Breathing and Emotional Transition
By Alan Sieler
You have probably heard someone say at some time when you were angry or upset, "Take a deep breath and count to 10". There is some age-old wisdom in this expression and this can be deepened by considering some key aspects of our Way of Being.
Somewhat unusually, this article commences with a series of questions to encourage you to bring awareness to aspects of your current beingness.
What have you been doing in the previous 2-3 hours before sitting down to read this? In other words, what different activities have you been engaged in?
What emotions have you been experiencing as you engaged in these activities?
How were you breathing as you engaged in your activities?
And another question - How are you breathing right now?
You might like to take a few moments and notice some different aspects of your breathing, such as:
whether you breathe in through your nose or mouth, or both;
how deep your in-breath seems to go into your body;
whether you breathe out through your nose or mouth, or both; and
how long it takes you to breathe out.
Finally, another question – are you in an emotional space that is conducive to reading this article, in which your breathing, physiology and emotion(s) are aligned?
Why all the questions about breathing, physiology and emotions? Because they are a central part of being human and play an indispensable role in the effectiveness of our everyday functioning, whether it be in home, work or social life. And one easily overlooked aspect of this is the crucial importance of emotional transition.
Consider the following typical work situation: you have just finished a two-hour online meeting in which there was some tense conversations about strong opinions and some differences left unresolved. Almost as soon as you disconnect from the call your phone rings and you answer the call, which is from a favourite work colleague asking you to do something for them that they acknowledge will be inconvenient for you. Unfortunately, you come across to them as somewhat terse and abrupt in the conversation, although you don’t mean to. You agree to act on what they have asked, but not with the good grace you would like to.
You have just gone from one work situation to another work situation, moving from one conversation to another. However, the tenseness, annoyance and unsettled emotional space you were in at the end of the online meeting stayed with you and it is from that emotional way of being that you spoke with your colleague. And there would have been a corresponding pattern of breathing and configuration of your physiology that accompanied this emotional space.
It is easy to underestimate or completely miss the power of emotions. In a nutshell, their power is that they are predispositions for action, always affecting our perceptions and behaviour. (Perception is an action because it is the nervous system in action.)
When we move from one situation to another an "emotional clearing and emotional preparation" may be necessary in order to ensure that we are in the most appropriate emotional space for the next engagement. Elite sports people know this well, perhaps not in the language that is being used here, but almost certainly in practice. Let’s take the sports of tennis and baseball as examples.
At the end of every point the tennis player needs to prepare themselves for the next point – to "reset". The different game score is a different situation. The same in baseball, the different ball and strike count on the batter is a different situation with some different requirements. Some might transition by saying things to themselves, others may focus on their breathing. Whatever the situation, it is essential that the player is emotional ready and gives themselves the best chance to perform well.
Life for the rest of us is very much like the challenge of emotional transition and emotional readiness that confronts the elite sportsperson. Think of the many situations we have in family life, in which we remain in less than helpful emotional spaces and have not made a transition to another way of being emotionally that will be more conducive for effectively communicating and relating. Perhaps you have brought home a mood that you have not shaken off and that limits how you can constructively engage in a conversation.
In a previous article, the mood of "hysterical industriousness" that seems to pervade workplaces was highlighted. This is a mood of almost constant busyness in which there never seems to be enough time, with life being experienced more frenetically than is desired. And unfortunately, it can be experienced as the norm, because we have fallen into the delusion that we cannot do anything about it. So, each engagement or situation or encounter occurs from this mood. The possibility of emotionally transitioning from this mood does not seem to be within the horizon of possibility.
Developing a new ontological practice
Learning to emotionally transition can be regarded as a new practice to be developed, which includes learning some fundamental breathing skills. Let’s take a look at breathing.
When we breathe, we do so with our body, with more being involved than just our nostrils or mouth. We have all developed a habitual way to breathe and this is accompanied by a subtle habitual way we hold our body and allow it to move as we breathe in and out. We live from a learned and habitual way of being in our body.
How we breathe is not a trivial matter. Obviously, it is essential for our biological functioning, but what else is at stake is the quality of our mental and emotional life and how we handle the ups and downs of life, the good times and the not so good times. Why is this?
Breathing is indelibly linked to our emotions, both short-term and long-term emotions (moods). Emotions are an integral part of our biology – there is no way out of emotions because they are part of the neural networks in our nervous system.
