I was recently asked in a presentation that I gave on resilience at work what were the most popular areas of breathwork I’ve delivered in the past.
For 6 years since beginning Sniff Sigh Yawn, which also mirrors what I’ve taught prior to 1995, the questions include the following; breathwork for better sleep, breathing for movement/exercise/resistance training, overcoming hyperventilation syndrome, recovering from asthma, and wellbeing in the workplace to build resilience.
It’s on the latter that I’ve had the broadest interest, which is why I’ve been focusing on it since 2022, with regards to a business audience in partnership with Kim Rutherford.
In addition, and as mentioned, many people have asked me more about my work with resilience – the subject seems to be trending now amongst those working in e.g. experienced leadership roles.
How we breathe plays a big role in our coping strategies for managing stress and building resilience at work. “But all you need to do is inhale and exhale” quipped a lively member of another recent company workshop I held. “Well, you’d be dead if you didn’t” came my response. The point is…don’t forget to pause after the exhale. Here’s why.
As humans, we can control how we feel by how we breathe. For example, you’re on a plane and feel that fear of flying, as a result your pulse, breathing rate and temperature increases. You can go down the mindfulness, meditation route or you can simply focus on the breath and remember that the calmest people breathe silently, gently and from the lower abdominal muscles at a rate of about 6-8 breaths a minute. This puts us in a ‘parasympathetic’ state and the best way to achieve this is via a longer exhale that contains a long pause afterwards. So, for example, breathe in for 3, out for 7 and pause for 3.
Lower abdominal breathing is key. This technique also improves our sleep and ability to exercise with more strength and endurance but that’s for another article.
Focusing on the workplace, how do such breathing techniques help you build resilience? Imagine having to cope with a daily stress load that doesn’t give you ‘time to breathe’? How can breathwork change that? Being on a heightened sense of anticipation is a state too many of us recognise in modern Western society. That often creates a dysfunctional breathing habit that commonly we are unaware of and is thus hidden. This heightened state can send a cascade of stress through the body creating the potential for many symptoms and ill health as a result.
Life is all about emotion and our ability to keep our energy and vibe high, right? But how do we build up a capacity to tolerate a negative emotion if it’s already low? We all know that feeling of low emotion from the pandemic years (incidentally, there’s a strong link between low emotion and why your mind employs multiple buffer mechanisms that include procrastination, eating junk, drinking, excessive video gaming, etc. These are all symptoms of what’s referred to as psychosomatic dysfunction).
Given that the ability to maintain your composure during stress can potentially determine whether the stress will cause positive or negative metabolic adaptations, it’s therefore crucial to change that feeling of low emotion. And you do it via the breath.
You can imagine your abilities in the workplace to perform better and be more productive by coping better with your stress load through a stronger emotional state.
Nature gave us the power of the breath that’s why it feels so good to breathe in nature. The beauty of the breath and its powers, lies in nature yes but also the speed with which by manipulating it through different breathing exercises can change how you feel physically, mentally and psychologically…helping to shift that emotional state, and, it’s all in the experience.
Our bodies are so good at telling us how we feel…notice I purposely didn’t say the mind – I’ll come back to that.
So, when we feel that stressed state, it’s worth remembering, wait for it, why Zebras don’t get ulcers. Yes, they spend much of their time in the Savannah, minding their own business, in a parasympathetic state, grazing and living the dream, that is until the big cat arrives and then the adrenals kick in.
As humans in the workplace and in life we need to feel that stressed state less often, otherwise we ultimately get burnt out and begin to perform relatively poorly on a daily basis.
Being stressed turns on hyperventilation-based breathing. Long term that can create illness and, not to put too fine a point on it, there are more than 150 different medical conditions related to living in a hyperventilation state.
Given the speed with which breathing exercises can change how we feel and function daily, imagine the power and benefits of committing to a daily practice – key to keeping us from feeling over stimulated and overwhelmed! The beauty of the exercises is that they create a habit, a daily sequence that we can rely on when our bodies check in with us and tell us we are stressed. I did mention that I’d come back to that point about our minds telling us how we feel. Well, when we focus on the breath, watch what disappears from your mind. Most of what we think is made up of 95% nonsense based upon existing in a stressed state. Breathwork fixes that.
Behind the exercises, I have found that a daily observance of the breath, and e.g. where it comes from, and how light or heavy it feels, can keep you in the best state to maximise your potential at work. For instance, come to recognise your breath as ‘normal’ by making sure it is light, quiet, effortless, soft, through the nose, tummy-based, rhythmic, and gently paused on the exhale for about three seconds.
There are three levels of breathing…(a) so softly that the person next to you can’t hear you breathe, (b) softly so you can’t hear yourself breathe, (c) so softly that you cannot feel yourself breathe.
And if you want to become aware of that hidden dysfunctional breathing pattern and change it into a functional one to build greater resilience, here’s a checklist of bad habits to give up…mouth breathing (common when using tech), audible breathing during rest, regular sighing, sniffing, yawning with big breaths, large breaths prior to talking, lots of upper visible chest movement aided by forward head posture.
Awareness of the breath not only stops you taking your breathing for granted, it also enables you to use it to your huge advantage at work and it’s a proven game-changer.