Got a presentation? A test? Feel that familiar sensation of your heart beating more rapidly and stronger? Sweaty? Chest tightening? Mind unfocused or racing? Just about everyone on the planet has experienced these sensations of strong anxiety or fear. You may have heard of the old familiar explanation of the “fight or flight reflex”. These physical sensations are a good prep for the human animal to fight like a pit bull or run like a deer in the presence of a predator. They’re NOT good prep for the human social being facing a presentation or a test.
When our mind perceives a threat, the very first thing the body does to “help” is a sharp focus of attention (which may later turn to UNfocused attention), blood pumping to the extremities (rapid, strong heart beat) and shallow quick breathing (called hyperventilation). It doesn’t matter if the threat is physical (e.g., attacker) or emotional (e.g., imagined ridicule or failure), the body responds the same. Your body is often your ally in the case of needing to respond to an attacker. “Not so much” in the case of an emotional threat. Before and during a presentation or test, you’re going to have to convince your body not to be so threatened.
In my practice with clients there are a number of things I do to help them calm their anxiety and perform better, but the most basic, most effective and simplest is DEEP BREATHING. Breathing is the most accessible and straightforward and formulaic part of anxiety you can control. AND IT CALMS ALL THOSE OTHER SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY AS WELL! So find a deep breathing practice that works for you, practice it when you’re calm, practice it when you’re mildly anxious and then plan to use it several times just before your test or presentation and during it.
The first and most important, step is to understand WHAT is deep breathing. Shallow breathing (what you’re trying to avoid or lessen) involves short quick expansion of your sternum (just under and around your collar bone). Deep breathing involves getting air into your lower rib cage and down into your diaphragm (just under your lower rib cage around your belly button). The first part of deep breathing practice is bodily self awareness. Put your hands on your rib cage and belly button. You may feel these better if you lay down. Experiment with breathing in so deeply that you feel your lower ribs expand and/or your upper stomach area expand. Practice this for a few minutes several times a day in various settings (e.g., relaxing on the couch, standing in line, at your desk) until you feel sure you can easily discriminate shallow breathing from deep breathing.
Once you’re sure you know the WHAT, practice the HOW. There are many systems of deep breathing exercises. They all involve PRACTICE. Practice for short periods several times a day in various circumstances. Experiment with these practices:
1. Counted Breathing (Classic and simple)
Inhale for a count of 5…exhale for a count of 6.
If your lung volume is smaller, inhale for 4 (or 3) and exhale for 5 (or 4).
If your lung volume is larger inhale for 6 (or 7 or 8) and exhale for 7 (or 8 or 9). The point is, exhale LONGER than you inhale.
Do it in sets of 10 with breaks in between of regular breathing.
2. Increasing Exhales (Short and effective, may want to repeat several times)
Inhale to the count of 2, exhale for 2
Inhale to the count of 2, exhale for 4
Inhale to the count of 2, exhale for 6
Inhale to the count of 2, exhale for 8
Inhale to the count of 2, exhale for 10
3. Five Count Energizing Breath (Short, but not subtle)
Inhale for 5
Exhale by huffing out your breath in short bursts for a count of 5,
You can enhance all of these by relaxing your muscles with each exhale. Try imagining that with each exhalation, your body becomes like that of a rag doll; limp and relaxed. Or consider imagining as you exhale that your body is like a deflating balloon that was taut when full but soft and squishy (and relaxed) when deflated.
Practice! But remember, almost everyone has to figure out a way to deal with anxiety. You are not alone.
This blog does not create a doctor/patient relationship. Dr. Mary Zoglo is a licensed psychologist only in the State of Colorado, USA, and can give specific mental health advice only to her patients. This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical, psychiatric or psychological advice. See full disclaimer.