professional development

When in doubt, breathe out: How to master stress through controlled breathing

Stuart Taylor /

Ever-increasing workloads, long working days, and productivity powered by a fine balance of adrenaline and stress. For many professionals and business owners today, this is an all-too-familiar state of affairs.

While some people may think they can operate efficiently in a state of stress, ultimately it inhibits our performance at work.

Warning signs of stress

Stress is not just a personal perception or feeling; it has a biological impact on how your mind and body operate.

When we doubt our personal ability to cope in situations, stress takes over and can present itself physically in many ways. Heart rate and blood pressure elevate, breathing becomes shallower and digestion slows down. The ‘rational thinking’ part of our brain begins to shut down and clear decision making is replaced by blank thoughts.

To truly master stress is to strike the balance between thriving and declining at work.  

By taking deliberate steps to build personal resilience, professionals can bounce back from adversity and navigate the working day with heightened performance.

While ongoing distress can, and should, be tackled from a number of fronts, controlled breathing can result in immediate improvements to your wellbeing at work.

Consciously regulating the rhythm of breathing has been shown to have a profound physiological effect on how we feel and can be a powerful tool for managing stress.

Master stress through controlled breathing

First and foremost, when in doubt it’s important to breathe out.

When a feeling of stress takes hold, resist the urge to breathe in. Your heart rate is tied in with your breathing rate, so every time you inhale your heart rate increases, which in turn intensifies alertness and heightens emotions.

Instead, regulate your stress response and decrease your heart rate by focusing on exhalation. Focus on releasing any air you already have in your lungs slowly over five seconds. Remember to keep your spine light and long and let your shoulders roll backward and down as you exhale completely.

Pause for two seconds, then slowly inhale through your nose over three seconds. While doing this, relax your chest and let your sternum sink down. Ensure that you are breathing with your diaphragm, causing your belly — not your chest — to rise.

Pause for two seconds, then exhale over five seconds. Continue this cycle of breathing for one minute.

This diaphragmatic breathing exercise will regulate your heart rate, lower blood pressure and sharpen your concentration.

Communicate with confidence: Square breathing

Controlled breathing can also help us prepare when we anticipate stressful situations are on the horizon, from stepping up to give an important work presentation to making a difficult phone call.

Timing is everything.

You can communicate with undoubtable confidence and take greater command of intense work situations by learning when to breathe.

For high-pressure situations, you can master your stress while captivating your audience by speaking on a held breath. This breathing exercise requires a little more practise, but once perfected is an incredibly powerful tool.

Speaking on a held breath requires ‘square breathing’, which on its own is a great way to reduce tension. Square breathing splits up your breathing into four. Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and finally hold for four seconds.

Controlled breathing

In a presentation setting, the four-second holds in the square breathing technique are replaced by speech. In doing this, your speech becomes more evenly paced, your heart rate lowers, and the natural pauses created by the breathing create greater impact. To see this technique in action, you only need to revisit a speech delivered by Barack Obama.

For many professionals and business owners working in complex and fast-paced industries, stress will continue to appear. However, by giving attention to emotional awareness and embracing practical remedies such as controlled breathing, stress can be mastered and minimised to regain control.

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Stuart Taylor

Stuart Taylor is a speaker, facilitator, executive coach and the founder of Springfox.

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  • ExpatEUTherapist

    Stress in the workplace is extremely costly for many reasons and should be a high priority for every company to deal with proactively. Political discussions are not going to stop and differences in opinions are not going to change. But coping with the stress can be accomplished on an individual basis or as a team. A stress-reduction or mindfulness program is far less expensive than the financial and human costs of stress. Stress can even sink a company. As a psychotherapist who has been working with companies for many years on stress reduction programs I also recommend that every employee works with some sort of guided mindfulness meditation program on a daily basis. The ones I recommend are at http://www.lightunlimitedpublishing.com. They seem to work very well for my patients and students.