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Mental Health Tips for Effective Corporate Leadership

In an excerpt from her new book, Leading Lightly, Jody Michael discusses how breathing can help leaders cope with intense levels of stress.

Leadership is about impact and influence. Both grow when you increase your mental fitness.

You’ve likely heard politicians or the media use the term “mental fitness” to indicate a requisite level of cognitive capability. However, I define it by focusing on optimized performance.

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Here’s my definition:

Mental fitness is your measurable ability to engage constructively in life and work every day, no matter what stressors you encounter. It is your capacity to consistently respond to challenges with optimal performance in the moment and minimal recovery time afterward.

Mental fitness starts with the recognition that the real drivers of your leadership results are the hidden habits of your mind—the powerful, unseen and entrenched perspectives you hold about yourself, others and your world. These patterns of thoughts and beliefs (formed by your many experiences in life), whether you are conscious of them or not, drive you to behave in certain habitual ways. And that leads you to produce certain results—for better or for worse.

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Mental fitness is most critical and transformative whenever you feel stressed, frustrated, or hindered by your environment or by the people around you. In these situations, you inadvertently become triggered, and you default to behaviors that, to say it kindly, may not be optimal.

How long does it typically take to calm yourself down after you’ve been triggered–when you feel suddenly angry, panicked, frustrated, overwhelmed or otherwise upset? Consider your own patterns. As you do, also consider the techniques you generally use to reset yourself, to calm down, to feel better. Is it venting to others? Listening to music? Doing yoga or meditating? Distracting yourself with TV? Turning to alcohol or other substances? Or perhaps simply waiting for time to pass?

If you are developing your mental fitness, then none of these strategies are your best bet for in-the-moment correction. Either they’re not healthy options, or they require a lot of logistics or time. Focus on rapid speed of physiological recovery. Your new metric is going to be time. With mental fitness, we seek to measure the recovery of your body in just seconds to minutes.

Modulate Your Physiology With Diaphragmatic Breathing

When done correctly, diaphragmatic breathing will drastically reduce your recovery time. This strategy for modulating your physiology is not the only one that exists, but it’s one that is easy to learn and apply, and extraordinarily effective.

You will learn the utility and benefits of this strategy only by trying it and practicing it. It only takes a few minutes a day, and you can do it anywhere, at any time. In order for you to be proficient with this skill when it is needed—when you are triggered—you must first become fluent by practicing it under relaxed conditions. Just think of how athletes train: they don’t practice only when in the midst of a real game or high-stakes competition! Nor should you.

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Stop and Oxygenate

When you are in a deeply triggered emotional state, you won’t be able to think your way out of it. In fact, you can’t think very much at all! When you find yourself in this state, you need to stop and then oxygenate. This strategy creates a critical pause that prevents you from doing something really stupid (and likely regrettable) in your nonthinking reactive state. And it will help you oxygenate your brain so you can regain your ability to think more productively about what’s happening.

First, stop

As soon as you are aware that you are triggered, reactive or upset, stop. Stop whatever you are saying or doing. Yes, it’s that simple, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t fully grasp what I’m saying. I mean:

  • If you are engaged with others, stop talking—or yelling or defending or complaining. Stop in mid-sentence, if that’s what you have to do!
  • If you are in the midst of writing an angry, defensive, or accusatory email, stop your hands and fingers from moving. Push yourself away from the keyboard.
  • If you’re indulging in silent rumination about how awful everything is, tell yourself to stop this right now! If you’re sitting, stand up. If you’re standing, sit down. Stop the rumination.

Then, Oxygenate

Here are the steps. Please read them first. Then read them a second time, and actually do the steps as you go along.

  1. Take in a big, deep breath. Make sure your belly is getting bigger. If your chest is getting bigger and your belly smaller you are doing it incorrectly.
  2. Hold it while you silently count six seconds.
  3. Release the breath slowly.
  4. Repeat as needed.

When you are counting six seconds, make sure to say to yourself, “One one-hundred, two one-hundred, three one-hundred” all the way up to six. If it’s easier, look at the second hand on your watch, or use a timer on your smartphone. You’ll be tempted to simply estimate or to think, “One, two, three . . .” but don’t do that. When you shortchange yourself, the exercise will not be effective.

This method of oxygenation is the fastest way to physiologically get your body out of a triggered state. If a true threat were really happening to you, you would not be able to physically make your muscles breathe this way. A true emergency is a survival issue, and your breathing would remain shallow and rapid.

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Use SOS

When you are triggered, don’t react. Instead, remember and execute this quick phrase: SOS.

Stop. Oxygenate. Seek new information.

Once you’ve stopped and then oxygenated, you must then seek new information. Realize that the way you’re currently seeing your situation is unnecessarily narrowed by the sense of threat, and that it’s only one of many ways to see things. Seek new data, information, or perspectives to try to shift the way you perceive the stressful even that triggered you. Look at it in a different way, talk to a trusted person or request some feedback or other information to change your point of view. This new information will open up new possibilities for your response.

Adapted from LEADING LIGHTLY: Lower Your Stress, Think With Clarity, and Lead With Ease. Copyright 2022 by Jody Michael. Reprinted here with permission from Greenleaf Book Group Press.

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