How many times have you been told to stop and just breathe? Saying this is much easier than doing it, especially in the heat of the moment. When tempers are raging or those important deliverables are past due, keeping your cool is undoubtedly a feat. But if you can take control and just breathe, chances are the outcome will be better.
The Science of Breath
Research has shown when you take control of your breathing, you take back control of your nervous system, which is responsible for emotion regulation. When this happens, your typical emotional response can be short-circuited, and it gives you the time needed to process the event critically, think logically, and act effectively. Here’s how it works: the vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and one of its main responsibilities is rest. As breathing begins to slow down, your heart rate decreases and triggers this nerve to go into action. As stimulation occurs, you gradually begin to experience the benefits.
The world offers countless examples of breathing benefits. In eastern societies, breathing is used in meditation to achieve altered states of consciousness. In western societies, breathing is typically seen in therapeutic practices. In both practices, it is the art of deliberate deep breathing that is needed to recenter and bring clarity to any given situation.
So, what’s the difference between controlled breathing and just…breathing? The answer is simple, but also complicated. The average person takes over 20,000 breaths per day. These breaths aren’t deliberate, and they are done unconsciously for the purpose of keeping you alive. Deliberate breathing on the other hand forces you to make the conscious decision to take full control of each individual breath. Depending on the nature of the event, your ability to implement breathing techniques can be a challenge.
For me, when my kids do the very thing I told them not to do, or they break the thing I didn’t want them to break, the last thing I am thinking about is breathing. But it is necessary. Not just for the purpose of maintaining control, but also for managing my relationship with them. It’s about the short- and long-term benefits.
Knowing when and how to breathe is a self-awareness and management strategy. Once you’re able to make this a part of who you are and how you operate, this skill will allow you to re-enter conversations, workspaces, and daily life in a way that allows you to remain socially aware and maintains relationships.
Here are three recommended steps to get you going on the path of deliberate breathing:
- Identify a physical or mental “safe place”
- Learn to recognize when it’s time to go there
- Develop methods to help you get there quickly and effectively
Deliberate breathing requires you to do more than just breathe. You must use the technique to take your mind away from the moment and to a place that brings you woosah, a state of clarity and calmness.
Where is that place for you? Where do you go to get away from your problems and all of life’s stressors? For some, it may be a physical place and for others, this peaceful oasis exists in the mind.
I have two places I regularly go. One is the visualization of my family. I don’t know if I have become more sensitive over the years but the mere thought of them changes my mood. I watch the way they engage with one another and marvel at the way my infant son stares at his mother. I love the way they light up when they are in each other’s presence. I’ve become fascinated with taking mental pictures and notes of every facial expression to preserve each moment in time. When I’m away from them and facing a moment where my emotions are about to override rationality, I take a deep breath and remind myself of those images. As I exhale, I use that process to reflect on them as a return to a healthier mental space.
The second place for me is under water. Although it would be amazing to leave every stressful moment and go diving, I don’t have that luxury. But, taking that mental trip costs me nothing but a little effort.
Diving is an activity where controlling your breathing is necessary. When I first began my diving certification, I remember the feeling I had when I first descended under the ocean’s surface. Although I was mesmerized by the beauty below, I couldn’t help but notice my breathing being erratic. I remember thinking, “I’m not supposed to be down here. This is their (the sharks) world and I’m in their personal space.” After being submerged for 30 minutes going through training drills, the instructor gave us the signal for an air check. I watched everyone signal how much air they had remaining and realized I had half of what they had remaining. The instructor calmly gave the signal for the group to return to the surface because he knew I didn’t have enough air to finish the training. When we got out of the water, we talked about what was happening for me and the impact on my oxygen tank. He told me that to fully enjoy the diving experience, I would have to learn to relax and manage my breathing.
After changing my tank for a fresh one, we descended again. What I decided to do this time was watch the instructor’s bubbles under the water. The longer the exhale, the more bubbles you see. The longer the inhale, the greater amount of time before the next bubbles would be seen.
During this underwater experiment, I saw he was inhaling for 10-12 seconds and exhaling for the same. After a little practice, I found myself no longer thinking about my environment, my focus was just on my breathing. When my deliberate breathing became natural, although my environment didn’t change, it no longer affected me in the same way. It was an immediate stress reduction and the ultimate woosah. Now when I’m in a situation where I need to free my mind, I slow down my breathing, inhale deeply, exhale slowly, and take a deep dive.
From Insight to Action: Manage Your Triggers
Knowing when it’s time to go to your safe place–physically or mentally–means you must recognize and manage what triggers you. Triggers are different for every person. They can be feelings, people, or even places. A helpful way to recognize your triggers would be to revisit the history of your emotional responses and identify what caused it to happen.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in the office, on the frontline, or in your home, it is important to realize you can’t control the actions of anyone but yourself. Attempting to do so will be exhausting and rarely ever fruitful.
If you focus on breathing and mastering the control of your emotions and actions, there will be less concern for outside events. Concentrating focus on yourself helps reduce the effect of external factors and subsequently strengthens your personal resolve.
Try this: Make a list of obvious things that push you over the edge. For me, that list includes: someone tailgating me, kids kicking my seat on airplanes, and rush hour traffic on I-95 in Virginia.
Add to that list by soliciting those closest to you as they’ve likely noticed things (that you aren’t aware of) that have triggered an emotional response.
As you reflect on your list, deliberately focus on managing your breathing while you:
- Acknowledge your true feelings (feel what you feel)
- Don’t label your emotions as good or bad (just observe your emotions, don’t judge them)
- Identify the root cause of the emotion (where does it stem from?)
- Decide on what you can control and pick 1 action to execute on
For other easy-to-implement strategies to improve in your work and in your life, purchase our book Emotional Intelligence 2.0.
To learn more about emotional intelligence training and TalentSmartEQ’s programs and solutions, please visit: https://www.talentsmarteq.com/contact/ or contact TalentSmartEQ at 888-818-SMART.
By Dimyas Perdue, Director of Military Solutions