“Learning how to control your breath is key to functioning optimally throughout the day” with Sarah Anne Stewart

Shallow breathing is known to cause fatigue, poor sleep, and poor concentration, which can make it impossible for you to maneuver under the pressure of time. Learning how to control your breath is key to functioning optimally throughout the day. Think: more clarity, more creativity, equals better health. An easy technique to remember is even-count-breathing, a […]

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Shallow breathing is known to cause fatigue, poor sleep, and poor concentration, which can make it impossible for you to maneuver under the pressure of time. Learning how to control your breath is key to functioning optimally throughout the day. Think: more clarity, more creativity, equals better health. An easy technique to remember is even-count-breathing, a term used by dozens of teachers. This is so discreet that you can use it while you’re sitting in a boardroom meeting, while you’re driving, standing in the elevator, or walking with your child in the supermarket. Start by making sure you’re breathing through the belly (not chest) and inhale for five counts, hold for five counts, exhale for five counts. The key is to find a natural flow of breath without straining.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Anne Stewart. As a Certified Holistic Health Practitioner (AADP), Sarah Anne Stewart runs a leading mindfulness-based private coaching practice in Los Angeles. Sarah’s unique heart-centered approach has helped hundreds of women across the globe make sustainable lifestyle changes and heal their relationship with food and their bodies. Sarah is the founder of the Awesome Inside Out Movement, an advisor to international wellness brands, and a soon-to-be Hay House author.

Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah Anne ! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

At the age of 14, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Despite the doctor’s orders to remove one of his kidneys, my father opted to take an alternative route. For seven months he used many holistic treatments, including a raw plant-based diet, meditation, energy medicine, and biofeedback. After just seven months he was declared completely cancer-free. I witnessed firsthand the healing power of foods, the importance of meditation, and the value of taking the time to connect with your own body.

Around that same time, I was scouted and signed a modeling contract. I started living out dramatically different values than the ones my parents had introduced me to, and in my early twenties, I moved to New York City. My entire life became consumed by the fast-paced city and my agents’ demands to stay thin at all costs. As a result, I suffered from a decade of eating disorders and almost lost my life to laxative abuse and anorexia. When I was told that I needed to change my lifestyle or else, I choose to change careers and go back to school for nutrition.

The most important part of my journey was discovering that ‘more’ nutrition information doesn’t always reprogram subconscious beliefs, and for me, it made my eating disorders worse. It took time to expand my knowledge of other holistic modalities and find my way back to everything I had learned from my parents growing up, such as mindfulness and yoga practices.

Through my journey, I began helping other women feel better in their bodies by taking a mindfulness-based approach to food and life, which is the work I do today!

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed.” Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

I am actually surprised that the percentages aren’t higher! Most everyone I speak to, including my clients, feel rushed in 2019.

In the past, there was more of a work-life balance divide — spending time cooking a meal, with our families, or resting, didn’t have as much interference with work. There was a slower pace and ability to move through our day in a more natural rhythm. We had actual designated playtime and leisure time that was more restorative. Now, with current technology, work is blending into all areas of our life, into the night and on the weekends. With close to zero work-life boundaries and with the expectation of immediate response times in our communication and decision-making, there is a general feeling of urgency and a sense that we are always a step behind, playing “catch up.”

In my work, access to technology is the #1 thing that has increased this energy of feeling rushed. Even meditation apps time us and make us feel rushed!

The reality is, we’re only moving faster. The creators behind some of the internet’s biggest search engines are continually asking, “how can we get more information to people in less time and how do we keep people on our sites as long as possible?” This idea, that faster is better, is thoroughly ingrained in our culture and contributing to the need to take an active role in determining how to slow ourselves down.

On the one hand, we have the ability to do more in less time. You don’t have to be at the office anymore to know what’s going on. With email and instant messaging, you can get projects rolling before you’re even out of your pajamas. This unlimited access has heightened our addiction to instant gratification- whether that’s the gratification of receiving a fast-response time, our ability to get anything from anywhere in the world in just a few days, or instant social approval and popularity.

