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Managing anxiety: breathing


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    Sally Benson

Breath is life. Breathing is something we ordinarily do effortlessly and without thinking. We are now in the centre of a pandemic that primarily attacks the human respiratory system and whose main symptom is breathing difficulties. Now seems an appropriate time to consider how we can use noticing our own breathing to help anchor us in our roles as leaders.

Struggling to breathe is a primal assault on our sense of self and witnessing another human being struggling for breath is a profoundly unsettling, disturbing and frightening experience. For all of us, this can lead to anxiety and panic and for some of us, our personal histories and circumstances will mean the possibility that we might develop breathing difficulties is terrifying. Stress and anxiety commonly have an impact on our breathing, although we may not always notice this.

Many leaders and clinical staff are currently under enormous pressure at work, where we will, at times, unavoidably, feel physically vulnerable and anxious. It is important, as leaders, that we take time to acknowledge our own vulnerability and anxiety, if we are going to be able to support other staff to manage their own fears. However, being exceptionally busy is an effective strategy for avoiding anxiety and while this can help us cope in the short term, in the long term, avoiding our anxieties takes an emotional and physical toll. As a clinical psychologist and clinical leader, I am acutely aware of this for myself and the staff I lead. We need to prioritise taking the time to reflect on and acknowledge where we are on the ‘unsettled to terrified’ continuum. In doing so, we are recognising and taking control of our own anxiety at a time when it might be easy to go unnoticed. Through engaging in this process we will be better equipped to lead through these anxiety-provoking times.

Some simple suggestions

  • Notice your breathing.

  • In noticing your breathing connect with how you are feeling physically.

  • Take a moment to take some deep and slow breaths in and out and count them as you do this.

  • Ask yourself how aware you are of your breathing patterns.

  • Our breathing helps inform us of how stressed and/or anxious we might be if we allow ourselves to notice it.

  • A greater awareness of our breathing can help anchor ourselves in our roles as leaders in these difficult to navigate times.

About the author

Sally Benson is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Paediatric Psychological Services Lead at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Foundation Trust.

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