Since I got the word “breathe” tattooed on my left wrist (yes, really), the idea of breathing has understandably been on my mind.
When you’re stressed (let’s say, because you’re about to give a speech!) breathing is a great way to calm yourself down — and it also works well on anger and fear.
But most of us do a lot less real breathing than we could, particularly when we’re speaking in public.
This matters because breathing is what powers ability to speak, and to speak up for ourselves.
OK, I Need to Breathe More Deeply, But I Don’t Know How!
For those of you who haven’t studied yoga, martial arts, or singing, here are the physical basics of breathing:
- Loosen your clothing, open your mouth and exhale (while pulling your belly in) until you can’t push any more air out of your body.
- Now loosen your belly. Let it hang all the way out, like the baby in the picture at the end of this post.
- Inhale! while keeping your belly relaxed.
You may not even need to inhale; if your belly is loose enough, the air will just rush back in.
That’s what breathing — real breathing — feels like.
Why It’s Hard for Us to Breathe Deeply
How did we all become so alienated from this basic process that clearly came naturally when we were born?
Well first, there’s our culture’s obsession with six-packs and tight abs. It’s hard to grab a good belly breath when you’re poured into tight clothing, or trying to appear youthful and trim by holding your stomach in.
The second thing that makes breathing deeply so hard is your amygdala.
- Your amygdala is a pre-verbal center in your brain that exists for one reason only: To trigger the fight-flight-or-freeze response that kept your primitive ancestors alive.
- One of your amygdala’s favorite strategies, when it thinks you’re in danger (which it often gets wrong!), is to make you hold your breath so that a passing herd of lions or jackals won’t hear you breathing and target you.
- But sadly, oxygen deprivation is the last thing you need in a stressful business meeting, or when you’re about to give a speech! What you need for those dangers (as opposed to the wild animal variety) is a nice hit of oxygen — the kind you get from breathing deeply!
Practice Breathing Before You Need It!
So to summarize: Breathing is essential, but it’s hardest to do when we need it most.
That’s why it’s good to practice this simple technique, often.
A few seconds of daily practice will help you “internalize” this important habit, and make it easier for you to grab a calming breath under stressful conditions, when you need one.
And there’s another benefit of daily practice:
You won’t need to tattoo a reminder on your wrist!