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All About You: Take a deep breath

Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

When was the last time you focused on your breathing? For many of us, the likely answer (unless we’ve got a medical issue) is “rarely” – if ever.

Breathing is more important to our survival than any other action. So, why don’t we pay more attention to it?

I believe it’s because we do it so regularly (humans take between 17,000 and 30,000 breaths a day) that it’s nothing more than background noise blocked out by our constant flow of thoughts and stimuli. As a result, we take it for granted and often don’t appreciate its importance. We also don’t realize how much we can benefit from using it to help us relieve stress and focus on the present moment.

I just finished “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” by James Nestor. It was an eye-opener. Even though I’ve long been a strong proponent of mindful breathing, this book gave me new insight into what scientists have recently discovered about the importance of how we breathe. Now I know that how we inhale and exhale affects every aspect of our mental and physical well-being.

During my “Mindfully Safe” keynote, I share tips on ways to better handle negative emotions such as anger and frustration, which are often the root causes leading to behaviors that cause harmful incidents. One of the tips is to stop and pay attention to a few breaths when you’re upset. Another is to pick a time each day to purposely notice your breathing. For example, every morning before I get out of bed, and then again at night when I first hit the sack, I engage in a mindful breathing routine.

As with any life skill, if you purposely practice breathing with a steady, smooth flow, you’ll get better at it.

Get started

The first step is to stop doing other activities such as watching TV or using your smartphone. If you can, get into a comfortable position and then focus your awareness on how breathing feels. I notice my belly rising and falling. (I’ve learned to breathe mostly from my diaphragm, but if you breathe from your chest, then notice how your chest moves). This simple act will help chase away any negative thoughts you’re having.

Next, slow down and deepen your breathing while noticing how it feels. It should only take a few breaths before your blood pressure and heart rate decrease. Typically, I spend about five minutes on this technique, but any amount of time is helpful.

Use it when you’re upset

The primary benefit I’ve found of consciously breathing is to help me cope with difficult situations. For instance, I distinctly remember becoming distressed a few years ago when my flight to Toronto was delayed because it could’ve caused me to miss my speaking engagement at a major safety convention. Sitting on the plane without knowing why or how long the plane would be delayed, I started to feel panicky. So, I closed my eyes and started breathing mindfully. After a bit, I calmed down. This experience deepened my understanding of how much noticing my breathing could affect my mental state. Try it the next time you’re upset.

Pass it on to employees

Teaching your employees how to use their breathing to calm down when they get upset is a fabulous safety and health tool for reducing incidents. No matter what activity they’re doing, stopping and mindfully breathing will help reduce mental distractions caused by negative emotions. It feels good and is a balm for your body.

After you read this column or listen to my podcast, why not stop for a few minutes and purposely notice the life-sustaining in-and-out motion you perform thousands of times every day. You’ll be delighted how much it calms your mind and body.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps leaders inspire employees to care more about their safety and health so “nobody gets hurt.” He also has a long history of success getting safety leaders to increase their influence and make safety fun. For more than 35 years, Richard’s safety keynotes, training sessions, books and “Safety Stuff” e-zine have made a positive difference in the safety and health field. Learn more about how Richard can improve your employees’ safety performance at

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