5 Powerful Breathing Techniques For Reducing Executive Stress

Breathing Techniques

By Aditya Jaykumar Iyer

According to Stress.org, 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress. About one million Americans miss work each day because of stress. 76% of US workers report that workplace stress affects their personal relationships.

It is no secret then that stress is one the leading causes of Corporate America’s health problems.

Stress is especially detrimental to senior executives and leaders who often have high-pressure jobs, looming deadlines, limited resources, and little time for themselves. In times like these, we habitually resort to shallow breathing, which increases are cortisol levels and makes us feel stressed out.

Luckily, several breathing exercises can help reduce executive stress and avoid burnout.

Organizations have invited me on numerous occasions to conduct breathwork workshops on managing stress, and it’s always fascinating to hear about the relief practitioners feel after just 10-15 minutes of practice.

Breathwork has undoubtedly taken the post-pandemic wellness world by storm due to the numerous scientific benefits associated! 

This article will explore five powerful breathing techniques that regulate the nervous system and reduce stress levels. Read on to discover practical tools to help you amid uncertainty or strain.

Breath of Fire Breathing (Breathing for Energy and Alertness):

Coffee is a popular morning drink for many senior executives.

The coffee bean contains caffeine, a stimulant that can help increase alertness and energy levels. However, coffee can also cause side effects such as jitteriness and anxiety, leading to a crash when the effects wear off.

Too much coffee can lead to fatigue and impaired decision-making, while the absence of coffee can leave you feeling groggy and unfocused. Does that sound familiar?

What if a breathing technique can replace or complement your cup of coffee?

Kapalabhati is a powerful yet simple breathing technique that is said to heal, cleanse, and energize the body. Practicing this technique also helps massage the internal organs and improve lung capacity.

Kapalabhati is an excellent way to energize the body and clear the mind when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Moreover, it purifies the blood, boosts the immune system, and increases your energy levels within minutes.

It is a great way to start your day or use it as a break during the workday.

  1. Sit with your spine straight and your eyes closed.
  2. Place your hands on your stomach, just below your navel.
  3. Exhale entirely through your nose, then inhale deeply through your nose.
  4. As you exhale, pull your stomach in so your navel is pulled toward your spine.
  5. Repeat this process for 10-15 minutes.

Diaphragmatic Breathing (Breathing for Sleep):

Work-related stress and economic uncertainty can make it difficult to fall asleep. 

This inability to fall asleep can be frustrating and have consequences for the next day.

Often, people turn to sleep pills or medication to help them fall asleep, but these are not sustainable solutions in the long term.

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is a deep breathing exercise to reduce stress, stabilize blood pressure, and calm anxiety levels.

The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle below the lungs, which contracts when you inhale and relaxes as you exhale. As babies, we intuitively breathe diaphragmatically, but as we get older, we develop a rather unhealthy habit of ‘chest breathing‘, which keeps us in a fight-or-flight state. 

The diaphragmatic breathing technique strengthens your diaphragm and promotes full oxygen exchange. 

It’s easy to learn, and it only takes a few deep breaths to feel the difference

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a slow deep breath through your nose, counting to 4 as you inhale.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of 4.
  5. Practice slow pursed lip breathing as you exhale and count to 8.
  6. Repeat this process for 10-15 minutes.

Alternative Nostril Breathing (Breathing for Problem Solving and Creativity):

Executive leaders are under constant pressure to find solutions to problems.

Whether it’s coming up with a strategy for dealing with a problematic competitor, figuring out how to streamline operations, or resolving a conflict among team members, problem-solving is essential for success.

Leaders need to be able to think clearly and creatively, and that’s where our next breathwork technique comes in.

Nadi Shodhana, or “alternative nostril breathing,” is an effective yogic breathing technique that can harmonize your nervous system and optimize brain function for enhanced problem-solving.

The key to understanding the efficacy of this technique is knowing about the ‘nasal cycle’. We typically breathe through one nostril more than the other throughout the day.

This nasal switch happens every 90 to 120 minutes and seems to be controlled by the CNS (Central Nervous System).

When the right nostril is more congested, we breathe more through the left nostril, known as left nostril dominance. This phase is associated with the ‘rest and digest’ mode when the body is generally more relaxed, and the heart rate lowered.

On the other hand, when the left nostril is more congested, we breathe more through the right nostril, which is known as right nostril dominance. This phase is associated with the ‘fight or flight’ mode, when the body is more alert and the heart rate is elevated.

What’s fascinating is that when your left nostril is dominant, the EEG activity is more significant in the right hemisphere of your brain and vice versa. In other words, each brain hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body.

