Intentional breathing – can it change your life, and your work?

Many shy away from the idea of meditation, no matter how mainstream it may be becoming. It sounds a bit scary and perhaps to some it sounds soft, especially when we discuss it in relation to work and impacting the way we operate. The idea of sitting with your eyes closed in the middle of an open plan office too, may be, well, hard to imagine.

While many workplaces are introducing mindfulness and some meditative practices, individually, many of us still seem to approach with caution. Does this stuff really work?

My view is that it does, without a doubt. If we look simply at the science behind what is happening in our bodies and our brains that alone should be enough to convince us that there is method in this seeming madness. In short, our very wary amygdala is incredibly overactive these days. I liken it to having all the apps running on your phone. The battery is dwindling quickly but you just can’t tell why. Many people these days are feeling exactly that – why am I losing energy so fast? Everything in my life seems pretty good (job, health, family)… so what’s going on? Well, the sheer volume of issues in the world is heightened some might say. Either this is actually true, or certainly, we are just far more aware of the issues that surround us.

We are conscious of our health more than ever with Covid looming in every corner and very few clear answers about how to manage it. We have some very scary political divides blooming in the world which could potentially result in some very dark wars on our doorsteps. We are having to learn to work with technology to be able to work, manage children at home, watch racial issues flare again and again, and it’s no wonder we all find it hard to breathe.

The job of the amygdala in our brain is to keep us safe. When we feel threatened (which right now is more and more), our amygdala shuts down our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain tasked with rational thought) and tells us to either fight it out or get out of the situation. When this little gem starts shining in our brain, it is very very hard to make clear, well-thought out decisions. All of a sudden it makes complete sense why our world is making so many bad choices.

So, where does intentional breathing come in?

In a matter of only a few, very conscious breaths, we are able to calm our nervous system right down. We can literally remind our amygdala that we are not in any certain danger and a give ourselves a chance to get really clear on what we need to do. It takes less than 5 minutes.

The key to intentional breath is to do it regularly. Not just once a day when you wake (a common and perfectly impactful approach) but also to take those 5 minutes at lunchtime, at morning tea, or whenever you feel a heightened sense of stress or anxiousness. There is nothing more effective at your disposal.

One client has recently started using this to manage his ADHD and every time his attention drifts, he simply breathes for a few minutes and is back into productive mode. He also tells me it is incredibly effective just before he collects his children from their childcare, which allows him to be super present, calm and to enjoy his time with them. The intentional part is that he sets himself an intention during his breathing. He focuses on his children, or his work, or what he wants out of the day and visualises that while he breathes.

Across my 17 years of supporting high performing executives, intentional breath is quite simply one of the most impactful tools we work with. Give it a try. It’s a practice, nothing more. So practice it. The more you do it, the more easily it will be at your disposal when you really need it.