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Breathing Your Way to a Calmer Workplace – A Simple Solution

July 1, 2010

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In nearly all the seminars or workplace interventions that we facilitate, we take at least 5 minutes to introduce a simple breathing meditation.

Two things stand out about these exercises – they are often greeted by uncomfortable chuckles, groans and a few eyebrows being raised when first mentioned – and  they are cited as one of the top 3 top takeaways in the evaluations!

It seems remarkable when we say it but are you remembering to breathe?

That is what this simple post is all about.

Naturally, if we are alive, we are breathing. The question is how.

Watch a baby sleep – that is how we start out in life, with deep, slow, abdominal centered breathing.  Unfortunately, poor breathing – fast, shallow and choppy – becomes a bad habit for most adults, especially when stressed.

The average person reaches peak respiratory function and lung capacity in their mid-20′s.  After that, we began to lose it at a rate of 10-27% for every decade of life! Unless we are doing something to maintain or enhance our breathing capacity, it will decline the longer we live.

Most people breathe exclusively with their upper body, many hold their breath unconsciously. These stress responses, created at a young age, usually in reaction to emotional traumas, worsen over time. They contribute to a whole range of physical problems – and place our bodies in a permanent state of the “flight or fight” mode.

Clinical studies prove that oxygen, wellness, mental focus  and life-span are dependent on proper breathing. Lung volume is a primary indicator of longevity. Optimal breathing contributes to lowering blood pressure; improving asthmatic conditions; maintenance of body ph levels; relief from headaches and burning of fat and calories just to name a few benefits.

Our breath supplies 99% of our entire oxygen and energy supply. Our physiology and brain need oxygen flow to be regulated for optimal health. The brain’s ability to maintain clarity and focus depend on unimpeded oxygen flow.

Emotions and Your Breathing

One of the most powerful connections you can make to shift your emotional state is learning to regulate your breathing. You build the capacity to do this by:

  • Becoming conscious of your breath throughout the day
  • Noticing the connection between how you are breathing and what you are feeling
  • Building new habits of breathing by bringing your regular awareness to your breathing before known stressful circumstances (like certain conversations, times of day, important events, etc)

The experience and intensity of your emotions is regulated by your thought and your breathing. These are inextricably connected.  Typically when we are angry, frustrated or impatient, our breathing is shallow and choppy. Fear usually triggers us to hold our breath, while being calm we experience easy, full whole body breathing.

Consequently, if you want to ratchet down your emotions, your “go-to” place should be your breathing.

Try this little experiment:

Step 1: Close your eyes and imagine a time where you were really angry. Get into it.  Visualize the situation and especially the person/persons with whom you were/are angry.  Got that?

Step 2: Ok, now while holding this scenario in your mind’s eye, begin to get in touch with your breathing, slowing it down, regulating it to a smoother pace.  Stay here for a few seconds.

Step 3: Now while maintaining your slow and steady breath, recall the scenario and the anger you felt a few minutes ago.

What happened? If you respond like many people in our workshops do, you will find it next to impossible to stay angry while focusing on your calmer breathing pattern.

Why? Because emotions are experienced in the body, even though they are triggered by thought.  The state of your physiology either enables or disables feelings. When you learn to regulate your breathing – you are also learning to manage feelings, a key competency of being more emotionally intelligent.

5 Steps to Training Your Breathing Process

The reality is every time you allow short, shallow upper body breathing to be your main method of obtaining oxygen flow; you are training your breathing patterns. Like everything else, changing habits takes commitment – and consistency.  Approaching these changes simply and incrementally often works best.  Here are several steps you can take:

  1. Decide on several times/occasions each day to stop and bring your attention to your breathing. It can literally be a minute or two.
  2. Identify a few breathing techniques (there are dozens online, books and audio downloads ) to experiment with for a few minutes a day. If you are doing this at work (if you can, this can be very  supportive) many of our clients say they find ways to either close their office doors for five minutes once or even twice a day to do their breathing/relaxation practice (one person reports doing it in their car, several in their workplace bathrooms for privacy) Be creative – find a spot.
  3. If you don’t feel you have time consider that in a given 8 hour work day there are 480 minutes or 28,800 seconds to work with! Can you spare 5 or 10 for your mental and physical well-being?
  4. Once you have identified a technique that works for you, begin to make this a routine practice. Don’t judge yourself or give up if you miss a day or more, just keep going.  Consistency (even with lapses) will build your practice (and your breathing capacity).
  5. Once you’ve got your regular (private) practice underway, start integrating your breathing technique into your daily activities (like driving, waiting in line or on hold) and conversations with others.  The more you practice, the more you will notice the connections between your breathing and your behaviors.

If you stick with your breathing practice, we’re betting that you will find a little goes a long way – and you’ll want more.  Learning a simple quick breathing technique and integrating the practice into your daily life will often lead to creating a meditation routine.  The more you do, the more you will rest and relax – and the better you will feel. It is really that simple.

So how do your breathing habits affect you, especially when stressed?

How do you think taking a few minutes out, each day, would support your energy level and mental focus?

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2010 3:03 pm

    Combine that practice with learning to turn off all the radio stations in your head and you will be able to hold on to the center of the circle.

    • July 1, 2010 10:45 pm

      Hi Paul – a pleasant surprise to find you here. Great point. It is very difficult to “turn the channel” to the endless voices of self-talk without learning to manage our breathing. Really like the concept of holding on to the center of the circle.
      Best,
      Louise & George

  2. July 2, 2010 11:54 am

    Great Post!

    So interesting that your seminar folks raise eyebrows and then rate it as a top take away.

    The eyebrows are not based on reality.

    Paul’s metaphor of the center of the circle is very similar to Dr. Dan Siegal’s hub of the wheel and rim of the wheel. Whatever the metaphor, breathing is key!

    Lynda

    • July 2, 2010 1:13 pm

      Dear Lynda,
      Yes it is always interesting to experience the resistance to something that is unfamiliar yet ultimately so welcome! As you know in your work breathing is the essence of our experience and any change we desire to make.
      I hope readers came away with a sense of the power they can access when they take even a short time, to reconnect with their breathing.
      Always appreciate your comments,
      Best, Louise and George

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