Over the last few months, the effects of COVID induced disruption is becoming permanent. Our POMS survey shows that the initial adrenaline rush is slowly wearing off and individuals are experiencing increased stress based on their reported emotional states. I want to share an effective neuroscience-based method to reduce the effects of stress that I share with folks that I speak with 1:1. My goal is to simplify neuroscience concepts and bring them to my peer group in a way that piques curiosity which can lead to interest, retention, and adoption. Performance is affected by stress.

A few definitions before I deep dive into the science-based hack.

Stress – Any physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness).

Acute stress is our response to a specific event that usually does not last very long, usually a few hours, days, or weeks in the worst case. Both affect our body in similar ways. Pitching to a senior exec of a must-win prospect in the final presentation is sure to cause some level of acute stress. This is compounded when all eyes are on you and your management team constantly reminds you how critical this deal is for the company.

Chronic stress is our response to sustained emotional pressure over long periods of time to the point where the individual has lost all control to regulate it. Salespeople who haven’t met their goals two to three quarters in a row begins to develop chronic stress and shows up in terms of loss of productivity, poor attitude, lack of interest, and host of other interpersonal challenges. This then exacerbates the situation in a lose-lose proposition for both the company and the individual. The two scenarios I listed above are everyday events. We cannot wish them away, but they can be definitely be managed to improve overall wellbeing and performance.

Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – is our control system that operates largely on its own and regulates a lot of our bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, etc. The two components of the ANS are Sympathetic, parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system is responsible for ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response, while the parasympathetic system is responsible for ‘rest and digest’.

Vagus Nerve – The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system and oversees crucial bodily functions such as control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, drawn out by the vagus nerve, tells our lungs to breathe. Read my article to learn about the DNA of performance and the role of acetylcholine.

 

Stress activates our sympathetic system. If we can activate our parasympathetic system, we can control the effects of stress, such as anxiety.

 

The 4-7-8 Hack:

METHOD: Exhale completely first, then close your mouth and breathe quietly through the nose to a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7, then slowly exhale through your mouth to the count of 8. Do this at least four times. If you can, try and extend it to eight times. First-timers may feel light-headed, it will pass. Do this at least twice a day, and slowly build this up to as many time as you want in a day, and do it every day.

When we breathe out slowly, the vagus nerve is listening to the way we breathe. It sends the brain and the heart messages based on how we breathe. In other words, by physically acting calm our body believes we are calm and then starts to reduce the effects of our sympathetic system. The body attempts to slow our heart rate, reduces irregular breathing, and begins to restore calm. On the same note, when we breathe slowly, we reduce the oxygen demand which interestingly quietens the amygdala which handles our anxiety response. CO2 also helps synchronize your heartbeat and breathing. Cool right, who would have thought about the role of CO2!

On the other hand, taking rapid shallow breaths, called hyperventilation, reduces the CO2 in the body and exacerbates the stress. It can cause faintness, dizziness, light-headedness, and confusion. It also stimulates cortisol production which further increases heart rate and blood pressure, and on we go in to a self defeating loop.

Develop and hone 4-7-8 into an essential tool in your arsenal as your continue your performance journey.

“Becoming Your Best”.