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While still contending with the pandemic, Americans are crafting their new normal to meet their new needs: more flexibility, greater happiness and less stress. Less stress is the operative phrase here. Americans are stressed and experiencing an elevated risk of pandemic-fueled PTSD, according to the Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition just released by the self-care platform Total Brain. Just over 20 percent of workers are screened at risk for PTSD.
With increased levels of stress being all too common, it’s critical for leaders to lead with empathy and an arsenal of stress-busting strategies. And there are plenty of ways to relieve stress, from exercising and basking in nature to taking a hot bath or getting a massage. But as a wellness consultant and yoga therapist who has written extensively on emotional well-being and workplace stress, the easiest and most effective stressbuster I’ve found is something you’re doing right now, without even thinking about it: Breathing.
But to tap into the power of breathing and increase the efficacy of this tool, it’s important to do it right.
Embrace Breathing Techniques to Alleviate Stress
As it turns out, proper breathing is not only a recognized practice but has also been proven to improve and diminish physical and mental ailments. It can lower blood pressure, heart rate and tension; improve focus, digestion and lung health; and enhance immunity and overall health. In fact, the way we inhale and exhale could be as important to our physical and mental health as what we eat and how much we exercise, journalist James Nestor pointed out in his best-seller Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.
But best of all, proper breathing is a powerful way to combat stress, relieve anxiety and ease depression — states that can decimate workers’ abilities to perform on the job. Employees suffering from PTSD, up 56 percent in the workplace when compared to pre-Covid-19 levels, have an 18 percent decrease in sustained attention, an 11 percent lower level of resilience, an 8 percent drop in their planning skills and a 5 percent decline in memory.
Clearly, leaders have an opportunity to address stress in the workplace by offering workplace training in breathing techniques. Of course, most people probably think they already know how to breathe. They do it on autopilot every day. But in truth, our breathing carries a message. It reflects our emotions, physical condition and energy level. While we don’t need to be taught how to breathe, we should consider proper breathing techniques to maximize its benefits, improve well-being and dispel misconceptions.
Although breathing is a natural process, in the yogic practice of breathing, there’s some discussion about the right and wrong way to breathe. While most people think yoga is merely a series of positions to master, in fact, it is an ancient, practical system for integrating our bodies and minds to improve well-being and health, and breathing is an essential part of yoga. Even a little effort to embrace proper breathing goes a long way. (I cover various breathing practices in The Breathing Breakthrough, my free e-book through the Global Wellness Institute.)
Breathing Basics to Reset Your Body and Mind
Here are some basics to try alone, or use as a group exercise with your employees, to get started.
1. Know the components of breath before you start practicing: A breathing practice happens when you deliberately control your breathing cycle by regulating one or more of your breath’s four parts: exhalation, suspension of breath (empty lungs), inhalation and retention of breath (lungs full).
2. Cultivate good posture: Practice breathing either seated or lying down. Choosing one or the other changes the way you experience the exercise. Sitting straight up in a comfortable position with eyes closed supports alertness. Lying down tends to encourage relaxation or sleep.
3. Improve your positioning: Proper breathing actually helps you improve your posture, so it’s important to support yourself correctly. In a prone position, consider a mat and pillows under your head and/or knees. If sitting up, try a position with good support on a couch or chair or use a pillow.
4. Breathe through your nose: It’s best to keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose as you practice. Breathing through your nose can filter out allergens and dust, boost your oxygen intake, and prevent dry mouth and sore throats by humidifying the air you take in.
5. Inhale, retain; exhale, hold: As you close your eyes and breathe through your nose, begin to create a smooth and subtle sound from the back of your throat. Gradually allow your breathing to deepen. Pay attention to the pause or retention after inhale and the suspension after exhale.
6. Employ strategic breathing: Why emphasize the inhale or the exhale? The inhale/retention is tied to the sympathetic nervous system — increasing it creates a state of energy and arousal. The exhale and suspension is tied to the parasympathetic nervous system — lengthening it creates a state of relaxation and calm. Choose the practice for your needs, whether for more energy or to induce a calm state.
7. Stretch it out: Work toward lengthening each phase of the process. Keep your hands relaxed and your mouth soft. Start with shorter breathing cycles and gradually work toward lengthening them. This builds your lung capacity and could increase immunity.
You can use these basics to progress to all sorts of breathing practices. It will take a little time to make your breath long and smooth, but it’s worth it. Advance slowly. Breathing is central to the yogic tradition and “isn’t something Western medicine should blow off,” Harvard Medical School professor Herbert Benson, M.D., pointed out over a decade ago in his book Relaxation Revolution.
So, take care of your breath, and it will take care of you.