Regain control of your mental health with box breathing

Regain control of your mental health with box breathing

You may simply be standing in a supermarket or at a graduation party when you feel pain in your chest and you begin to sweat. You start to have trouble breathing and feel dizzy. No, this is not the beginning of a heart attack. This is the start of a panic attack.

Panic attacks can occur anywhere, at any time, to anyone. They are generally described as a continual feeling of impending doom, being overwhelmed with fear, with no real or imminent danger present. They can be brought on by trauma, a memory of past abuse, or a stressful home or work environment.

The good news is there is an easy way to calm your body’s physiological response by reversing one of the main symptoms: hyperventilation. Enter “box breathing.”

Box breathing is a simple timed breathing exercise to create slow, long, meaningful breaths, which will help reverse physical symptoms and shorten the time of a panic attack.

How to box breathe

Imagine you are drawing a box in your mind. As you inhale, count to four and sketch the first line of the box. Hold that breath for four seconds as you draw the second line, exhale for four seconds drawing the third line and finally pause for the fourth line. Then repeat. Complete this exercise as long as it takes for your heart rate to return to normal.

The beauty of this coping skill is that it can be done anywhere. It is important to practice this technique while you are in a calm state so your prefrontal cortex, your thinking brain, has enough time to learn and use it in these panic situations.

Why does panic occur?

This unsettling feeling occurs due to the amygdala’s response, the portion of your brain in charge of emotions and keeping you safe. It is where the flight or fight response lives. When the amygdala is triggered, signals are sent to your adrenal glands, telling them to release stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.

These hormones travel through your body via your blood stream, affecting many areas of your body. Your heartbeat increases, your lungs intake air faster, and you begin to sweat. These are evolutionary innate reactions to keep you safe and help you to run from or fight danger.

If you are having these episodes daily or even weekly, it might be time to reach out to a professional for help.

Looking for a doctor or behavioral health specialist? Find one that’s right for you in Illinois or Wisconsin.

Jennifer Kober is a registered nurse at Advocate Health Care.

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Jennifer Kober