In-the-Moment Stress Relief via Square Breathing


“Got stress?” Whenever I ask that question in our “Stress and the Body” class at Green Mountain at Fox Run, every hand goes up.

Most (if not all) of us have some form of stress in our lives.

  • It may be big stress, smaller stress, perhaps traumatic stress.
  • The stress may be external, in the form of difficult relationships, or a stressful job.
  • Or it may be internal, in the form of chronic worry, anxiety or a running negative dialogue.

Either way…stress happens.

Then I ask: “Sooo…what are you doing to alleviate stress?”

The room goes quiet, except for those who identify food as their coping tool (but that’s for another blog post). 

Start With Your Breath

The starting point to managing stress is our breath. Think about it…the last time you had a moment of stress (argument with a loved one, a conflict with a coworker, getting cut-off on the highway, etc.), how did your body feel?

  • Did you feel shaky?
  • Did your heart race?
  • Did your palms sweat?
  • Did your breath become quick and shallow?

These are automatic physiological changes that happen as soon as stress hits. The body and brain ready us for survival, just in case it’s a life or death matter.

The problem is that many, most or all of us are in a chronic state of stress.

We rarely have the time, or take the time, to recuperate from the stressor – sort of like early human might have done after being chased by a tiger…step into the cave, take a breath and calm the nervous system.

Instead, we’re often trapped in a constant Sympathetic Nervous System activation (aka the stress response).

Make Changes to Manage Chronic Stress

When dealing with stress in the moment, the best way is to (sort of) reverse the cycle through breath.

In other words, one of the things that happens when we’re stressed and the Sympathetic Nervous System is activated, is our breath gets shallow and quick.

One way to ‘turn off’ Sympathetic and ‘turn on’ the opposite of the stress response – the Parasympathetic Nervous System (aka the relaxation response) – is to consciously, purposefully change our breathing.

This tells the brain “I’m okay”, so that we can begin to relax.

A Lesson in Square Breathing

Square breathing is a popular and effective breathing exercise that “forces” the Parasympathetic into the “on” position. Here’s how to do it:

The next time worry or tension strikes, try breathing to the count of 4.

  1. Inhale 2 3 4
  2. Hold 2 3 4
  3. Exhale 2 3 4
  4. Hold 2 3 4

Repeat at least four times or until you feel more relaxed.

You can follow the animation below to practice your square breathing.

slow breathing exercise

The reason this type of breathing is so effective is because:

  • It’s a purposeful slowing of the breath.
  • The mind refocuses during the short stints of holding the breath.

If you’d like to deepen this exercise for more relaxation, you can try to increase the outbreaths.  So it would be Inhale 2 3 4, Hold 2 3 4, Out 2 3 4 5 6, Hold 2 3 4 (which is more like trapezoid breathing). We become naturally more relaxed with long, sigh-ish exhales.

Your Stress Management Toolbox

Remember, this is not a quick fix for all stress, but rather one of the tools to add to a stress management toolbox.

Also know that any type of focused attention on breath will help with stress. We don’t necessarily need a lesson on how to breathe; we’ve been doing it since we were born.

But if you’re in the midst of a stressor, having high anxiety or even panic, or just feel like adding a moment of relaxation to your day, square breathing is an effective tool to flip the Parasympathetic switch on.

Need Help Managing Stress?

One of our primary areas of focus at Green Mountain is to help women develop stress management tools, as it is so important when it comes to health.

Consider a stay at Green Mountain at Fox Run. You’ll learn to manage your stress without turning to food as a coping mechanism. You’ll learn stress reduction skills, mindfulness techniques, and enjoyable physical activity…which will ultimately help you along your way to improved health and happiness.

Don’t wait — it’s YOUR TIME to prioritize yourself.

2 responses to “In-the-Moment Stress Relief via Square Breathing”

  1. kerri says:

    This technique has been very effective for me when I’m having trouble falling asleep due. Highly recommend!

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About the Author

Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC

Since 2004, Shiri’s approach as a therapist for treating binge and emotional eating is holistic, focusing not only on the presented issue at hand but also considering overall health. Working in this way often includes mindfulness-based approaches. Now as a trained MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher, Shiri’s love of mindfulness and meditation practices are at the forefront of her blog writings and recordings. Shiri is the Clinical Director at the Women's Center for Binge & Emotional Eating, affiliated with Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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