are you breathing?! what to do when your mind goes blank

by | Apr 7, 2014 | Leadership

This may sound like an odd question. After all, if you’re reading this, I would have thought you’re alive and, in order to be alive, you need to be breathing to oxygenate your body and vital organs.

However, though our bodies know how to breathe – after all, they do it around 26,000 times a day! – we don’t often breathe properly. Jane Boston, co-editor of book, Breath in Action says : “We tend to take sips of breath and hold it when we’re anxious, both of which can have a ripple effect through the system.”

“My mind just goes blank”

A few weeks ago, I was coaching a client who holds a senior role in a global corporation. She wanted to talk to me about how she freezes in situations where she is put on the spot, for example, being asked a question in front of a number of people or expected to make an impromptu speech at a corporate event.

She said her mind goes blank, she hasn’t a clue what to say, and she thinks everyone’s judging her for not saying something which fits the occasion.

We picked out a recent time when this had happened so we could explore in detail what was going on. We discovered that, at the moment she’s put on the spot, her heart starts racing, her body tenses – in particular, she crosses her legs and tenses her neck and shoulders – and she holds her breath.

So, given she was limiting the oxygen flow to her brain and her body, it’s not surprising that her mind went blank!

We experimented with what she could do when faced with a similar situation at a later date, and she identified at least two situations which might evoke a similar response so she could practise her newfound techniques.

Starting to breathe again

At her next coaching session, my client reported back on how her “experiments” had worked.

The first situation had been a question and answer session at a company meeting. When the moment came that she was “put on the spot”, my client registered her heart starting to race, her breath getting higher in her body and her body tensing.

It took her a few moments, but once she was aware of what was going on, she intentionally began to breathe deeper into her abdomen, she uncrossed her legs and consciously relaxed her shoulders.

After a few moments, she was ready to answer the question that had caused the panic.

The second situation had been whilst leading a workshop. This time, she found she was able to speed up the process – she was aware sooner of her physical reaction, and was able to make the adjustments more quickly without anyone noticing what was going on.

Top tips

If you recognise yourself in this story, or find that you often get anxious or stressed, here’s some things to think about :

  • Notice your breath. When you realise you’re anxious, notice where your breath is. Is it high in your chest or throat? You might even find your are “holding” your breath. If so, start breathing!
  • Scan your body. How are you holding your body? Is it relaxed and open, or have you got your arms and legs crossed? Are you holding tension anywhere? The face, jaw, shoulders and stomach are common areas to hold tension.
  • Uncross yourself. Uncross arms and legs. Make sure both feet are firmly on the ground. If you’re in a chair, sit upright with your back and backside in the chair, or stand tall.
  • Take some deep breaths. This means breathing in through your nose and allowing your belly to expand, as if you’re inflating a balloon. Then breathe out through your nose, allowing your belly to deflate. With each breath, try to draw it a little deeper, as if you’re drawing it up from a well, and imagine your body relaxing with each outbreath.

What do you think?

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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