outlook, and better able to manage destructive impulses such as smoking.
Researchers have suggested that box breathing may have the ability to change your future reactions to stress. Relaxation practices such as box breathing, meditation, and yoga can alter how the body reacts to stress by affecting how specific genes are switched on (Bhasin, Dusek, Chang, Joseph, & Denninger, 2013). The study found that these relaxation practices enhanced the activation of genes associated with energy and insulin and diminished the activation of genes linked to inflammation and stress. These effects were shown to be true in both the short and long term practitioners of the techniques. But the result was more pronounced in the long-term practitioners.
Most importantly, box breathing is a powerful yet straightforward relaxation technique that helps you return breathing to its normal rhythm. It’s easy to do, quick to learn, and can be a highly effective technique for people just about to enter or smack bang in the middle of a stressful situation.
You should practice this type of breathing every day, so when stress arises, you are ready to handle it with calm and ease. Hence, you prevent the stress response from hurting your long term health.
How to do box breathing
Box breathing is simple, and you can do it anywhere. Before starting, you should sit with your back supported in a comfortable chair and your feet flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs, and your belly expand.
- Hold your breath while counting slowly to four. Don’t tense up. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for four seconds.
- Begin to slowly exhale for the count of four.
- At the end of the exhalation, hold your breath for four counts.
- Repeat at least three times.
You should incorporate the technique into your daily life and practice it a few times a day, so you are prepared when stress hits you. If you are finding the technique challenging, count to three instead of four. Once you are practiced in the technique, you may find it useful to extend your breathing up to the count of six.
Practicing this technique gives you the ability to consciously regulate breathing. It allows your body to leave a state of stress and enter into a state of calm. This will reduce the strain on your digestive system and body as a whole.
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Bhasin, M. K., Dusek, J. A., Chang, B. H., Joseph, M. G., & Denninger, J. W. (2013). Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion, and Inflammatory Pathways. PLOS ONE, 8(5). DOI:10.137/journal.pone.0062817
Levinson, D. B., Stoll, E. L., Kindy, S. D., Merry, H. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). A mind you can count on: validating breath counting as a behavioral measure of mindfulness. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1202. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01202
Ma, X., Yue, Z.-Q., Gong, Z.-Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.-Y., Shi, Y.-T., . . . Li, Y.-F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic breathing on Attention, Negative Affect, and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 874. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874