Time to Take a Breathing Break at Work

7 minute read

Kelly is a high-performance expert and author of Intentionality: A Groundbreaking Guide to Breath, Consciousness, and Radical Self-Transformation . His mission is to help world-changing leaders implement his Intentionality methodology to find new levels of fulfillment and growth in their creative endeavors, relationships, and overall well-being

When we talk about effective business strategies, breathing is probably not a concept that crosses our minds. These conversations more often than not gravitate toward the conventional markers of success—market share, competitive advantage, profit margins, and growth trajectories. We picture meticulously crafted plans that map out the path to achieving corporate goals, driven by data analytics, market research, and financial projections.

But what if we took a radically different approach, one where we measured our success on prioritizing our employees well-being, rather than solely focusing on the company’s output? What if we prioritized one simple thing that we all have access to and can deploy at any time: the power of our breath.

It may seem “airy-fairy” or far leaning into the new age movement, but incorporating well-being and mental health into business strategies is starting to gain ground as a transformative trend. It turns out that a happy and healthy workforce is not just a moral imperative—it is a competitive advantage.

In an age where the business landscape is quickly evolving, the modern market demands more than just traditional tactics; it calls for a holistic approach that integrates the human element at its core, especially with the rise of AI. We’ve seen that the next generation of talent is demanding more from their employee experience, one where how they feel at work matters just as much as how they are compensated. And the truth is that companies that actively support their employees' mental and emotional health are also seeing improvements in productivity, morale, and retention.

In reports from Gallup's December 2023 poll, nearly half of U.S. adults, upwards of 45%, reported frequently feeling stress, and this is undoubtedly magnified in the workplace. Many organizations think they have a people problem when, in fact, they have a leadership opportunity. A critical component of effective leadership is identifying whether you are operating from a state of fear, or a state of love. When we are stressed our decisions and behaviors are driven from an unconscious emotional operating system and we contribute to a culture of fear-based incentivizing.

Read More: 6 Expert-Backed Ways To Manage Your Stress

The science of stress can be broken down like this: when someone faces a stressful situation, the amygdala—a part of the brain involved in processing emotions—sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. Upon receiving the distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands then release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine spreads throughout the body, several physiological changes occur. The heart starts beating faster, increasing blood flow to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs, while restricting the blood cells in our forebrain. Pulse rate and blood pressure rise, and breathing becomes quicker. 

With our blood now flowing to our limbs in order to help us, quite literally, flee the situation, our cognitive processing, things like rational and logical decision-making, is impaired. We are now operating from a conditioned state of survival, but the challenge is that in the modern-day world, we’re not very good at distinguishing threats from non-threats. And if our limbic system (whose function is to process and regulate our emotions, memories, instincts, and moods) isn’t attuned to know the difference in what we perceive as threats, our decision-making abilities can quickly become compromised. For example, when receiving a distressing e-mail, your body will activate the same stress response that it would if you were evading a saber-toothed tiger back in primitive times. So the experience of dealing with the e-mail includes restricted blood flow to the conscious mind and a reduced conscious awareness of the correlating physiological responses. In essence: you forget to breathe. And this greatly reduces anyone’s capacity to make an intelligent decision or regulate their behavioral or emotional responses in a productive way.

Studies have demonstrated that various emotions correlate with distinct breathing patterns, and by altering our breath, we can influence our emotional state. For instance, when experiencing joy, our breathing tends to be steady, deep, and slow. Conversely, feelings of anxiety or anger often lead to irregular, rapid, and shallow breaths. By consciously adopting the breathing rhythms linked to specific emotions, we can effectively induce and experience those emotions ourselves.

In other words, if the order is reversed and the physiological state is consciously changed, it can have an immediate effect on the psychological state. The quickest way to do this is by employing conscious breathing. One can use the breath to reset their own system, and it can also be employed with a team to release stress and get everyone energetically connected. This can be especially helpful before a team strategy meeting, creative planning, or even at the start of each day since everyone comes in with their own stressors from their individual lives.

One such breath is an “Emotional Clearing Breath,” which can be used to change your energy and calm the nervous system down. First, a negative feeling that needs clearing should be identified. Focus on a recent event or encounter that resulted in a negative reaction. Try to get to the root of what triggered the reaction—not the act itself but what the event activated within. This will be a core emotion like feeling unworthy, unseen, unlovable, unvalued, inadequate, insignificant, helpless, or rejected.

Next, engage in diaphragmatic breathing. Use the inhale breath to fill the belly like a balloon, deepening the breath into the lungs, then empty the lungs and slightly contract the belly to release the air on the exhale. Continue to take big, deep breaths in through the nose while restricting the throat, resulting in an oceanic-sounding breath. Then exhale the air out of the mouth, keeping the restriction of the throat and maintaining the oceanic sound—as if fogging up a mirror with the breath. Once in a rhythm, repeat this inhale-exhale cycle of breath for four rounds and then take a few moments to come back to a natural pattern of breathing. Anchor into the present moment and notice the peacefulness that occurs.

What often stands in the way of our growth is our attachment to outcomes, rather than our attention to our feelings. Breath is the simplest and most effective tool that allows us to respond rather than react and override negative feelings and beliefs. Strategies that emphasize human connection, a collective purpose, and emotional intelligence are proving to be just as crucial as those centered on fiscal prudence. When we include these softer dimensions, we are not abandoning rigor or profitability. Instead, we are enhancing our capacity to connect with customers, inspire employees, and build resilient organizations that thrive in the long term.

Let's get back to the basics and reconnect with our breath as we recognize that the most successful strategies are those that balance the head with the heart, numbers with narratives, and profits with principles. These multidimensional strategies are not just a response to a changing world—they are the blueprint for building businesses that are resilient, sustainable, and truly impactful. In doing so, we will pave the way for a more inclusive, innovative, and humane approach to business that meets the needs of our time.

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