Practicing the alternate nostril breathing exercise is believed to balance the brain’s two hemispheres and reduce mental fatigue, which tends to obstruct decision-making.

Here’s a simple way to perform this breathing exercise:

  1. Sit with your spine straight and your eyes closed.
  2. Place one hand on your stomach, just below your navel.
  3. Close off your left nostril with your thumb and inhale deeply through your right nostril.
  4. Pause for a moment, then close off your right nostril with your index finger and exhale slowly through your left nostril.
  5. Now, pause for a moment and inhale fully through your left nostril.
  6. Close off your left nostril with your thumb and exhale slowly through your right nostril.
  7. Repeat this process for 10-15 minutes.

Heart Coherence breathing (Breathing For Accessing Intuition):

Intuition is a powerful tool that can help senior executives make better decisions.

Research shows that intuition plays a vital role in decision-making and can be more effective than rational thinking.

Intuition results from years of experience and learning, allowing executives to process information quickly and develop strategic solutions to complex problems.

Stress and anxiety activate our fight or flight response, which impairs our ability to access our intuitive abilities and make gut-based decisions. 

According to some research, the key to harnessing intuition may lie in achieving Heart Coherence.

What is Heart Coherence

According to the HeartMath institute, Heart Coherence is a physiological state when our body’s systems, breathing, heart rhythms, brain rhythms, and hormonal response are in sync with each other.

This state of harmony, balance, and flow is most conducive to spontaneous, intuitive hits and eureka moments.

Heart coherence breathing is a method that can help you access this physiological state of balance with some practice.

  1. Sit with your spine straight and your eyes closed.
  2. Focus your attention on your heart and think about something or someone you genuinely appreciate.
  3. Imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart.
  4. Inhale slowly through your nose and count to 5.
  5. Exhale slowly through your mouth and count to 5.
  6. As you exhale, visualize sending positive vibrations from the center of your heart toward those you appreciate.
  7. Repeat this process for 10-15 minutes.

Chanting breath (Breathing for Harmony):

Omkar breath, or humming breath, is a type of yogic breathing exercise that is said to have numerous scientifically proven benefits for the mind and body.

If you’re feeling stressed or burned out in the middle of the day, a few minutes of this breathing exercise will help activate your parasympathetic nervous system and make you feel calm and centered. Avoid practicing this technique while driving or operating heavy machinery because this technique can make you feel tired and relaxed!

Here are a few reasons why this technique is so powerful:

Vagus Nerve Stimulation:

Humming and chanting create a harmonious vibration that stimulates the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the human body. This nerve runs from the brain to the large intestine and plays a crucial role in activating the rest and digest mode.

Long Exhales:

You activate the sympathetic nervous system when you inhale, and you start the parasympathetic nervous system when you exhale. By exhaling for longer than you inhale, you turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, further amplifying the relaxation response.

Brain stimulation:

Chanting also sends calming signals to the Limbic brain (amygdala, anterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, parahippocampal gyrus, and thalamus), calming the overactive mind and promoting deep relaxation.

According to one study by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in India, limbic deactivation during Om chanting is very similar to those observed during vagus nerve stimulation in depression and epilepsy.

While more research is certainly warranted, these results point to a potential role for adopting the non-invasive ‘Om’ chanting in clinical practice!

  • Sit with your spine straight and your eyes closed.
  • Place one hand on your stomach, just below your navel, and the other on your chest.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose, focusing on filling your lungs with air.
  • As you exhale, count to 12 and chant the sound of ‘Om’
  • Repeat this process for 10-15 minutes

Wrapping Up

It’s important to remember that not all forms of stress are harmful. Some stress, such as ‘hormetic stress’, your body’s health stress response, can benefit our health and well-being.

It is when we experience chronic stress that it becomes a problem.

If you find yourself struggling with chronic stress as a corporate leader, several breathing techniques can help naturally reduce executive stress and avoid burnout.

The breathing exercises discussed in this article include the breath of fire, diaphragmatic breathing, alternative nostril breathing, heart coherence breathing, and chanting breath. Experiment with these techniques and add a few of them to your self-care tool kit.

Do you have a favorite breathing technique? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author

Aditya Jaykumar Iyer (AJ) is a certified Breathwork instructor and the host & founder of the My Seven Chakras podcast and blog with over 6.8 million downloads. 

Aditya has spent the last 8 years conducting interviews with over 500 of the foremost wellness experts and has documented his learnings & discoveries on his blog. You can connect with him on Instagram at @mysevenchakras.

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