Breathing, done correctly, will make you a better leader.
We typically underestimate the immense power we have over our physical state when we are distressed or upset in some way and to alter it in general. The fact is we can influence our own nervous systems. On the one hand, unhelpfully, we can easily intensify a catabolic state, such as “getting wound up.” But helpfully, we can also calm ourselves, shifting from that catabolic to an anabolic state.
In the heat of anger, or at the height of anxiety, or in the turmoil of frustration, the most direct and accessible way to modulate your body’s triggered state is to breathe in a particular and deliberate way called “diaphragmatic breathing,” or deep abdominal breathing.
Here are the steps:
1. Take in a big, deep breath. Make sure your belly is getting bigger. If your chest is getting bigger and your belly smaller you are doing it incorrectly.
2. Hold it while you silently count six seconds.
3. Release the breath slowly.
4. Repeat as needed.
This method of oxygenation is the fastest way to physiologically get your body out of a triggered state. If a true threat were really happening to you, you would not be able to physically make your muscles breathe this way. A true emergency is a survival issue, and your breathing would remain shallow and rapid.
In some ways, modulating your physiology is straightforward. But despite this being a physical skill, you may encounter three road bumps along the way—related to your mindset, attitude or beliefs, which will make it difficult for you to keep calm and lead on.
Potential Road Bump #1: Substituting Other Relaxation Techniques
If you regularly practice yoga or meditation, get massages or use aromatherapy or music to calm yourself, you may be wondering why that isn’t good enough. Do you still need to practice the six-second oxygenation and the diaphragmatic breathing?
Yes, you do, and here’s why. CEOs routinely face highly stressful situations, and there are times when you won’t be able to avoid being triggered. You will need an effective strategy to rapidly shift in that moment. If you are in a contentious board meeting facing a room full of irate directors or on a call with impatient shareholders, you can’t excuse yourself to find a quiet room to meditate—you need a method that you can do right then and there.
When you are in the heat of action, in battle, you will want to recover and adapt with agility. Oxygenation and diaphragmatic breathing can be done quickly right where you are, without anyone noticing what you are doing. Breathing helps you gain capacity and perspective. It allows you to look at things differently and optimize your performance.
We want to get the body out of the triggered state as fast as possible, and to stay out of that state. Other practices may calm your system, but they generally take twenty minutes or more. In addition, many of these practices require particular logistics or space to do them in (such as yoga, massage, exercise). If you are in a deeply catabolic state at work, with people all around you, then obviously you are not going to do any of these other practices in that moment, in that setting.
There can also be a false sense of “okay-ness” when using these other practices. Perhaps you have done a yoga session or you listened to relaxing music for a while or you took a walk to cool down, and now you “feel better.” This does not necessarily mean you have permanently shifted out of your catabolic state. To be clear, I very much believe in the value of the many diverse and available practices that serve to calm, ground, and relax the mind and body. In fact, I often recommend various approaches to clients based on their goals. But while doing these practices regularly and with intention can help you to generally remain calmer and more anabolic throughout each day, they are not a substitute for the oxygenation and diaphragmatic breathing.
Potential Road Bump #2: You Are Already So Chill, You Don’t Need This
One of the hardest things about explaining this road bump is actually getting the attention of the people to whom it applies. Let’s try another checklist. Take a look and see if any apply to you.
• You think of yourself as pretty chill, not too many emotional ups and downs.
• You might be annoyed or quite upset inside, but you hide it well on the outside.
• You let everything slide off your back because things just aren’t that important anyway.
• You have a favorite catch phrase that makes you feel better about everything, such as “It’s all good,” or “I got this.”
If any of these apply to you, then your road bump is going to be a failure to recognize or acknowledge when you are triggered. You will be blind to it. You will not realize that you actually need to oxygenate in that moment. For you, the catabolic state is often “slippery.” You have developed a coping mechanism of denial in order not to feel the discomfort or inconvenience of strong negative feelings. When unwanted things happen, you just tell yourself (and others), “It’s fine, it’s no big deal.”
Practice the oxygenation and diaphragmatic breathing anyway—whether you think you need it or not.
Potential Road Bump #3: You Can’t Take A Deep Breath
Sometimes I encounter a client who cannot take a deep breath. Their body is so tight—they hold so much chronic tension—that their muscles, tissues and bones cannot expand and contract enough to make space for more air to come in and out. The ribs do not move; the chest does not flex; the diaphragm is locked in place. Trying to breathe more deeply is uncomfortable at best and painful at worst. The inability to take that breath can increase frustration, as well.
This type of person has often had significant trauma in their life. They are deeply distrustful of people and of life in general, and they go through every day in a hyperaware, hypervigilant state. It’s as if they are in a self-imposed prison, living under continual threat. They hold themselves very rigidly as a form of self-protection.
When someone has this kind of extreme, chronic tension in the body, then the mental fitness breathing exercises will not be particularly effective. These individuals need a much more nuanced and holistic approach to working with their physiology in order to break up the deep tissue tension.
Adapted with permission from the Wall Street Journal bestselling book LEADING LIGHTLY: Lower Your Stress, Think With Clarity, and Lead With Ease. (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2022).