Having dealt with PTSD and anger management in my life I know how hard it can be to deal with your intense emotions. When you feel anxiety or anger head on, or when you feel stressed and overwhelmed, it can create all sorts of problems – from not being able to enjoy the moment, to doing and saying things you regret, to sabotaging your work and your relationships.
In those moments, it’s often really hard to calm down, no matter how much you try. It can lead you to do and say things that you regret later on. I know, I’ve been there. Our emotions and stress can take the wheel and make us feel out of control if we don’t have healthy ways of regulating ourselves.
Being in psychology I have learned that numbing your emotions or using “self control” doesn’t work long term. So how can you calm down in difficult moments in a way that actually works? That doesn’t require a lot of time, and in a way that’s healthy for you?
If calming down when you’re feeling stressed or experiencing intense emotions is something you’re currently struggling with, I’m going to share with you a scientifically proven method that can help you de-escalate even in the most stressful conditions.
This is a method I use anytime I feel my intense emotions and want to calm down quickly. My clients have seen the benefits for themselves in being better able to handle their emotions and keep their stress levels low. It’s practical, easy and effective – but the only catch is that you have to do it to see the results for yourself!
What is this scientifically-proven technique? It’s a form of slow paced breathing called Box Breathing. It is one of the simplest and most effective ways to directly get your Nervous System back into a calm state.
If you’re skeptical, here’s why you should try it:
Slow Paced Breathing is arguably one of the best emotion regulation strategies that we know of to date. This is one technique that psychologists, doctors, yogis and alternative healthcare practitioners all agree on – That your breath can help you quickly get into a calm state.
Breathing techniques are often used by people in the most stressful situations, including the Navy Seals, paramedics, and firefighters. So be open to the idea that whatever you’re dealing with, it can help you to quickly and effectively calm down.
I learned about the power of box breathing from a paramedic I met at a personal development course. He had studied the most effective breathing techniques to stay calm since he would deal with real life or death situations on a daily basis. He was struggling with having PTSD because he was constantly exposed to high levels of stress and traumatic situations. He generously offered me his research and his experience with breathing techniques, and emphasized “box breathing”.
After learning more about it, and trying it out for myself, I realized every person on this planet should know about this! This is the technique that I find most effective when looking to calm the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – This is the system mainly responsible for your fight/flight response, and what’s activated when you’re feeling stressed or intense emotions.
It is the closest thing to magic if you’re looking to get back in control of your emotions and get yourself into a calm state in the moment.
And it feels good! Specially if you use it as a preventative method and catch your stress or intense emotion early on, before it gets into the full-blown version. Although it will still work if you’re feeling the full emotion head on, prevention is always better than intervention. There’s no way of going around the big discomfort and difficulty that comes with being in the centre of full-blown intense emotions. But it’s a great tool to have in case you find yourself in an intense difficult situation. This means all does not have to be lost, and you can still be able to calm down in those moments.
In addition, breathing techniques have been scientifically shown to be effective for those dealing with mental health issues, including anxiety disorders.
With that said, if you do have any mental or physical health concerns, you should always consult with your doctor or healthcare professional before you start any new regiment.
What is Box Breathing and the science behind it:
Box breathing is a form of a Slow-Paced Breathing (SPB) technique that follows a specific rhythm. Slow Paced Breathing refers to consciously controlling the length of your inhale and exhale as you breath. It is a technique that aims to slow down your breath to usually around six cycles per minute (cpm). This in turn, slows down your heart-rate and changes your physiological response to stress.
Box breathing can give you an almost immediate sense of calm by stimulating your parasympathetic system. This is your body’s calm response.
Research shows that SPB can increase the activation of the vagus nerve —which is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is suggested to explain the many positive benefits of SPB in helping to self-regulate, and in particular with respect to emotion regulation, relaxation, cognition, and well-being.
A recent 2022 study in the journal of Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews looked at 233 studies on the effects of voluntary slow breathing and recommended it as a prevention and treatment technique. Research shows that slow breathing techniques can help enhance autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility that are linked with emotional control and psychological well-being.
There is consistent scientific evidence that SPB can help:
- Improve stress levels and mood in both men and women
- Reduce symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion
- Increase well-being, comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness
- Enhancing cognitive performance and focus
- Improve sleep
- Improving physical and emotional health, including in reducing blood pressure
And these are just some of many benefits of slow paced breathing techniques, including box breathing.
How Can You Practice Slow Paced Breathing?
It’s very simple to practice box breathing. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you gain the benefits of SPB.
Step 1: notice when you are feeling stressed, tense, or when intense emotions are starting to come up.
Step 2: pay attention to your breath, and take slow, deep (belly) breaths in through your nose. You can do this by:
- inhaling for 4 seconds
- holding for 4 seconds
- exhaling for 4 seconds
- and holding again for 4 seconds
Do this for about 5-6 cycles, or until you feel calm.
Step 3: Keeping your focus on your breath and counting can also help with wondering thoughts. But don’t worry about calming your thoughts, just focus on your breath and counting. Your breath alone will physiologically activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Step 4: Repeat this as part of your morning and night routine to help you balance your Autonomic Nervous System overtime. This will help you develop a good stress hygiene and prevent your stress from building. It may also make it easier to get into a calm state if you find yourself in a stressful situation.
- Don’t worry if you’re not able to bring your breath down to 4 second counts at first. Try 3 seconds to start if taking slow breaths of 4 feels difficult.
- Make sure that your breath is traveling down from your chest to your belly. You can feel your belly expand and contract as you breath.
- Don’t force anything, let things come with ease. We are going for progress, not perfection.
Here’s a video on Box Breathing provided by Sunnybrook Health Science Centre:
Here’s a quick guided video to try it out for yourself:
Let’s get back in control and do it together! I invite you to practice Box Breathing in the next 30 days. Anytime you feel stressed, tense, or when intense emotions come up, take a minute to take slow and deep breaths. You may choose to do it for longer until you feel calm.
Challenge ends October 30th, 2022
Let me know in the comments if you’re participating. I’m here to answer any questions you have, and I’d love to hear your experiences along the way.
You got this!