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  • Writer's pictureIngela Onstad

A simple breath exercise to use in times of trouble

When I visit institutions and organizations across the country to present on the topic of performance anxiety, I often hear from audience members that they are aware that breathing can be helpful, but most of the time they say things like:

“I try to take some deep breaths…..but it doesn’t work very well.”

There’s a great idea there, however, it seems to be failing people in its execution.

What I’m noticing is that people lack a METHOD and moreover, PRACTICE in that method. And it’s hardly their fault – most of us are made to feel like talking about our anxiety is taboo, and when we do talk about it, the people around us (colleagues, teachers) likely don’t know much more about managing it than we do.

Using the 4-7-8 breath to manage performance anxiety
This is what it feels like to breathe well

So we’re often told things like:

“imagine the audience in their underwear”

“don’t be scared”

“just don’t think about it too much”

“try to focus on something else”

Or worse, we are given the message “just suck it up” either directly (I’m not making that up, I’ve heard horror stories) or indirectly. Some people (once again, I wish I was making this up) are told that their anxiety or panic attacks are not real and that they are “just looking for attention.” Anxiety is real, y’all. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I could go on and on about the terribly unhelpful advice circulating out there. It’s pretty sad.

But I’d like to begin changing that, one blog post at a time! Here’s one easy tool to use in times of stress.

The technique is the 4-7-8 breath.

Here’s how it goes:

Inhale for 4 counts (through your nose, quietly)

Hold for 7 counts

Exhale for 8 counts (through your mouth, noisily- creating noise helps slow the exhale)

The speed of this does not matter. You may find that when you are more nervous, you’ll have to do it faster, and when you are in a calm state of mind, you can lengthen it.

Repeat this 4 times. Do at least 2 cycles daily, more in times of distress. Eventually work up to 8 breaths in a row.

Dr. Andrew Weil is a big proponent, and I think he’s a pretty groovy New Age Santa Claus type healer guy. He says in the video linked above, “it’s the regularity that counts, it’s not the intensity with which you do it.” He also teaches a specific tongue position with this exercise, but I think it still works pretty well without it.

When we are stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system gets “fired up”, so to speak. It releases stress hormones and puts us into a state commonly referred to as “fight, flight, or freeze.”

Essentially, our system detects some type of threat in our environment and prepares us to protect ourselves. This “threat” we perceive can be as drastic as a wild animal running towards or as mundane as daily worries (which can easily escalate to wild animal levels of stress for a lot of people).

The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the body responsible for calming us down. It is often referred to as the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system.

There are many breath techniques that focus on creating a longer exhale, and this is not a coincidence. This is sometimes referred to as the 2:1 breathing ratio. According to this article, the 2-to-1 ratio “increases the influence of the more quieting parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the relaxation response.”

In plain English, an exhale that is twice as long as the inhale calms the body.

But science and research aside, all you really need to remember is this: 4 – 7 – 8.

Try it out and report back to me. But remember, a method is something that must be practiced regularly if we are to use it in times of stress. By the time we notice that we are anxious, we will be very unlikely to use stress-reducing tools unless they are already nestled firmly in our “habit toolbox.”

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