06/03/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2013

Sometimes, It's Good to Breathe

Cora Neumann

It can be difficult. We sometimes feel like it is better to plough through things, that shallow breathing and the head-down, "deep dive" focus is the only available option. We have all been there.

But what happens when we breathe?

So simple, right? Yet, we often have to remind ourselves to do it. You are probably taking a deep breath right now. Ah.

I'm actually talking about more than breathing. I'm talking about space. Creating space in our lungs, bodies and minds, which then spills over into self-awareness, open-mindedness, clarity and creativity.

A rapidly growing body of neuroscience research endorses the positive links between regular deep breathing, meditation and increased brain function. This recent article on mindfulness states that regular presence of mind "positively impact(s) attentional functions by improving resource allocation processes" -- allowing our brains to react earlier and more effectively to challenges. Another study found that meditation provides a lasting buffer from stress.

During the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, mindfulness was a featured topic. There is clearly something to this ancient science.

Consider Mrs. Koroma, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, who came to her position in the aftermath of one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars. Trained as a psychiatric nurse, she quickly set to work developing youth education and health awareness programs in line with the administration's national strategy.

The majority of the world's first ladies operate with a relatively small staff and limited budget, and soon, Mrs. Koroma and her core team realized they were reacting to crises at a greater rate than they were able to proactively implement this vision. Mrs. Koroma decided to take a step back -- to pause and breathe if you will -- and critically assess the best use of her position in this situation. How could she leverage her role as First Lady rather than operate in the power-through mode that was depleting, rather than furthering, the cause?

Mrs. Koroma realized that by engaging local village chiefs in health awareness campaigns -- by partnering with and empowering existing leaders rather than trying to implement with limited resources -- she could catalyze attitude and behavior change at a remarkable rate. Within a year of engaging these chiefs, maternal mortality in target regions dropped to record lows. This small step back, this pause, created the space for inspiration and an innovative solution that not only saved thousands of lives, but resulted in sustainable changes in local attitudes and behavior.

At a recent Women Up gathering, we talked about creating space in our lives to contemplate what it is that we truly enjoy. Rising women leaders from government, companies, non-profits and multilateral agencies were asked to refrain from stating their titles, and instead were asked share what it is that they love to do... outside of work.

You could feel a collective deep breath sweep through the room. You mean I don't have to be on? We are going to talk about something beyond the important work I do to improve the lives of women and girls around the world?

That's exactly the point. In order to move that powerful and important work to the next level, we must remember to breathe. To contemplate. To take a step back and critically analyze our progress, approach and the level of thoughtful engagement we are giving to our work and mission.

The night continued with animated stories of how these women find inspiration to feed energy into their work, and led to a number of new and exciting ideas and collaborations. All because we started with that collective deep breath.

From high-level policy dialogues with first ladies to the halls of the State Department, I have watched rising and established leaders operate nearly possessed by their conviction to save and improve lives. It has been awe-inspiring at times, and indeed these challenges require no lesser effort.

Yet, as Arianna Huffington has articulated through her "sleep evangelism," these leaders owe it to themselves and to the people they serve to also pause, perhaps sleep, and at the very least breathe, in order to rejuvenate and bring our highest potential to table.

Why? Because 1) it makes us smarter, and 2) it helps each of us operate from a place of meaning and creativity, resulting in the discovery of more effective and sustainable solutions.

Your next best idea may come through a set of deep breaths, and the moment of contemplation you are able to gain through the process. Let's not underestimate the power of this simple but profound practice.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.