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  • Katie O'Keeffe

Take a deep breath

The shit that happens that is out of your control


I was at home recently rushing to try to get out of the house with my two little boys – you can imagine the chaos. I was upstairs packing our bags, when I hear my eldest crying downstairs saying his hands are sticky. I come downstairs to see what the commotion is about, to discover he had found the superglue and had glued his fingers together trying to fix his broken toy! Later that night when I was cooking dinner, my youngest boy managed to flood the bathroom by putting the plug in the basin and leaving the tap running.


These incidents (and many others) got me thinking about the hardest moments in life – the ones that you don’t plan for, that are unexpected, that get in the way of what you were trying to get done in that moment.


When exploring moments that matter with leaders, the common theme that always emerges is the gap between our intent and our impact is always the greatest in those moments that we don’t initiate or control. It’s easy to have a positive impact when you are in control of the interaction, when it’s something you initiate and something you’ve planned for. But when it comes at you unexpectedly and you’re busy doing something else, it’s much harder to respond in a way that has the impact you intend.


A reality to face is that the more senior you become, the more you are responding to situations that you do not initiate, don’t expect and are not in control of, every day.


Before you do anything, take a deep breath


I had the pleasure one evening of listening to Paul Taylor (Paul’s LinkedIn profile) talk about his experiences as an elite defence forces trainee. When preparing for his anti-capture training, he asked his training officer for his advice. His answer was, before you answer any question, take a deep breath and count to 3.


And it works.


In 2019 I completed a coaching accreditation in neuroscience-based leadership tool, Neurozone (www.neurozone.com). Doing this course, I learnt a lot of technical information about the functioning of the body and brain system and how to optimise the system to enable us to perform at our best. I will continue to mention different aspects of the science throughout this blog. In fact, my next post will be specifically about optimising the foundational aspects of your body-brain system. But for now, deep breathing…

Deep breathing is the foundation of all mediation, yoga and silencing the mind practices. The science of deep breathing has been extensively studied and proven to reduce stress and improve cognitive function. When you breathe deeply a number of important things happen to your brain and body system:

  • When you breathe in deeply, you push the diaphragm down, which fills the abdominal cavity with blood.

  • This effectively raises the pressure in the abdominal cavity and reduces the pressure in the thoracic cavity,

  • Which then pushes the blood into the thoracic cavity, into the heart and then circulates to the rest of the organs

  • The result is lots of available blood and oxygen, which reduces blood pressure and heart rate and ultimately shifts the body into a relaxed physiological state

  • Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which can reduce the stress response by activating the relaxation response of your parasympathetic nervous system

  • This shifting of the nervous system, reduction in the stress response and moving into a relaxed physiological state allows the problem-solving area of your brain to remain in control, which means you think more clearly, make better decisions are able to respond more constructively in those stressful moments that you haven’t planned for

  • So every time you think about it, just pause and take a deep breath

15 mins a day is all you need and you can break it up


In addition to taking the occasion deep breath, a powerful personal practise is to build in a daily routine of meditative breathing.


The recent science into deep breathing practice has shown that 15 mins day is all you need to do and you can choose to do it all at once or break it up into 2 or 3 chunks throughout the day. When I discovered this, I thought perfect. I can manage to do 3 x 5 mins deep breathing each day. In the morning when I first wake up, in the middle of the day in a quiet room at work or outside in the sunshine, and at the end of the day as the last thing before I go to sleep. To help me with this routine I recruited my partner to do it with me.


For the last year or so, Danny and I have been doing 5 mins of deep breathing morning and evening and texting each other during the day to help keep each other on track. And the impact is noticeable. It helps me to wake up more effectively and I can feel it training my rhythms in the morning that when the alarm goes off I’m getting ready to breathe and then get out of bed – it’s cured me of the repetitive snooze button. During the day it’s definitely calming and energising, a quick reset in my natural low time around 3:00 pm. And in the evening it prepares us for rest, quietens our minds and helps us to fall asleep quickly.


An experiment to try now


Here’s an activity to try now. I run this activity with leaders and teams and it never fails to produce high impact results:

  1. Think of a situation that you’re struggling with, something that’s not going as well as you’d like and that you need to find a better solution for. It can be work or personal.

  2. Take out a piece of paper and write down everything you’re thinking and feeling about that situation

  3. Now close your eyes and take 5 deeps breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Exhale through slightly pursed lips so it’s a forceful exhale. Try to make each inhale and exhale 5 secs each (total 10 secs per cycle).

  4. Now open your eyes and take out a fresh piece of paper and write down everything you’re thinking and feeling about the situation after doing the breathing

  5. Now compare the two lists. What is the difference? What stands out for you?

Rather than tell you what the lists will look like, I’d love to hear from you – what do your two lists look like? What do you notice? What did you learn?

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