“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”I absolutely adore this quote from famed novelist Harper Lee; in the context of the novel, the protagonist is forbidden from reading, but counters that her love of reading is as deeply-ingrained within her as her very breath. It is so natural, so automatic, to steal it would be to steal the most spontaneous function our bodies fulfill every single minute of our lives. It illustrates a very odd, almost contradictory relationship we have with breathing: we do it so often, we forget that it’s truly the rhythm of life.Not only that, it’s the remote control for our nervous system. Evidence suggests that deep breathing and voluntary control over the breathing pattern tunes ourparasympathetic responses and enhances cognitive, physiological, and cerebral flexibility. There is even evidence it can help with general health, such as improved blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease. In short, by taming our breath, we break out of the vicious cycle of anxiety and negative physiological effects that stressful situations, including public speaking, provoke.The breath is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal for exercising control over our bodies, minds, and spirits. It amazes me how when I tell clients and trainees that a few seconds of simple breathing exercises (or even the occasional deep breath) can transform their public speaking fears into powerful focus that the next response is often a look of confusion.In this blog post, we will explore various breathing techniques that can calm the nervous system, regulate anxiety responses, and empower us to conquer public speaking anxiety. Let’s unlock the transformative potential of conscious breathing and discover the serenity it brings to our speaking endeavors.And it probably goes without saying, but let’s start right now: take a deep breath.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as deep belly breathing, is a simple yet potent breathing exercise to induce relaxation and manage anxiety. It involves slow, deep (in a very literal sense) breath that feels almost like you’re trying to breath from your lower body rather than from your chest. You can practice diaphragmatic breathing in 5 simple steps:
Start by finding a comfortable seated or standing position.
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
Slowly inhale through your nose, allowing your belly to rise as you fill your lungs with air.
Exhale gently through your mouth, feeling your belly sink back down.
Repeat this pattern several times, focusing on the slow and steady rhythm of your breath.
Deep belly breathing promotes a sense of calm, reduces tension, and helps regulate your body’s stress response. Moreover, the slow breaths signal to our brains to exercise greater control over our physiology, which can promote greater oxygen circulating through our bodies, and reduce anxiety. Deep breathing is superior to shallow breathing, mainly because more oxygen gets to the brain, and we spend more time breathing with intention. Shallow breaths are useful while doing athletic activities, since they increase our physical capacity to perform, but deep breaths remain the best choice for regaining our sense of balance and calm during psychologically demanding tasks.The best part is that diaphragmatic breathing exercises are able to done even while in the middle of a speaking engagement — once you have the steps down, deep belly breathing exercises become second nature.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation builds upon the techniques used in diaphragmatic breathing exercises, combining the controlled breathing in the belly and flexing your muscles intentionally.
Start in a comfortable position either sitting or laying down. A standing position is ok, but it’s better to sit or recline for these exercises.
Start by taking a deep breath, inhale slowly, release tension in your muscles.
Pick a muscle to start flexing as you inhale — some people prefer moving from the smaller facial muscles to the larger ones. For example, you can start by flexing your forehead by furrowing the brow.
Hold your breath and keep the tension in your chosen muscle for 5 seconds.
Unflex the muscles and slowly exhale.
Pause and keep your muscles unflexed, taking 10 seconds to notice how much tension was released. Continue your deep breathing.
Flex each subsequent muscle and repeat steps 2-6.
Finish by taking one last, deep and slow breath.
This breathing technique allows us to divert attention away from our fears and anxiety, and back towards our bodies. You may notice that this is a similar premise found in mindfulness practices, and you’re exactly right! Anxiety makes it challenging to get out of our heads, but by remembering to take a deep breath whenever we feel anxious, and taking back our control over our bodies, we can reduce anxiety and its vicious cycle down to reasonably mild inconveniences.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique, popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil, is a powerful method for inducing relaxation and alleviating anxiety. I first came across this technique when trying to find a mindfulness exercise for promoting better sleep, and in fact, 4-7-8 breathing exercises are incredibly popular with individuals suffering from insomnia or difficulty getting to sleep. Similar to progressive muscle relaxation, it forces our attention to two different places at the same time: our breathing, and the duration of each deep breath. As our lungs fill with air, we take special notice of our breath, and focus the attention inward to the body.
Get into a comfortable position, with your shoulders relaxed and your neck resting on something soft.
Start by placing the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your front teeth.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale slowly through your mouth, making a gentle whooshing sound, to a count of eight.
Repeat this cycle three more times. If you are using this breathing exercise as a sleep aid, repeat as many times as you would like.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique promotes deep relaxation, help us stay calm, and helps restore a sense of balance. With better quality sleep as an additional benefit of this exercise, you have another powerful tool in your skillset for alleviating anxiety and promoting a stronger feeling of calm.
Breathing techniques are invaluable tools for managing public speaking anxiety. By incorporating deep belly breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or the 4-7-8 technique into our pre-presentation rituals, we can harness the power of our breath to regulate our nervous system, reduce anxiety, and cultivate a sense of inner calm.Whether you experience anxiety in your everyday life, or prepping for the big presentation, with regular practice, these techniques become second nature, empowering us to embrace the stage with confidence, grace, and a steady breath. So, take a moment, inhale deeply, exhale any doubts, and let your breath guide you to newfound speaking prowess.
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