It took several months of full-time sheltering in place before I noticed it: the screaming. My boyfriend's apartment complex (where I'd been staying since the mandated stay-at-home orders went into effect) was full of young kids, but for some reason, I didn't become acutely aware of the high-pitched toddler vocal gymnastics until about five months into the pandemic.
Maybe it was because I was on tight deadlines that required my full attention, or maybe the cumulative effect of so many weeks stuck inside finally caught up to me. Whatever the reason, I needed to figure out a way to redirect my focus and calm my suddenly fried nerves. Hello, deep breathing exercises.
I learned a laundry list of breathing techniques during my 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2017 to ease stress, relax the body and brain — and dull the urge to punch walls. In yoga, these formal breathing techniques are known as pranayama, and are a way to control the breath, "the source of our prana, or vital life force." One method in particular that can be especially helpful in times of pull-your-hair-out freak-out moments: Sama Vritti Pranayama, otherwise known as "box breathing."
Sometimes called "four-square breathing," box breathing is a technique you can do anywhere, any time, and many yogis, wellness devotees, athletes and even military members swear by its calming effects and ability to de-escalate the body's fight-or-flight response, which can lead to short-term panic and long-term chronic health problems.
Deep breathing techniques, like box breathing, have been shown to lower the body's levels of cortisol — aka the stress hormone; help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress; and foster better focus and impulse management.
Ready to reset? Here's how to practice box breathing:
- Find a quiet space if you can. Can't? Try some headphones to block out surrounding sounds or do your best to allow the sounds to just be (easier said than done, I know).
- Close your eyes and inhale through your nose slowly to a count of four.
- Once your lungs are full, hold your breath while slowly counting to four again. This shouldn't feel too forced or uncomfortable — simply avoid breathing in or out for four seconds.
- Slowly exhale to a count of four.
- Hold your breath there while you slowly count to four again.
You can repeat as many cycles of inhale-hold-exhale-hold as you need, or increase the count each cycle (moving on to five seconds per inhale/hold/exhale, then going on to six, etc.).
If you're having trouble focusing on your breath, try placing one hand on your chest and another on your stomach. For some people, this can help direct the attention to where the air is entering and exiting. Do your best to relax the abdominal and allow the air to naturally fill and empty your stomach and lungs.