It’s connected us in more ways than one but has also made it a lot easier to become disconnected from our bodies. We might always feel the need to keep up with responses, trends, and stay plugged-in when we should be engaging in activities that refuel our physical and mental health.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

For starters, people who are in the habit of rushing are constantly activating their body’s stress response; we all know it as ‘fight or flight.’ Our heart rate increases and our adrenaline spikes, raising cortisol and other stress hormones that signal danger to the rest of our body. What we forget is this distress puts a lot of strain on our major systems, and it takes time for our body to recover from this response.

When we don’t know how to slow down and relax effectively, we keep triggering more and more of the same stress hormones. So if you’re jumping from meeting to meeting, job to school, then rushing home to meet all of your other demands without consciously slowing down, you’re moving from episodic stress into chronic stress.

What I see in my line of work is that we start to reach for food mindlessly — whether that’s quick, incomplete, meals and snacks that will accommodate your on-the-go lifestyle or comfort foods that calm our nerves momentarily. This is why I’m a firm believer that meditation and mindfulness techniques are the key to managing our health. I work with my clients on evaluating their lifestyle and finding ways to build a relationship with their bodies throughout their day and week. Simple practices of connecting with our food- for example, cooking for ourselves, eliminating distractions when we eat, and checking in with how we feel after a meal- help to create space for our bodies to slow down and restore.

Not taking the time to slow down and tune into how we feel before, during and after our meals is having a massive toll on our health. According to the CDC, over 93 million Americans — over a third of our population — are obese (https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html) and another 30 million suffer from eating disorders (https://anad.org/education-and-awareness/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/). This has resulted in a lack of ability to advocate for our health. We look to other people’s advice on how to eat when we are naturally getting feedback from our bodies, if we’re listening. We don’t trust our own bodies because we’ve been tuned out for so long. We start placing more trust in doctors and experts, rather than our own experience, and as a result, we are spending $190 billion per year on medical costs for obesity (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-consequences/economic/).

The fact is that meditation not only saves lives, but it also saves money. According to a study by the Center for Health Systems Analysis, physician costs were lowered by 11 percent after one year of routine meditation and were reduced by 28 percent after 5 years (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21879945). The science speaks for itself: meditation is a valid healthcare strategy.

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

As my dear friend Emily Fletcher of Ziva Meditation says, “Stress is making us stupid, sick, and slow” (https://zivameditation.com/zivablog/audio/emily-on-the-broken-brain-podcast/). Stress is impacting our health, and one area to shift the stress is with mindful eating.

Mindful eating shifts your awareness as to when you’re full, when you’re stress eating, and when certain foods don’t sit well. All of which will contribute to making better choices around your body that lead to better long-term health. At the minimum, you will feel nourished and rejuvenated after a meal, which contributes to your health and productivity.

First, create a boundary around your meal time. Remove all distractions from your eating area. Turn off the screen, put away the laptop, and give yourself full permission to focus on the food in front of you.

Before your meal, make sure that you turn off your stress response by taking slow, conscious, diaphragmatic breaths. Most of us breathe from our chest; this contributes to more of the feeling of being rushed because shallow breathing causes our thoughts to race. So, take a minute or two to make sure you’re breathing in and out through the nose, from your belly, like you’re inflating and deflating a balloon.

Once you feel completely centered, have a full sensory experience with your food. Enjoy the flavors, the colors, the textures. Get to know what foods make you feel your best.

It takes approximately 22 minutes for your gut to alarm your brain that you’re full. By slowing down, you’ll know instantly how much food you actually need. Additionally, if we slow down, we won’t pay the repercussions in the long- term. Everyone thinks that by moving fast now, we can buy more health later. But that’s not the case. Not investing in the present will cost you more in the long-term.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1.Shallow breathing is known to cause fatigue, poor sleep, and poor concentration, which can make it impossible for you to maneuver under the pressure of time. Learning how to control your breath is key to functioning optimally throughout the day. Think: more clarity, more creativity, equals better health. An easy technique to remember is even-count-breathing, a term used by dozens of teachers. This is so discreet that you can use it while you’re sitting in a boardroom meeting, while you’re driving, standing in the elevator, or walking with your child in the supermarket. Start by making sure you’re breathing through the belly (not chest) and inhale for five counts, hold for five counts, exhale for five counts. The key is to find a natural flow of breath without straining. Over time, you can increase to inhale, hold, and exhale for longer counts. This will naturally slow down your thoughts and allow you to regain your center.