Breathing is probably the quickest and most effective way to shift ourselves emotionally. Watch the tennis player, and the batter and the pitcher in baseball, as they prepare themselves for the next encounter in the contest – what do you notice about their breathing? To eventually change our deep seated and habitual way of breathing can play a significant role in no longer being caught in one or more less than helpful moods.
The invaluable contribution of breathing
Here is a personal example of developing the invaluable practice of breathing to facilitate an essential emotional transition. When I was a classroom teacher, working with teenagers, I had the very fortunate experience to learn from a wise educational facilitator and coach (Michael Grinder) about the value of breathing in the classroom. The classroom is a very busy place as the teacher seeks to balance between opening up learning opportunities for students and managing their behaviour.
The vast majority of teachers go into the job because of the joy of assisting younger people to learn and develop a sound foundation for the rest of their lives. However, life is not always smooth going in the classroom, because if behavioural standards are not maintained the learning environment becomes compromised. So, an important part of the teachers’ role involves them going from a situation of opening up learning to managing (mis)behaviour.
In a project I undertook to investigate the communication dynamic of classroom management, it was revealed that in an approximately 45-minute time frame a teacher is likely to be engaged in up to 35 instances of managing student behaviour. This can amount to upwards of 700 times a week. In other words, having to break off from teaching and facilitating learning to the not so pleasant task of "tidying up" student behaviour, which sometimes can be tense and confrontational.
What I learned from Michael, and applied in my own teaching, was that there was a risk that after engaging in managing behaviour I may not be in the best emotional space for teaching, therefore compromising not only my teaching effectiveness, but also my enjoyment of the job. Any wonder I and many other teachers can feel exhausted at the end of the term and increasingly irritated, because the not so pleasant emotions of classroom management and student discipline stayed with me, becoming a mood space that pervaded other parts of my life.
There is more to this story, but let’s pause there for a little while and invite you to reflect on how you relate this story so far to your life – not the situation of being in a classroom (unless you are a teacher) but more how you go from situation to situation in your life and what emotions you might carry with you that are not helpful and may have become a mood space? We can be so busy with getting by – with coping – and getting on with the next thing that we do not pay attention with what is going on with our emotional wellbeing. Somewhere in the background we can have some awareness that our quality of existence is not what we desire, but hysterical industriousness constantly keeps us task focussed with no time for reflection.
Back to the story of the classroom. What was invaluable in my learning with Michael was that he showed us how to firstly breathe in as we moved from teaching to managing/disciplining.
Teaching situation –> BREATHE –> behavioural management situation –> BREATHE –> teaching situation.
This seemingly simple physiological practice made a huge difference to the quality of my teaching, the quality of my classroom management, my relationships with the students and a significant reduction in my stress level. Most importantly, my joy of facilitating learning was enhanced. And, I was in much better emotional shape for other parts of my life.
Having engaged in the breathing practice for emotional transition in the classroom for a year, I then applied it in my educational consulting with teachers and in the research project on the communication dynamics of classroom management. All the teachers who participated in the study reported significant improvements in their teaching and behavioural management and important reductions in stress.
That is the end of the classroom story, and I wonder what you can take from this in different aspects of your life. What would it be like if you focused on your breathing before a meeting and during the breathing (perhaps even had a little note with "Breathe" on it to remind you), or if you took a breath before answering the phone. Or if you breathed before walking into a child’s bedroom and insisted that they clean it up. Or breathed as you had that challenging conversation with your spouse, another family member or a work colleague.
Being committed to your breathing
One thing I have subsequently learned is that while focusing on breathing in is important, equally important is breathing out – the slower and longer the better. Breathing out through pursed lips as though you are blowing out a candle can be very helpful. Taking an extra few seconds with the out breath can make breathing in much easier.
And some recent learning from the book Breath by James Nestor has also been helpful. This is a well-researched and well-written book in which Nestor strongly recommends to breathe in only through the nostrils; he does not seem to advocate a preference for breathing out through the nostrils or mouth (I may have missed this), but he does recommend breathing out slowly. In fact, in the best of all worlds he strongly suggests we breathe in and out about 6 times per minute – a 5 second in-breath and a 5 second out-breath. Perhaps you could start by focusing on breathing in for 3 seconds and breathing out for 3 seconds.
So, "take a deep breath in and count to 10" is a useful reminder of the power of breathing and the importance of emotional transition. Our life can be likened to navigating our way through challenging circumstances, and the quality of our navigation can be heavily influenced by how we breathe and how we are emotionally.