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Like most people, you probably deal with your fair share of anxiety caused by work. From the meeting that gets rescheduled yet again to managing your overflowing inbox or navigating the tricky world of team dynamics, your stress levels may spike multiple times throughout a single day.
How are some people able to stay calm and productive in response to challenges while others are easily rattled?
To find answers, let's look to those who have mastered the art of composure under pressure: The U.S. Navy SEALs.
How Navy SEALs reduce anxiety
There's no question that U.S. Navy SEALs face some of the most difficult situations any human could encounter. Because of this, they've developed ways to apply the emerging science of grit, resilience, and emotional regulation to effectively manage stress.
In fact, neural scans show that some SEALs have a remarkable ability to remain calm in response to threatening situations. Their brains respond differently to stress, activating neural centers related to emotional control instead of ones related to anxiety and fear.
Their secret? SEALs manage their physiology to better to control their psychology.
Researchers at Veterans Affairs put it this way:
Learning to control your physiology, to control your anticipatory responses as you remain in that situation, are the first steps to controlling your brain's response.
If you're thinking this is the result of some superhuman ability, think again. It may come down to managing one important aspect of well-being: your breathing.
A simple exercise to help you stay calm
A practice that SEAL teams use in times of trouble is one you can borrow at your desk.
It's called box breathing or four-square breathing.
Here's how it works:
- Breathe in for four seconds.
- Hold air in your lungs for four seconds.
- Exhale for four seconds.
- Hold your breath, lungs emptied, for four seconds.
You can even find guided visualizations online to assist you in a box breathing practice if you're just getting started. The beauty of box breathing is that it's inconspicuous, meaning you can practice it anywhere, at anytime -- during negotiations, before delivering tough feedback, or even in the middle of a frustrating conversation, for example.
Recently I shared this tool with a client who is navigating her team through a rocky leadership transition. Meetings were fraught with chaos and morale was slipping, which my client felt responsible for as a manager. These worries were beginning to take a toll on her. The anxiety followed her home at night. She found herself becoming increasingly irritable, and knew she had to address it in a more productive way.
After practicing box breathing for just a few days, she experienced a major shift. Because box breathing improved her ability to regulate her emotions, she felt more in control and able to deal with challenges.
With renewed levelheadedness, she could communicate more effectively to advocate for her team during the transition -- even when upstream dynamics threatened to throw their progress off-course.
Give box breathing a try. Even though you're not on the battlefield, you may find this time-tested Navy SEAL technique helps you rule the day.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She is a TEDx speaker and teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. Get her free guide to change thoughts that limit your success at melodywilding.com. A version of this article first appeared on Inc.com.