Simple Four-Count Breath to Reduce Stress

practicing a four-count breath

As I sit down to write this week’s post, I’m a little shocked that I haven’t shared this tip yet. It’s so simple.

You’re literally four counts away from reducing muscle-squeezing, headache-inducing, stomach-churning stress in your life.

All you have to do is breathe with intention.

I learned the four-count or box breath technique in a yoga class years ago, and now use it daily to press my internal reset button when I feel stress bubbling up. After three or four cycles of focused breathing, I notice tension melt away from my muscles.

Simply pausing to focus on our breath before we allow the coils of anxiety to engulf us diffuses ongoing, lingering discomfort in our minds and bodies.

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How to Do a Four-Count Box Breath

This all sounds magical, right? The magic is in remembering to practice this as often as you need. So pause and give yourself a minute — yep, 60 seconds — to focus on your inhales and exhales. Here’s how.

Sit comfortably with one hand on your heart and the other on your belly.
Close your eyes and inhale through your nose to the count of 1…2…3…4.
Pause holding your breath to the count of 1…2…3…4.
Now exhale through your nose to the count of 1…2…3…4.
Pause again for 1…2…3…4.
And, repeat.

Here’s a video from The Motivational Mat on YouTube of the four-count box breath that shares additional tips about posture, inhaling and exhaling.

Here’s where I jump in and mention that if you have breathing issues or feel discomfort when holding your breath for a short period of time, don’t do this! This exercise is intended to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, not trigger stress.

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The Science Behind Breath Work

This breathing technique isn’t exclusive to yogis. It’s used by emergency responders to calm people in the throes of a panic attack or shock. It helps runners focus on their pace. It also quiets the mind when sinking into a meditation.

All humans have a nerve that runs from the brainstem, down to the stomach and intestines. It’s called the vagus nerve. When we stimulate this part of our body through breath work, our parasympathetic (relaxation and digestion) and sympathetic (fight or flight stress response) nervous systems become more balanced, which leads to improved physical and emotional health, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Arielle Schwartz.

We call this balance improving our vagal tone.

Focusing on our breath is one way we can improve our vagal tone and mitigate anxiety, mild depression, chronic illness and inflammation. It also improves our heart rate variability, making that muscle work more optimally.

Holistic Nutritionist and Functional Health Practitioner Paula Owens shares additional ways to boost your vagal tone:

I hope you’ll give yourself one minute today to pause and focus on your breath. It’s made a huge impact on my personal wellness and I hope this simple practice may also bring you peace in times of tension or unease.

If you give this a try, tell me about your experience in the comments below.

Until next time,
Choose healthy!

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