Founder of DRIVEN Professionals. Enhancing professionals' Intentional Productivity and creating organizational cultures of DEI.

A cherished colleague had left her impressive title and salary in banking to take a role as a consultant. In one of our quarterly check-in calls, about eight months into her new role, she’d shared that she went to her prior firm’s holiday party and was amazed at how stressed her colleagues were. She was exhausted and became anxious just listening to their challenges, frustrations and pace. She almost whispered that she was horrified to realize that this was her life in her former role.

High-stress roles will always exist. Heck, everyday life can be stress-laden, but stress becomes manageable when the stressed person takes a moment to notice the stress and then takes one breath.

The power of the breath is that it brings your brain back to the present so it can make a responsive decision, as opposed to reacting to the situation at hand. We respond when our brain is in the present and react when we’re in the “trance” of the past or the future. Ironically, slowing down seems counterintuitive to the stressed.

Does one breath sound too easy? Take a breath and read on to discover how managing your breathing is the first essential step toward managing your stress.

Breathing: The Secret To Life, Living In Plain Sight

Breathing is not only the most fundamental thing we do, it’s also vital for brain function. Although the brain accounts for 2% of our body weight, it consumes 20% of the oxygen we breathe. When we are stressed, we tend to hold our breath or breathe shallowly from the throat rather than deeply from the belly, chest and lungs. To think clearly, we need to breathe properly.

The Space To Choose Your Response

There's a saying that “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In the space of one breath, you can shift attention from your amygdala (the part of the brain that reacts to “danger”) to the prefrontal cortex (which allows you to be responsive). Since the amygdala acts as the default in our brain when stressed, it takes a lot of energy to shift to the thinking brain. So when you’re feeling stress in the form of anxiety, impatience, irritation, defensiveness or frustration, which all threaten your well-being, you get caught in a “stress loop” that keeps you ruminating on past or future stressors.

When you train yourself to breathe, you can return to the prefrontal cortex with one intentional breath. And it is in this executive brain that you can respond, not react, to a stressful situation.

Give Me Three Steps

How do you begin? With three breathing exercises to embed into your daily routine. Regulate your brain and body with belly breathing and bring yourself to the present for full focus. And when you find yourself in high anxiety, we’ve got a breathing exercise for you, too!

Step 1: Set the foundation. Diaphragmatic breathing can neurochemically set you up for your day. Not only does the full exchange of oxygen accomplished with this type of breathing slow the heartbeat, it can lower or stabilize blood pressure, too. Find a quiet place to sit and listen to these instructions to practice "belly breathing."

Step 2: Come to the present. My favorite tool in coaching is a three-breath meditation. I’ve even written about it before. The brilliance of these three breaths is they take less than a minute to do while bringing you to the present to check your emotional state and focus your attention. They easily snuggle into your mental space as you’re logging onto a virtual meeting or entering into an in-person interaction.

Step 3: Mitigate anxiety. We’ve all been in a situation where anxiety has blindsided us, leaving us off balance, triggered, even stunned. With this shock to the system, many hold their breath, sending them into a panic attack. Practicing 4-7-8 breathing can calm your nervous system and align your train of thought with your prefrontal cortex. This is where you can think clearly, and respond instead of reacting to the stressor that’s causing anxiety. As the name of the breathing suggests, you inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven and then exhale evenly, from your mouth, for an eight count. Repeat this for two to three minutes and notice as your nervous system settles down.

Breathing is a crucial approach to managing stress while enhancing well-being and focus. And a proven first step as well! Breathing helps in the moment and as a protective measure.

Additionally, it is important to identify what triggers stress. In the next article in this series, my writing partner, Ute Franzen-Waschke, will thus explore the stressors of our new corporate lives and our new ways of working, plus the role our mindset plays in managing stress more effectively.

In the meantime, pause and practice your breathing. It will only take a minute or two. Notice if you can identify your stressors. You may even find them on our list in the coming article.

This article is part of an ongoing series with fellow Forbes Coaches Council member Ute Franzen-Waschke, founder of Business English & Culture.


Forbes Coaches Council is an invitation-only community for leading business and career coaches. Do I qualify?


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