Just Breathe – Is it possible?

Research shows us time and time again, that “our vibe affects our tribe.” In other words, if we are anxious or stressed, it negatively impacts the other members of our teams. A key way to manage that kind of stress and anxiety is through practicing mindfulness.

We all want to be the best leaders possible for our organizations. We know that mindfulness is a beneficial tool with which to hone our leadership skills, but where do we find the time to bring it into our everyday lives? Management in the workplace involves a series of situations that often arise unexpectedly, and people come to us when they need help; something is “burning,” and they are not sure what to do. The first thing we often tell someone in those situations is to breathe, or to take a deep breath.

Perhaps, as leaders, it is time that we take our own advice and the sage advice flight attendants provide before each takeoff, which is to “put your own air mask on before helping others.” Let’s pause and breathe first, so that we can help others with a calm assuredness. Our brain involuntarily takes care of breathing daily for us; by paying attention to it purposefully, we can gain control of the energy that mindful breathing brings to us.

When our “fight or flight” response kicks on, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. This action results in changes in our breathing and a slew of other physiological changes that combat the external stimuli. By paying purposeful attention to our breath, we have the power to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the balance to the sympathetic nervous system. By controlling and steadying our breath, our body provides feedback to our brain that all is okay with the world, allowing us to create clarity and address the impending problem(s) in front of us.

This is why every tool in the mindfulness tool box starts with the same thing – breathing. For example, yoga has several different types of breathing, and there are mediation classes purely dedicated to breathing. It’s important, so how do you bring it into your daily life of managing unexpected situations? It’s easy; you don’t need to close your eyes or have a comfortable seat. You can do it while you are commuting to work, in line for coffee, or where ever you are. Try this simple exercise:

1. Notice your breath
2. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts
3. Hold the air in your lungs for 4 counts
4. Exhale through your nose for 4 counts
5. Repeat

If 4 counts is too long for you, start with 2 or 3 seconds, and work up to 4. The overarching concept is that you are taking control of your breath, and by doing that, you are simply telling your brain physiologically to be present.

By including this simple breathing exercise at a time in which you are fraught with anxiety or stress, you become a more present, less anxious, less stressed leader. Remind yourself that you cannot control the stimuli in the world around you, but you can control how you respond to it.

By Rachel Shields Williams, Senior Manager, Experience Management, Sidley Austin LLP

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