When emotions run high and we can feel our emotions getting the better of us, it’s not so easy just to think ourselves out of it with immediate effect, so it can be useful to have a variety of techniques at our fingertips to help to soothe our emotions. Then can we step back and see things differently. This post is going to focus on a simple breathing technique called Box Breathing which we can use to help to soothe our emotions when we need to.
Albert Einstein, a clever sort, we can all agree, once said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. This makes a lot of sense when you get into a tricky spot and you find yourself hijacked by your emotions. Please don’t beat yourself up about this, it happens to everyone - it’s just that some people have learned strategies to cope better and some have yet to learn.
When our emotions are triggered, our brain has already begun to send out messages to protect us from imminent threat and has set in motion the body’s fight, flight or freeze reflex. The sympathetic nervous system becomes activated (all systems go!), to fight or to flee the scene, or, if all else fails, to freeze. This is your body’s survival mechanism at work.
The difficulty with being able to think differently when our emotions have been triggered is that the thoughts become threat-focused, with a distinctly negative bias. This would have had a clear benefit to us when our lives depended on it, but in the modern world, the attentional bias causes more problems than it solves. We can’t think differently, as old Albert says, unless we create a slightly different space for ourselves to think in. So what to do?
Fortunately we have our own breath at our disposal to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (a calming response). By breathing in a way that signals safety, you can begin to activate the brain’s soothing systems, and start slowly and surely to reverse the cycle. As you calm your breath, you are in a better position to begin to access your rational thinking and assess how best to proceed in the difficult situation you may have found yourself in.
This post is focusing on the simple technique of Box Breathing. I’d encourage you to give this a try for a week or two and see what benefits it might bring for you.
A guide to box breathing
Begin by imagining you can see a square shape in your mind’s eye - a simple geometric box shape if that’s easiest, or if it helps, imagine a perfectly square window looking out over a relaxing scene of your choice. Now beginning in the top left corner of the box shape, take a deep breath in as you trace your way across the top edge for an approximate count of four, hold for a count of four as you travel down the right hand side of the box shape, breath out for four as you trace along the bottom edge, and hold once more for four, as you head up to the top left corner again and repeat. Repeat for as long as you need.
Don’t try to force the count, if this seems at first unnaturally too long or too short. Feel free to adjust it, but ensuring as best you can to keep the breaths even. Fill your lungs in the in-breath and breathe out all the air on the out-breath. This way you will succeed in slowing down your breathing, enabling your body to begin to relax and slow. Just keep a focus on the idea of the box shape to assist you with keeping the breaths even and smooth.
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist based in Bath. She takes an integrative CBT approach, helping you to discover evidence-based approaches which will work for you and your unique situation.