Most of us are horribly familiar with that dreaded feeling of overwhelm, when tasks just pile up and a mounting feeling of being out of control takes us hostage. Suddenly, we’re gripped with anxiety and a rising sense of panic. We can’t think. We don’t know where to start. And the more we procrastinate, the more time we waste, the worse we feel and the more we fall behind at work.
When we’re stuck in that cycle, it’s difficult to see a way out. We know that we need to be calm, clear-thinking and productive: but our brain freezes and all we can do is stare at our computer screen in frustration or shuffle papers around. It’s not only our work that’s affected: the stress seeps out to sabotage our sleep, our relationships and even our health (95% of all illness is caused or worsened by stress).
While it would be lovely for us to spend an hour meditating, doing yoga or sitting in the park to get us back to balance, the truth is that very few people have that luxury during their working day. Enter the “micro-practice” – a practical, speedy and easy-to-incorporate way to reduce stress no matter how jam-packed your day.
Every single one of us has constant, instant access to an invaluable way out of anxiety: breathing exercises. These have been proven to be highly effective in helping control anxiety. Steadying your breath has a direct impact on your heart rate and, in turn, your mind. As your breath slows down, so your heart responds and so do your thoughts. It’s an amazingly powerful response that’s astonishingly rapid.
When we’re stressed, we slip into fast, shallow breathing from the upper body which creates a vortex of negative thoughts. Conversely, calm, steady breathing from the diaphragm helps calm our thoughts. It halts your body’s stress response, stopping the release of adrenaline which is associated with the “fight or flight” response. It allows us to think rationally so that we regain a sense of control and can start taking steps to make progress.
A relaxed breath is deep and slow. The chest expands and the diaphragm pulls incoming air down into the lungs to fill them completely. By regularly checking in on your breathing, you can begin to develop an awareness that will allow you to adjust it anytime you feel stressed. Breathing exercises can take a bit of practice, so do stick with them. The more you practice, the quicker you’ll be able to calm yourself down when anxiety hits.
The 7/11 breathing practice
I love this practice because it’s so simple and so easy to remember. You can do it at your desk without drawing attention to yourself – or nip to the toilet if you prefer a bit of privacy!
You don’t have to wait till you’re feeling anxious to do it. It’s perfect for grounding yourself before a big meeting or if you have an important call to make.
Here's how to do it
Breathe in to the count of 7 and then out to the count of 11. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose and out through your nose. Your stomach should expand, but your chest should rise very little so you may find it helpful to place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest to monitor this.
The longer exhalation expels more air than usual out of your body and is the key to relaxation. Focus on exhaling in a long, slow, controlled breath. This will signal to your neck and shoulders to relax and your mind to calm.
Keep going for a couple of minutes and see how much calmer and in control you feel.