Breathing : your superhighway from stress to calm

by | Jul 11, 2022 | Leadership

Where is your breath right now? When I ask my clients this, they’re often perplexed by the question. “My nose? My mouth? I’m not sure what you mean.”

If you’re also a bit confused by the question, pause a moment to take a couple of breaths then answer this : Is your breathing quite high, coming from your throat or chest, or lower down from your belly?

What about how you feel? Are you feeling calm, or a bit agitated and anxious? 

If your breathing is quite shallow, then you’re in good company.

Even though as babies we automatically breathe from our diaphragm, by the time we get to adulthood we seldom breathe properly – in other words, where your belly goes out when you breathe in and back in when you breathe out. 

Our sedentary lifestyle doesn’t help us breathe well either, especially if you tend to slump, and working on screens means you’re very likely to take shallow breaths or even hold your breath, a phenomenon known as email apnoea.

The thing is, your breath is fundamental to whether you feel stressed or not.

When I asked you how you felt, what did you notice? If your breath is quite shallow, it’s very likely you’re feeling a bit edgy. If you have more of a sense of calm and spaciousness, it’s likely you’re breathing more deeply.

The way you breathe has the power to either activate or deactivate your vagus nerve, the linchpin of your nervous system and essentially your inner superhighway between stress and calm. So why is this?

Our evolution means our nervous systems are highly attuned to danger. Even though we rarely face life and death situations as our ancestors did – say, a hungry sabre-toothed tiger – the modern-day environment generates a constant stream of stressors masquerading as hungry tigers that can trick your brain into thinking you’re under threat. For example, a bulging inbox, deadlines to meet, a demanding boss.

It’s become normal – though not natural – to be on a constant state of alert as our ancient fight-flight response is activated, which means your breathing can become shallow on an almost permanent basis. 

The good news is that breathing is the one element of the nervous system you can directly control. The bad news is that you have to remember to do it all the time!

I wrote a blog a while back called And breathe… which talks you through a simple breathing exercise called Dormouse Breathing which my clients find very useful. After only a couple of minutes, they report back that they feel calmer, often noticing that their thoughts are less noisy and they have more perspective.

However, within a few minutes of doing the breathing exercise, I’ll often notice them become more agitated and their breath rise again as they talk about something from the past or in the future that’s causing them stress. 

A key role for me is to help my clients raise awareness of what their mind and body is up to so they can take action in service of being their best selves. And this takes practice.

It’s good to have a daily breathing practice – I’ve been doing 10 minutes with this app every night for several years now.

However, if you want to access a calm, resourceful state more often, you’ll need to practise bringing your attention to your breath multiple times a day in order to re-educate your sensitive nervous system.

What matters most when we’re embodying new habits is frequency not duration.

One tactic might be to take 10 seconds to bring attention to your breath every time a meeting reminder goes off. Another might be to put an alert on your phone on the hour every hour to take three conscious breaths.

I’m going to repeat the quote from my last breathing blog to reinforce why breathing is worth paying attention to. It’s from Harvard-trained psychiatrist Dr. Patricia Gerbarg : “By changing patterns of breathing we can change our emotional states, how we think, and how we interact with the world.”

What’s it worth to you to feel calmer, more in control and more creative rather than stressed and reactive? What difference would that make to how you live and lead?

What do you think? Drop me a line at 

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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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