A mental toughness program teaches Navy SEALs how to retrain the brain’s natural response to stress, fear and panic. Part of the training involves a controlled, deep breathing technique -- box breathing. SEALs must master this basic skill to prepare for missions, stay in control, become mentally resilient and summon positive energy. Not just for SEALs, these breathing techniques can also be a valuable training tool for athletes at all levels.
Box Breathing Basics
Trainees focus on their breathing with a 4x4x4x4 technique, which uses a 4-count breathing pattern. To practice this, first exhale all the air from your lungs. Then breathe deeply from your belly for a count of four or four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds to empty all the air from your lungs and finish by holding your empty lungs for four seconds. This cycle is repeated for five minutes. In the SEALFIT Academy, founded by retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, trainees perform box breathing with longer intervals of five or six seconds.
Benefits of Box Breathing
Navy SEALS must be able to control arousal and heightened stress levels when facing danger. Deep diaphragmatic breathing helps reduce performance anxiety and increases your ability to stay focused, Devine states. Controlled breathing teaches SEALs to handle stress differently, think clearly and control their excitement in the midst of chaos. Panic, fear and stress can cause sweaty palms, elevate your heart rate and cloud your thoughts -- the body’s natural response. Controlled breathing relaxes the body, reduces your heart rate and gets more oxygen to the brain, which helps increase brain activity for better decision making.
Box Breathing Variations
Trainees also practice other controlled breathing patterns -- the 4x4 and the 4x4x4 patterns -- both effective in controlling arousal, stress and anxiety. With the 4x4 technique, also referred to as combat breathing, you simply inhale deeply for four seconds filling your lungs from bottom to top and then exhale steadily for four seconds, releasing the air from top to bottom. The 4x4x4 breathing pattern is similar except you repeat the inhale-and-exhale cycle for four minutes.
Alternate Breathing Techniques
Performance zone and relaxation breathing techniques enhance your body's awareness in addition to reducing stress and anxiety, Devine notes. Performance zone breathing combines deep breathing and forceful exhalation with positive visual imagery and attitude. With relaxation breathing, you don’t hold your breath during the box breathing cycle. Instead you inhale for four or five seconds starting from your diaphragm, then fill up your chest and finally the top of your lungs. You then exhale the air in the opposite manner to completely empty your lungs. This cycle is repeated over and over and can even become a natural breathing pattern if practiced enough.
Train Like a SEAL
Many of the SEALs mental toughness training principles and techniques, in particular combat and relaxation breathing, can also be beneficial to athletes, suggests Cmdr. Eric Potterat, U.S. Navy SEALs psychologist. Controlled, breathing helps prepare athletes mentally and physically for competition and minimizes the negative effects of stress for enhanced performance. Other benefits include enhanced lung capacity and the reduction of chronic pain.