dandelion blowing

Easiest Stress-Buster Ever: This One Tip Will Help You Calm Down And Focus

This post first appeared on Forbes.

A major component of many of my coaching engagements is stress management. Whether my client’s primary coaching goal is about executive presence, prioritization, inspiring a team, or navigating complexity, chances are, they are facing big challenges and experiencing stress. In my experience, they will be unable to tackle these issues if they don’t get a handle on their stress. Some of my clients find relief in mindfulness and meditation, but even more struggle with establishing a regular practice. 

My most recent post on stress identified three ways to complete the physiological stress cycle. But here is an amazing shortcut to provide immediate relief: exhale.

This advice may sound counter-intuitive, especially since we so often advise someone who is upset to “take a deep breath.” The intent behind the deep-breath advice is sound: we want the individual to pause and get some oxygen so he can calm down and think clearly. However, the problem with this advice is that someone who is very worked up probably can’t take in a full breath. When under significant stress, you are likely to be breathing shallowly or even holding your breath and have accumulated excess carbon dioxide in your lungs. Trying to take a big gulp of air may actually make matters worse and cause increased tension in your neck and shoulders. What you really needs is a long exhale, and then, once you have expelled the waste air, your lungs will have the capacity to allow a full in-breath. You can then enter a steady rhythm of full breaths in and out. Proper breathing is proven to reduce stress and improve health.

Try it now: 

  • Sit with your feet planted on the floor and your spine lengthened so that your chest and abdomen are not collapsed or compressed but have room to expand.
  • Exhale (through your nose or mouth) for a moderate count of four. You may feel your abdominal muscles contracting to help expel the carbon dioxide. Your diaphragm will move up as you exhale.
  • Imagine your shoulders dropping and widening as you exhale. Allow your eyelids to close or your gaze to soften. Relax your brow and facial muscles. Feel yourself settle on the chair.
  • As you come to the end of your exhalation, simply allow air to be drawn into your lungs as your diaphragm moves down. Inhale for a count of four. Let your shoulders be heavy. You may wish to place your hands on your belly to feel the expansion.
  • Repeat. Over time, try extend your exhale to a count of six. 

I often begin sessions with stressed-out and overwhelmed clients by having them exhale. Jeff, a senior director with a high-pressure job in security, reports that this minute of exhalation grounds him and allows him to focus, and I notice a distinct shift in his energy as he does it. 

This practice is available to you any time as a way to get grounded and to feed your brain and body with the oxygen they need. You can do it whenever you notice a stress trigger—on a conference call, in traffic or even unobtrusively in a meeting.