Beyond EQ: Why Do We Fail to Take a Deep Breath in a Tough Situation?

04/20/2015 02:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

We look for external solutions that can help us handle difficult situations. Sometimes the best solution is all internal. This blog is an analytical tribute to "breathe, just breathe."

Just like so many things in life, we know what is the right thing to do when faced with a tough, heated situation. Maya Angelou's words "I've learned that ... people will never forget how you made them feel," ring so true. Careers and leaderships are defined by a series of events -- capsules of moments and how we react in those moments, especially the tough moments, shape the course of our history. Do we do the right thing in those moments? Before answering that, let us frame a scenario.

What happens in a stressful meeting with a coworker?

There are very few pathways to the brain -- the five senses.

Unfortunately, in those trying moments, we do not like what we see, we are pained by what we hear, where we sit is a lifeless chair which does not bring the social touch we yearn for. If we had the chance to taste and chew food that is comfortingly tasty, it has long term collateral damage on health. Unleashing the sharpest sword of self-defense, words, is a sure-fire safety valve release -- timely in the short run, self-inflicting in the long run. Possibly regret was invented as a word, after those moments.

So, what are we left with in these uncomfortable moments? Air -- the invisible medium filling the space in the tense room. It is free to take in unlimited measure. Nature's way of giving -- enhanced value for us relative to the cost for nature. It is free and readily available.

Per scientific research, deep breath is panacea to the mind. It is ours for taking. Yet we (most of us) forget. That is one of life's biggest irony. During our moment of truth, why do we not lean in to soak in the air? Here is our evolution story.

Why we fail to take a deep breath, when it matters?

"We've gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970s to as many as 5,000 a day today," according to Jay Walker-Smith, Yankelovich Consumer Research. The stimulation overload can take an unconscious toll on a mind whose evolution pace is monumentally slow relative to the technological leap frogging of today. There is no distinction yet between the threat of facing a tiger in a forest and 21st century stress. As a result, we naturally breathe fast not deep in our most vulnerable moment -- moments when more adrenaline runs through our system.

In context, reality check on EQ

The words emotional intelligence invokes images of empathetic, considerate people interacting with others -- completely attuned to others feelings. That is just part of the story. There is much harder part within the science of emotional intelligence that focuses internally -- self awareness of one's own emotions. With our pace of daily life, it is already difficult to assimilate what we visually see and hear. Being consciously aware of something that is instinctive is tough. More so, when it is all internal and not physically in front of us. What is a practical solution that can trigger the self awareness when emotions are building up internally? For me, I thank the imagination of a movie director, a doyen of Tamil Cinema. Here is the backdrop.

In the mid '80s, an image captured the gyrations of the mind beautifully. It was in a south Indian Tamil movie -- a minor character found it hard to keep secrets -- the director's visual was that the actor's face expanded as time flowed. Just like the crazy mirrors in the children's museum that distorted our faces into funny faces. Except in this case, the face was constantly expanding with time, like blowing air into a crushed brown paper lunch bag. The actor's face could revert to normal shape when he could unburden himself of the secret. I am predominantly a visual learner -- that image stuck with me for the sheer clarity of expressing the internal turmoil of the mind, for my eyes to see.


We live in a world full of beautiful things. The ability to breathe, the ability to walk away and more importantly the ability to be more self aware during the moments of calling would be a nirvana, that all of us can espouse. How can we make it happen? In other words,how can we find ways to create cues for deep breathing during our moment of reckoning?

Here is my side of the story. On days when my wife senses that I have a tough meeting, as I am sharing my morning good bye and ready to walk to the car, she says, "Remember to breathe deep." Later in the day, when her words seem so apt in the meeting, the expanding "brown lunch bag" image comes to mind. I mentally overlay that image on the face in front of me. I chuckle. A chuckle that brings the deep breath to the forefront -- nobody pins me down for emotional words I chose not to say.

Let your best laid plans lead you to success and more importantly happiness in life. Breathe, just breathe.