Beat the Hijackers

So far in this blog series you have learned that stress as a physical and cognitive reaction is experienced when the brain perceives that someone or something has changed or plans to change something of perceived importance to you. This change often triggers an unrequited fight-flight response. In the long run, stress can be reduced following the instructions of most of the world’s parents:

  • Eat more vegetables
  • Get more sleep
  • Don’t work so hard
  • Exercise more
  • Spend more time with family and friends
  • Find someone safe to talk to

These are all great LONG TERM stress reduction strategies. But what about the short term? How can we keep from having our brain hijacked in moments of acute stress?

As we have discussed the body’s natural response to certain stimuli is the fight-flight response, with an immediate “NO” response as an indication of resistance soon to come. As this response is often not acceptable, or even reasonable, developing a new set of immediate responses to stressful stimuli would be wise, and as we have discussed in installments two and three of this series, much healthier for us. So instead of a stress response, in the last two installments of this blog series lets learn five techniques that can be used to relax and put the brain hijackers someplace safe – not in control of the brain.

Strategies for Beating the Hijackers


Meditation has been seen as a pathway to good health for centuries. Meditation can help practitioners unplug, destress and increase happiness. But meditating at work or right in the middle of an argument or discussion is not practical. That’s where breathing comes in. Just like meditation, breathing has a link to ancient parts of the brain and is the body’s built in stress reliever.

All plants and animal respire, that is breath. But there are good ways and less good ways to breath if trying to alleviate stress, panic, and anxiety. Think about breathing when stressed. The breathing pattern is likely to include breath holding, or taking shallow quick breaths, or huffing and puffing like after running too far too fast. Conversely, when relaxed the breathing pattern becomes deep, slow and thorough. By consciously altering breathing patterns, a calming signal is sent to the branch of the brain where the amygdala and hippocampus are located. What follows is a slower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, “normalized” digestion, and feelings of calm and tranquility.

To learn how to consciously alter breathing patterns takes some work. Listed below are five breath management methods. Try them to see which one works best for you. In time, you may find what works best today may be replaced by a different technique tomorrow. For managers and change leaders, modulate your own breath when discussing change. Don’t let yourself exhibit stress to others. Also, discuss change slowly and positively so that those listening will have an opportunity to breath and think with you. Lastly, while it sounds unconventional at first, use phrases like:

  • Let me give you time to breathe.
  • Let’s take a breath.

to subliminally remind colleagues to breathe.

Five Breath Management Methods

Method #1

This technique focuses on slow, deep, controlled breathing.  Breathe in deeply and slowly through the nose, while allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as your lungs fill. Allow your abdomen to expand fully. Then, slowly let the breath out, exhaling through the mouth.  Keep repeating this slow rhythmic breathing.  Listen to the inhales and exhales, don’t think of anything except the sound of the breath.  This technique is especially effective before bed and can distract the mind from thoughts that are hindering restful sleep.

Method #2

This technique helps slow down the breathing for someone who is panting (short shallow breaths). Start by taking a long, slow breath in through the nose. Fill the lower lungs, then the upper lungs, the chest should rise. Hold that breath to a count of three. Then exhale slowly through pursed lips, while relaxing the muscles in the face, jaw, shoulders and abdomen.

Method #3

Inhale and exhale rapidly (three in-and-out breath cycles per second) through the nose, keeping the mouth closed but relaxed. Having both the inhalation and exhalation through the nose helps add natural resistance to the breath. The effort of the breathing will be felt at the back of the neck, diaphragm, chest and belly. Breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise that produces a quick movement of the diaphragm. Do this technique in cycles of 15-60 seconds, but no more than 15 seconds on the first try. Breathe normally after each cycle.

Method #4

The tip of the tongue should rest just behind the upper front teeth for this technique. For each breath exhale through the mouth, around the tongue; pursing the lips slightly. Exhale through the mouth, making a “whoosh” sound. Start with the mouth closed, inhale quietly through your nose, counting to four. Hold the breath to the count of seven. Then exhale completely through the mouth, making the whoosh sound to the count of eight. Inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times.

Method #5

Start this most challenging technique by taking a few deep breaths. Then let the next inhalation come in through the nose, it should take a slow five counts (counting silently in the mind). After holding the breath for three counts, release the breath evenly and slowly through the mouth. Ideally the exhalation will be quiet and slow for a count of seven.  After this breathing cadence becomes second nature and easy to manage, try slowing the breathing cadence even more to seven count inhalations and 10 count exhalations.

We want you to read the last blog in this series. But, breathing as a method for reducing stress is so important we want you to spend a month or so practicing the above exercises before reading the sixth and final installment. Inhale three, four, five; exhale three, four, five, six, seven. You can get there…

This blog post is part of a six-part series:

  1. Have You Ever Heard…?
  2. A Little Neuroscience
  3. That Can’t Be Healthy
  4. Meet the Hijackers
  5. Beat the Hijackers
  6. Strategies for Beating the Hijackers