2. The next time you’re trying to rush through a project for a deadline, use this technique: work for 33 minutes, rest for six. Different experts have different thoughts on what these times should be but note that the exact time isn’t as important as taking breaks! Most people try to skip breaks to ‘gain time,’ but you end up losing more because your brain hits a wall and you can’t push through the home stretch of your work. The key is not to take your six minutes for granted. Don’t spend the entire time thinking about what you’re going to do, write, or say next. Completely detach from your work. Step out of the environment if possible. Do some of your diaphragmatic breathing or move your body around in any way that feels good to you. And for those six minutes allow yourself to relax completely. Anyone who works for more than an hour straight (which is most people) needs to be doing this.

3. Are you running short on time and want to multitask? Don’t. Set yourself up for success by choosing the night before which one or two things you want to accomplish the next day. Not sure what to focus on? Ask yourself, “if this was the only thing I got done today, would I feel accomplished?” Then, focus on number one and don’t move to number two until it’s complete. By planning the night before, you won’t feel as pressed for time, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing (which is half the battle), and you won’t get hijacked by your stress response. If you find this works for you, like my team, you’ll love Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Planner. My team and I have also seen that by focusing on one thing until completion, we accomplish more in the long run- with greater ease and less error- than starting multiple projects and finishing zero.

4. The next strategy to practice is the thing everyone knows they should be doing but don’t make time for, Meditation. To be intentional about your day, to recognize when you’re caught in the rush, you need to cultivate more presence through the act of meditation. This feels the most uncomfortable when we have a growing to do list, and we’re sitting down being ‘unproductive,’ but slowing down all of your autonomic body functions is the most productive thing you can do- for your physical body and mental health. By learning how to be deeply present, you no longer need to rush because you expand your experience of time. When all of your brain power is completely focused in the now, you’re not scrambling to try to make decisions or find the next creative idea. It just comes to you and your day goes smoothly. You’re completely open, receptive, and in the flow. Flow is what you’re trying to accomplish by rushing but, in reality, you’re moving further away from it. Try downloading a meditation app and sit in your car for five minutes before you drive or arrive at your next destination.

5. Rushing sets the stage for reactivity, which are behaviors based on subconscious patterns and conditioning; for example, you’re not putting your best foot forward. Instead of reacting to the world around you, allow yourself 90 seconds to fully feel your emotions instead of repressing them. I discovered this through Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. When your coworker pushes your buttons, avoid the ‘one-up’ no matter how good you think it feels. Take a pause and fully feel the emotion that’s running through you. Name it. You’ll see that by merely being present to what you feel, without judgment, this can allow you to burn out fires and handle certain situations with a lot more grace.

6. A great way to combine all of these tools and set yourself up for a stress-free day is to create a morning self-care ritual. Starting your day by serving your needs before your schedule, your partner, your children, or your boss can feel radical, but it’s incredibly grounding. When you take care of yourself, you’ll find you have a deeper well of calm to draw from when you show up for those you love. Set aside some uninterrupted time each morning to turn inward and anchor yourself for the day ahead. You can create a ritual around meditation, affirmations or journaling over a cup of tea- or all three! Whatever anchors you into your body and nourishes your mind. Make this the first thing you do before any other daily tasks, like email or making breakfast. Try this consistently for a few days and reflect on how it influences your stress level.

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or a story?

Mindfulness is the ability to make conscious choices in the present moment. This extends to making conscious choices about how you want to feel and what beliefs you want to take on. It’s being aware of your thoughts and emotions so that you can respond to life with an open heart, instead of continually reacting to events and people from a space of fear and lack. Most people are not taking the time to slow down and are therefore limiting their ability to be mindful.

