Everyone has overwhelming moments in life. You may feel fed up with work, stressed about your children’s behaviour, or just tired of ‘adulting’ in general. One of the easiest and most basic ways to calm your brain during these overwhelming moments is to breathe.
Learning how to breathe for relaxation and stress-relief can help you make better decisions, think more clearly and be responsive rather than reactive.
The Science of Breathing and the Vagus Nerve
Breathing techniques can improve your state of mind by bringing calmness to a stressful situation, and biology can explain why. The autonomic nervous system maintains homeostasis in our bodies, keeping numerous body processes running smoothly. During times of stress, the autonomic nervous system changes function quickly to manage the problem. Once the stressor event is over, everything goes back to ‘normal’, or homeostasis.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system, and there are two in your body. They partially control heart function, and this is how we can measure the health of the vagus nerve. We can determine vagal tone by measuring heart rate. Difficulty handling emotions and attention are associated with low vagal tone. People with higher vagal tones are better able to deal with problems and emotions and experience better overall health (McLaughlin, 2015).
Learning how to Breathe Again
Breathing can help ‘work out’ your vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. A few simple steps can improve your breathing technique. The most important thing is perhaps time. You should dedicate some time each day to breathe and centre your mind. It does take practice, but a short daily commitment can have a profound effect on your work and general well-being.
- Find a comfortable spot to sit. Try to sit with good posture (back straight). Quiet helps, so if possible find a little nook in the office or maybe outside in the grass.
- Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Go slowly, and focus your thoughts on your breath. You don’t need to count or do anything special, just feel the flow of your breath.
- Try to keep other thoughts out. Don’t worry about the meeting, expense reports, your kids’ dance lessons, or dinner. It’s only natural for your mind to start wandering, so just redirect your attention back to breathing.
- Stay in this pose for at least five minutes, if you can. Once your time is up, take notice of how you feel. Each day will bring more mindfulness and relaxation.
Integrating Breathing for Better Leadership
Great leaders are able to remain calm, serene and still be alert to what is happening around them. They are better in dealing with uncertainty, chaos and they can still do their analytical thinking without losing it or being unpleasant to others. To practice being calm and alert, breathing properly is the first step.
Breathing is a free, simple way to calm your nerves and bring the focus back to the task at hand. Doing this will help you be more patient, a better listener and more tuned to other people’s needs.
Technology and neurobiology are giving us an extensive toolkit to train our minds. Ancient techniques like yoga and meditation to advanced voice-activated whole brain exercises can all be used.
Many of us do not take the time to relax and disconnect from the stresses of their daily work and life routines. Proper breathing can help create a brain that is more likely to stay on task while maintaining the curiosity needed to create new neural pathways.
McLaughlin, K. A., Rith-Najarian, L., Dirks, M. A., & Sheridan, M. A. (2015). Low Vagal Tone Magnifies the Association Between Psychosocial Stress Exposure and Internalizing Psychopathology in Adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology: The Official Journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 53, 44(2), 314–328.http://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2013.843464