Doctors prescribing box breathing to help reduce stress

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- If you're suffering from anxiety related to COVID-19 or hurricane season, one simple way to help manage it is a deep breathing technique many doctors are now prescribing called 'box breathing.'

This technique follows a four second pattern for each step in deep breathing, essentially creating a square:

1. Inhale slowly through the nose to a count of four.
2. Hold for four seconds.
3. Exhale through your mouth to a count of four.
4. Pause for four seconds.

There is science backing the effectiveness of box breathing to help reduce anxiety.

"When we are feeling stressed or triggered, something called our sympathetic nervous system may be activated. This is the system in our body that maybe helps us run from threats, defend ourselves, and it's crucial to our survival," said Melissa Goldberg, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, explaining that this is what causes our heartrate to increase and us to feel anxiety.

Box breathing, therefore, helps to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system which helps promote a feeling of relaxation. The technique is not new, having been used by military elite like Navy SEALS to develop emotional discipline in high stress situations.

"Breathing techniques are a great way to activate our parasympathetic nervous system which is sort of the counter to our stress response -- it's a calm down response," Goldberg said.

One study found participants who performed regular, deliberate deep breathing exercises had lower levels of cortisol, a hormone in the body released when a person is stressed.

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