Build Your Coping Muscles: Inhale, Exhale

When I look at today’s leadership landscape, I am increasingly concerned by the struggle to cope. The statistics paint an alarming picture. Not only are we experiencing higher levels of workplace dissatisfaction, but the rates of mental health issues and leaves are on the rise. Many leaders, including those who have a difficult time asking for help, are experiencing burn out. They push themselves so hard that, over time, they exceed their mental and emotional limits.

As leaders we all have the responsibility to ensure that we are effectively taking care of ourselves, not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. There are lots of different ways in which we can develop and strengthen our inner capacity to cope. Mindfulness is one tool that can help us get there, and one which I have personally seen to be very beneficial.

I turned to the practice of Mindfulness several years back when I was having a difficult time coping with various things in my life and my work. It started with the simple act of “conscious breathing”. So simple and effective, yet I didn’t really understand it back then.

Over time I started attending regular yoga classes, and eventually learned what it meant to “connect with the breath”. After a long day, I found solace on this rectangular mat by going inward and focusing my mind and my attention on my breath. With each inhale and each long, deep exhale, I was able to release and let go. I let go of my thoughts, I let go of my day, I became fully in the moment. By the time I left the studio, I felt relaxed, centered and whole. I soon made the connection that this was a “practice” that could be taken off of the mat and apply to everyday life.

And, I learned that we all have the ability to cultivate an inner capacity to deal with difficulties in challenging times. Often we look to improve a situation by shifting things that are happening outside of us. Real and lasting change however, comes from the shift that happens within us.

This was the beginning of a journey for me, which ultimately led me to leave a longstanding corporate career, to dedicate myself more fully to leadership coaching and to bringing mindfulness skills into the leadership mainstream. While I don’t proclaim that mindfulness is the complete solution, I do believe there is a very real problem for which mindfulness is a tool. And, I believe that we all have the ability to strengthen our capacity to cope.

The Misconception of Mindfulness

For many years there has been confusion over the difference between meditation and mindfulness. Leaders wonder whether they will be required to sit on a cushion in lotus position for an extended period of time in order to reap the benefits of the mindfulness. Simply put, meditation is a dedicated practice where one sits quietly for a period of time and focuses one’s attention inward with the intention of stilling the mind. Mindfulness is about paying attention to thoughts and emotions as they arise in the present moment. It’s not necessary to meditate in order to be mindful (although it helps).

One mindful breath can focus your attention and bring you back to the present moment. For those like me who may need to know why this is, the breath activates your parasympathetic nervous system and has the effect of calming you in the moment. It also has the benefit of interrupting subconscious thought streams which often lead us to react in negative ways, instead of responding with clear, focused intention.

Where to Start

I am often asked about a place to start to explore the personal benefits of mindfulness. My recommendation is to start with one mindful breath a day. Take this mindful breath whenever you begin to feel stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or anytime you require a significant amount of mental focus and clarity. I find that it really helps me just before important meetings. As a personal reminder, I use the touch of the door handle as a cue to take a slow, deep, mindful breath before entering the room.

Inhale, exhale. Give it a try!

Want to take it a step further, explore our new Art of Mindful Leadership program.

Written by: Janey Piroli