Just Breathe!

Your Miracle Drug Lurks in Plain Sight.

Do you intentionally devote time and energy each week to activities that are not urgent? If I told you that I did, would you consider me pollyannish? Irrational?

When you pause to consider it, the most important and worthy activities to live a fulfilling and contented life are not urgent. Activities that better ensure we’re tending to the forest and not just the trees of our lives can easily be forgotten thanks to the pace of life— unless we deliberately slow down and get intentional.

Invariably, my best spent minutes are those I set aside weekly to be in reflection. The amount of time spent in this state varies greatly: from 5 minutes at the end of the day using the Michael Roderick G.I.F.T. acronym, to a 15-minute week-in-review which Cheryl Benton refers to as the “done-it list”, or the month in review from my Clever Fox Planner. This takes a focused half-hour and serves as a roadmap for the month ahead.

This year, in recognition of DRIVEN’s 10th anniversary, I’m reflecting back to consider different perspectives and dimensions of the past decade. I’m reviewing the pivots in business model, different flavors of client work, and network growth. I’ve also been inspecting my own work toward personal growth— as a coach, facilitator, trainer, consultant and human being.

A single common thread has become apparent. A shared bit of knowledge, and a willingness to act on that awareness has made the greatest difference for my clients and myself.

When we embed this learning and this practice into our way of being, we reap the rewards of:

  • enhanced executive presence and charisma.
  • the ability to think clearly in stressful situations.
  • greater productivity and focus.
  • mindfulness fluidly
  • enhanced sport performance!

What’s this secret? It’s maximizing your breathing!

Simply being intentional about how you breathe, which many think of as an involuntary act, can be life changing. Since we all know simple is not necessarily easy, let’s take some time to explore this secret living in plain sight.

The reward of self-regulation may be compelling enough for you to consider how to better enhance your breathing, too. This miracle drug requires no prescription. Here’s how it works:

When you breathe optimally, your parasympathetic nervous system knows it’s safe. When breathing becomes rapid or you hold your breath, the amygdala senses threat and your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This means oxygen is sent to your arms and legs, not your brain! Your thinking brain needs this oxygen, consistently, for it to operate optimally.

Have you ever gotten nervous in a meeting and afterwards thought, “I should have” said this or I “would have” said that or “why did I seem to freeze”? This is why! The oxygen that promotes brain function was nowhere to be found.  It was sent to the parts of the body that are responsible for fight and flight.

With this insight, you can understand that breathing is essential to exude executive presence. This leadership quality implies a sense of gravitas and the ability to think quickly on one’s feet. And besides knowing what to say, we must speak convincingly, which is no easy task when you’re nervous and your breaths become shallower and erratic. I, for one, find my voice shaking.

Because I was reflecting on the concept of breathing, I remembered how I was taught to breathe to enhance athletic performance, whether lifting weights (exhale on the push) or running (one breath for two steps).

Breathing is the key ingredient for effective self-regulation. When you feel yourself beginning to panic, if you have the wherewithal to take a breath, your prefrontal cortex will take the steering wheel from your amygdala and prevent a hijack.

Personally speaking, breathing was the key to the biggest breakthrough in my life: managing panic attacks. After 25 years of being a victim to these devastating episodes, I learned that these faux heart attacks arose due to my unconscious habit of holding my breath when anxiety lurked. Think about what you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, impatient, irritated, frustrated.

It is in that spirit that I’d like to share with you a variety of breathing techniques. May these links serve you as well as they’ve served me for a decade. The common thread: keep breathing.

Breathing as a path to deep relaxation: A couple of minutes of belly breathing or Ujjayi breathing in the morning leaves you relaxed and invigorated, simultaneously!

Breathing as a focus tool: Living in an environment of constant stress, this 3-breath meditation is valuable because it brings your prefrontal cortex online, attends to your emotional state, and focuses your attention on the work at hand.

Breathing to help you fall asleep: If your brain speeds up as you lay down for sleep, consider falling asleep to Tara Brach’s guided breathing meditation. And if you wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, ruminating about all you need to do, you may benefit from 4-7-8 breathing to help you relax and quiet your anxiety.

Breathing in the moment to calm your nervous system: Box breathing is also called SEAL breathing, as the Navy Seals developed this simple technique to employ during complex activities.  

And, if you find yourself in panic mode, help is here. Pace yourself at a cadence of inhaling (through your nose) for four seconds, holding for two seconds, and exhaling (through your mouth) for four seconds. Use a clock or a timer. Focus your attention fully on watching the numbers or the second-hand change. Do this for two or three minutes. Bring your breath back to a regular cadence. Check in with yourself.

When you find that one or several of these techniques appear to be working for you, stick with them. Let me be the living proof that these approaches are indispensable: Using them, I’ve been able to officially avoid a panic attack for 10 years now!

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