Just like athletes, executives need their bodies to be able to perform optimally. Think of an athlete executing their skill. They practice their physical movements when they are not under “threat” or competition, and then in the moments where it’s necessary, they move with speed, elegance and skill. There need be no fear or pain involved.
Stay Calm And Think On
That’s why learning how to calm your physiology is essential for good leadership. When your brain perceives a negative environment change, you can feel overwhelmed, stressed, fearful, confused or anxious. That impairs you mentally so that you aren’t able to perform to your full capacity. But you can train your amygdala (the part of your brain that defines and regulates emotions and activates the fight-or-flight response) so that you don’t react when you are triggered.
Without an ability to control our amygdala, we are thinking very narrowly. Our lens is small, and we react and respond from an emotional place. The body is giving you signals, but you must listen to them. Most people are not in touch with their bodies, and they are not aware of the signs it provides to them.
Here are some of the possible physiological responses you can experience in your body when you are being triggered (aka a fight-or-flight moment):
- Heart pounding
- Feeling of rising heat in the body
- Tension in your face, neck, shoulders and/or arms
- Clenching your hands into fists
- Dry mouth
- Tightening in your chest
- Tears come to your eyes
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Urge to smash, hit or stomp something
- Urge to run away from the situation
- Feeling heavy or paralyzed
No two people are alike, so how I feel when I am triggered will be different than how you feel. That’s why you must train yourself to become more self-aware and mindful of your physiological states because it feels different for different people. You must also act quickly when you feel these states coming on. This is where a mindfulness practice is helpful, because you can learn to control your body’s responses when you start to feel the reaction.
The first step is to simply pause. Be aware of what you are feeling and what led you to this moment. Identify any bodily changes you are experiencing.
The second step is to regain your composure, and you can do that most quickly through diaphragmatic breathing. Developing your muscles for deep breathing can help get you out of a triggered state fast so that you are able to think rationally and perform optimally in the moment.
Take A Breath
The benefits and methods of breathing have been studied, written about and taught for years, in many different ways, cultures and contexts. But in executive circles, the value of paying attention to your breathing is often discounted—or ignored. It can be viewed as too fluffy or too spiritual, or it’s just too simple. But I think this is a huge mistake.
Mental fitness, as I’ve written about before, is all about minimizing fight-or-flight responses and keeping your body, mind and energy in a predominately anabolic or restorative state. I’ve written about how most of our mental fitness “muscles” are focused around choices and skills in the mental domain, but this particular muscle is different; it’s actually in the body. We can’t leave the body out of our understanding of mental fitness.
Diaphragmatic breathing uses your diaphragm correctly to get more oxygen to the body. The Cleveland Clinic identifies it as:
- Strengthening the diaphragm
- Decreasing the work of breathing by slowing your breathing rate
- Decreasing oxygen demand
- Using less effort and energy to breathe
When you are in a strongly catabolic state, your breathing defaults to short, shallow breaths. But as an executive facing a difficult situation, you actually need a strong supply of oxygen to your brain. You need clarity and calm; you need to be centered and present.
Diaphragmatic breathing does at least two critical things for you:
1. It oxygenates you in the full and replenishing way you need, and
2. It sends clear signals to your body’s nervous system that there is no real danger.
Here are the steps for diaphragmatic breathing:
1. Take in a big, deep breath. Make sure your belly is getting bigger. If your chest is getting bigger and your belly smaller, you are doing it incorrectly.
2. Hold it while you silently count six seconds.
3. Release the breath slowly.
4. Repeat as needed.
Here’s a classic example of what happens if you don’t breathe when you are under stress. You’ve likely experienced it!
You get an email that makes you really mad. You grab your phone. You furiously start tapping or indignantly dictating your response. With a final emphatic tap, you hit “send.” A couple of minutes later, realization sets in. Now comes the regret that you responded that way.
Instead, you should have paused and started breathing to calm down and allow yourself to look at the situation from another perspective. Sure, you might still write the email, but you likely wouldn’t send it. You would just get the initial catabolic thoughts out of your system. Then, you could have proceeded more constructively.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This strategy for modulating your physiology is certainly not the only one that exists, but it’s one that is easy to learn and apply, and extraordinarily effective. But it requires practice.
Most of us have a habit of shallow breathing, and so the muscles involved (chest, diaphragm, etc.) may have a limited range of motion. If they do, when you take that deeper breath, it may feel strained. For now, that’s okay. Practice the oxygenation strategy several times a day (when you are not particularly stressed out) to get the rhythm and feel of it. And start trying it when you’re under pressure or triggered, too.
Think of how athletes train: they don’t practice only when in the midst of a real game or high-stakes competition! Nor should you.