Take a deep breath
In a typical day there are a variety of potential triggers that might get my blood boiling…
- My daughter texts me as I’m trying to get out of the house in the morning about a ride she needs that night.
- I get an email from my team member about their (now late) deliverable.
- I review my financial statements and, *surprise*!
- The Internet goes out (again).
- I receive word from my “tech team” that my website revisions are still not done.
- The mail arrives with a “*friendly*” notice from the IRS.
- My phone beeps with another text from my daughter and another email from my team member.
- Why is that guy riding my bumper?
- My spouse is calling, “The hot water heater is out. I called the plumber…”
- I have a blog post to write!
Each time I’m hit with one of these I feel my stress rising and my ability to *think* diminishes. Every time my phone beeps or my email dings, I feel like water is rising around my neck! I’m getting more and more overwhelmed and the room left in my brain for rational thought is getting squeezed down to just about nothing.
This is not ideal.
I’m supposed to be a leader. I’m making important decisions that affect my life, the lives of all my team members and my customers, and I’m doing it with like 8% of my brain power.
But this isn’t just my impression, it’s actually science! The more we are feeling stress, and the more complex the decisions we have to manage, the more our bloodstream gets flooded with the hormone cortisol. This hormone is pumped out by our adrenal glands in response to stress and it’s designed to push our body into “fight-or-flight” — a protective response that makes us prone to higher risk, short-term thinking. Cortisol primes us to “react” instead of thinking things through. It reduces our emotional intelligence and ability to read subtle signals. Cortisol dismantles millennia of evolutionary gains and leaves us to our lizard brains.
Of course, this is exactly the behavior that gets us in trouble. It’s the kind of behavior that people don’t like in their leaders, and that I can’t stand in myself. But it seems unlikely that I’m going to eliminate these sources of stress (unless I could sell my kids, fire my employees and hide from my customers)! So what can I do?
Take a deep breath.
No, I’m serious on this one. Taking a deep breath is exactly what I need (and not just because that’s what my Mom would have told me to do). Taking a deep breath can help me in at least three ways:
1. Heart rate follows respiration. Lowering my respiration rate causes my heart rate to slow down. BBy taking a deep breath I slow down my respiration and decrease my heart rate which starts to make me feel more calm, less aroused and more in control.
2. Taking a deep breath buys me time and gives me a chance to think. When I’m are locked into a “fight-or-flight” response it makes me twitchy. I want to react, and I mean now. I can’t fall for that — a deep breath will buy me some time and give me a chance to think.
3. Deep breathing triggers the Parasympathetic nervous system. The Parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” response. Stimulating it helps me to relax, think clearly and lower the levels of cortisol in my blood.
Then take another
One deep breath may not be enough. I need to get my body chemistry back to where I can think. That means I need to keep breathing deeply until my heart rate gets back down to normal and my parasympathetic nervous system can get back in control.
Here’s how I do it. I breathe in slowly through my nose. I want to feel my belly rise as I expand my diaphragm down to fill my lungs. Then I slowly exhale trying to match my inhalation and exhalation times. This slow, rhythmic breath is similar to what is found in many Yoga practices and has been linked to lowering anxiety, reducing blood pressure, and improving decision making.
Keep going, it gets better
The best part is that controlling my breathing and slowing things down doesn’t just restore what I’ve lost to the cortisol — it can even grow my brain, and change how my genes are expressed giving me more capacity to effectively manage stress!
Breathing is something I don’t think a lot about. It happens pretty much automatically (thank goodness). But when I’m stressed or overwhelmed, focussing on this basic function can be the beginning of getting control of my outlook, my actions, and my life. So, I mean it. Take a deep breath.
Doesn’t that feel good?