Public Speaking Fear: How Breathing Will Help
Think about public speaking fear and breathing: this may be a topic you resist. You may think you’ve heard it all before, or you’ve
tried working with your breath and didn’t find it helpful. That certainly used to be my experience, and I’ve had a client recently who told me it didn’t work, because he could only do a breath or two before his negative thoughts started up again. I told him it’s inevitable that our thoughts are always there, just keep coming back to the breath; and that he needs to keep practising – a couple of goes isn’t enough to make a shift. Our minds think, all day, constantly, they don’t stop!
But if you can learn how to calm your system with a breath which starts your autonomic relaxation response, wouldn’t that be helpful? Think of it like this: we simply can’t being taking relaxing, slow breaths and be in a state of panic or high stress at the same time. It isn’t possible. And that’s why slower, diaphragmatic breathing does work. Over time it will calm and ground you, and become a trigger to signal to you that in fact you’re ok, you can do this presentation thing just fine. I’ll show you why and how in a moment.
Why breath matters for public speaking, and how it can go wrong. Our breath sustains our energy, our vitality; and breathing well is a crucial step in our physical arsenal against stress and panic. When our breathing becomes shallow, as happens when we’re stressed or afraid, we exhale too much carbon dioxide. Adrenalin floods into the bloodstream and our body goes into fight/flight/freeze mode. But we can’t literally go and punch an annoying audience member, or run! Freezing is possible, and that feels awful too. We’re left to stew in the symptoms.
Read what Dinah Bradley, in her book Hyperventilation Syndrome: A Handbook for Bad Breathers 1992 has to say about shallow breathing:
“Not only nerve cells are affected, smooth muscle cells are galvanized into action by lowered carbon dioxide levels, which leads to tightening or constriction of the blood vessels…the heart and pulses start pounding, and the one hyperventilating may feel panic stricken, with palpitations and chest pain. The brain may have its oxygen supply cut by as much as 50 percent, making it difficult to think, concentrate or even feel part of this planet.”
When not enough oxygen is getting to the brain, the first thing to go is our higher cognitive function; we therefore fall into our usual ingrained responses to stress. And what do you need most when you’re speaking? Your higher cognitive function! Remember the historical timeline of fear that I mentioned earlier? Whatever’s on your timeline, whether it’s ancestral survival fears or habits created through experience, they take over.
(The way in which we breathe can also stem from our childhood. If we were not allowed to express our feelings freely as children (and most of us weren’t), then we will probably find that as adults we tend to hold our breath to avoid feeling unpleasant feelings. When we were children, an adult telling us to stop crying when we were upset meant that we learned to cut off the tears by stopping our breath.)
The Solution for hyperventilation and shallow, constricted breathing
The most important thing to remember about breathing when you’re under stress is to breathe from your abdomen, not your upper chest. When we’re stressed we take shallow, upper body breaths, and this spirals our system into further panic.
Some more benefits of abdomen breathing
Clarity of thought and focus. More oxygen flows to the brain – up to 50% more! This gives you greater alertness, ability to focus and remember
You’ll have presence – speakers who aren’t breathing properly are not strongly present. And if you’re not present, you can’t have presence: that indefinable state which speakers are often searching for. Breath = presence. We’ve all seen speakers who rush through their material: do they have presence? No. And when you breathe and are present, you won’t be so strongly “in your head”, fretting about something you just said, or worrying about what’s coming up. When you’re present you can react appropriately and flexibly to whatever’s happening.
Calm and control. The parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, which helps you to feel that you have control. Breathing fully helps to release stress by letting it ‘steam off’, like a pressure cooker valve being released. And physical tension is an enemy of good public speaking; it locks you up and restricts you just when you need to be expanding and taking up space
Vocal resonance and persuasiveness. Breathing from the abdomen creates a full, strong, resonant sound which is ‘alive’ and pleasant to listen to. You’ll therefore sound self-assured, and be more naturally persuasive. Plus you avoid a nasal tonality to your voice
How to breath to relax and combat fear.
It’s usually easiest to practise this lying on your back in bed. Put one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest. Breathe out first, and then breathe in from your abdomen, imagining that you have a belt of nostrils. You can imagine that your torso is a vase, and it’s filling with water as you take in air. Be aware of your abdomen expanding, ribs moving to the sides and upwards, and think about filling up the space into your kidneys at the back too: we only see the front of our bodies, so don’t tend to think about our back. This is one reason why imagining the ‘belt of nostrils’ is good, as it encompasses your whole torso.
See if you can avoid lifting your shoulders. Don’t think over-deep breaths or you’ll go all ‘spacey’ and hyperventilate! This is about slowing your breaths and breathing from lower down, as well as the middle part of your body.
Taking time to practise putting your attention onto your breath will allow you to be present in the moment, and to become aware of the space between stimulus and response that we need so badly when we’re under pressure. It will give you some freedom to choose how to be. Think about this for a moment – I would suggest that the freedom to choose how to be when you’re presenting to groups or speaking up in a meeting is one of the reasons you’re reading this article. But a key point: it needs to be practiced when you’re not stressed, so when you’re asked or told to “say a few words” right now, are waiting in a meeting for your turn, or to go on stage, you can remember to take some breaths and stay calm.
Good luck with it!