One of my clients came to me drowning in corporate chaos. She was buried in the day to day of her job, living to work instead of working to live, and the stress was showing up everywhere in her health characterized by weight gain, sleeplessness, anxiety, and more. She was totally overwhelmed and convinced that she needed to leave her job to save her health but could not fathom how she could leave her job at the moment. I helped her identify that her mindset had been carried with her from job to job, so we needed to shift an internal thought first. I suggested that instead of walking out on her career, she first focus her mindset of striking a balance between being successful and being healthy. We worked on holding a vision for a life of optimal health. For her, that meant learning to say no, having fun and playing more. It meant consciously slowing down, making choices around food that improved her energy and vitality, increasing the quality of her sleep, meditating on breaks, and scheduling in yoga and pilates. The more consistently she created space to slow down and meditate, the more deeply she stepped into this new way of being. She lost 20 pounds and was able to achieve one goal after the next… and she achieved it all with a focus on mindfulness.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

Start by examining your daily habits. Keep a lifestyle journal to log your emotions around eating time, how you feel after your meals, track your self-care, and note how you feel by the end of the day. You can also note things like hydration and sleep. By capturing a complete picture of your day, you will start to notice what habits aren’t serving your wellbeing and begin to see what’s missing. It may sound like a lot, but if you commit to this for even one week, you’ll notice things right away that were slipping under the radar. You may figure out the culprit to your latest chocolate craving, or why you’re completely drained by 3 PM. Once you have that awareness, you have the power to change it!

Also, take a moment this week to reflect on what your habits are around self-care, specifically relaxation? Do you wait until your body starts having symptoms to slow down, or are you being proactive? Vegging out (like binge-watching a Netflix series) actually desensitizes you emotionally to what’s happening in your body and your life; it’s why so many people get sick and don’t know why. I recommend carving out space at least once a day to completely relax; allow that time to be completely yours. You can take this time to meditate and tap into a deeply restorative state for your mind and body. Many people use the excuse of time, but ten or twenty minutes a day is all you need. More than time, consistency is what creates impact.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

I use essential oil blends by Barbara Biziou and Doterra. I use them for everything, ranging from lemon to start my day, lavender to calm my nervous system, peppermint to stimulate my memory, citrus, and wild orange to uplift me, and Roman chamomile to close out my day. The use is intentional, depending on what state of being or mindset I’m trying to embody. I also use a calendar as a simple way to schedule everything, so that I have a great work-to-break balance and give myself plenty of chunks of self-care. And, if I’m feeling particularly restless, I use the Stop, Breathe, Think app to recalibrate and get back to center.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices?

Some of my favorite books include Break the Norms: Questioning Everything You Think You Know About God and Truth, Life and Death, Love and Sex by Chandresh Bhardwaj. Genius Foods by Max Lugavere. And Stress Less, Accomplish More by Emily Fletcher.

My podcast go-to’s are You Turn with Ashley Stahl, Behind The Dream with Libby Crow, Hungry for Happiness with Sam Skelly, and Bucci Radio with Amanda Bucci.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve realized that at any time you set out to break an addictive habit that’s detrimental to your health, your greatest terror is your only way out…. which makes most people stay right where they are. Some part of the habit is still serving you- whether it’s a dopamine hit, the feeling of safety, knowing, or a false sense of security. I’ve gone through this with my own eating disorder. You can get all the coaching and mentorship in the world, but if you’re avoidant of doing the real inner work and you’re choosing people based on how far you know they’ll push you, whatever you’re doing is not going to work.

I’ve come to realize that no one outside of you can actually give you inner strength and courage; you have to cultivate that within yourself to create change in your life. Not only has it been true for me, but I see it with my clients and with people that I love the most. You can beg and plead for someone to be healthier or to heal, but until the person wants the change, they’re going to resist the depth of work that needs to be done. So a quote that has been particularly relevant in my life is Mark Twain’s “Do the thing you fear the most and the death of fear is certain.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger 🙂

Absolutely, I think we all have the ability to move people based on our own stories. I have created a movement- Awesome Inside Out. This movement is for women who are ready to stand in their power around food, their bodies, and their life. I created this movement for women, not to focus on how much weight to lose –or gain– or which parts of your body you want to change, but to lift you up in the body you have right now.

I firmly believe that at our core, we all want to be seen as glowing, radiant, and confident for who we are beyond our bodies. And, I’ve witnessed how many women struggle to fit into the boxes we’ve ironically created within the body positive movement. So, this is a space where you will not be judged for wanting to have a healthier body and instead will feel empowered to do so in a way that stems from self-love and self-respect.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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