Consider two people who may be be experiencing the same predicament. Let’s call them Person A and Person B. Both are at work needing to get stuff done. Both need to print off a bunch of copies of a document for an important meeting they need to be at. Both go into the copy room and even though there are multiple photocopiers in the room, all of them are not working properly, so no copying can be done.
Person A responds by letting out a noticeably loud sigh of frustration and anger making it obvious how incredibly inconvenient and untimely this situation is for them. They go on to mumble profanities under their breath and even try pounding down on the buttons of the photocopier thinking that this will magically solve this problem.
When this doesn’t work, Person A storms out of the room and angrily heads back to their office or wherever it was they came from. On the way, they can’t help but think about other injustices that they have experienced that week. Their mind floods with recent memories of people who have annoyed and irritated them or treated them disrespectfully. With every one of these negative thoughts, their level of frustration and anxiety deepens which unknowingly begins to increase their heart rate and spike levels of cortisol in their bodies, triggering a cascade of neurological responses that only complicate and cloud their ability to think rationally in that moment. For the rest of the day, no matter what happens to them, everything that Person A experiences will just confirm the negative emotions they are experiencing. As much as they want to stop feeling this way, no relief is in sight for them as they are hooked into a negative loop of emotional response.
Now, consider Person B. Upon finding out that the photocopier is broken, they immediately feel a surge in frustration levels and can’t help but think how bad this timing is. They recognize that it’s the last thing that they need in this moment. Their day has not gone particularly well, so this certainly doesn’t help.
Instead of beginning to rage and go into emotional overdrive, Person B understands that doing so will serve no purpose. Over the past year, they have made a strong commitment to themselves to live more mindfully and to learn and practice specific mindfulness techniques with more consistently in their day-to-day life. One of the things that they’ve really worked on is breath control, particularly in difficult and stressful moments. Recognizing that the broken photocopiers have caused them to feel quite stressed and anxious, there’s no better time than now to tap into the breath.
Person B makes a conscious decision to just stand there and be present in this moment. They choose a specific technique called the 7-11 breath. They commit themselves to practicing this breath, in silence, for the next 2 minutes accepting all of the sensations that they are experiencing.
They inhale for a slow count of 7 full seconds and exhale for an even slower count of 11 seconds. They repeat this cycle of breath for the entire two minutes without trying to solve their problem or think about what they need to do next. After a few inhalations and exhalations, they begin to feel a slightly calmer state starting to reveal itself. What’s actually happening below the surface is that their focused breath work is having a direct impact on reducing levels of cortisol in their body. Cortisol is a hormone in our body that is activated when we are stressed. It serves an important purpose to us, but when too much cortisol is released, it can impact our ability to think and respond rationally to stressful situations that arise.
After the 2 minutes of focused breath work, the reality is that the photocopier issue has not been resolved. Person B still needs to figure out what to do next, however, they are in a much calmer and more rationale state in order to problem solve and identify actionable next steps.
Mindfulness and breath work are not about solving difficult problems that we experience or making stress and anxiety suddenly go away. Mindfulness and breath work can be used as our anchor points to better deal with difficult emotions when confronted with challenging experiences in our lives. Mindfulness and breath work can be practiced and over time we can improve on our ability to apply these skills and techniques in our personal and professional lives.
Are you the first person described in this story or the second person? If you are the first person, rest assured in knowing that we’ve all been there, felt that way, and responded to difficult situations in the same way. However, practicing mindfulness with regularity is a great way to learn to respond differently. The 7-11 breath described in this blog post is just one of many breath techniques that can be applied in our life.
The point is that nobody consciously chooses to be the first person described in this story. Nobody consciously sets out to have a terrible day and to seek out stressful situations. However, every one of us does have the ability to prepare ourselves for days and situations such as this. We can choose to be more mindful and to practice specific techniques and skills that can be improved on in order to allow us to respond more rationally to these experiences.
Living more mindfully can change our for the better if we are willing to take the plunge and try it out.
You can follow Andy on Twitter @andyvasily
Neila Steele & Andy Vasily