Updated: Mar 4, 2021
My career choice gives me the opportunity to speak in front of a wide variety of audiences from students to executives. After all these years I still notice my heart rate increase a bit before a presentation begins. I’ve learned to harness this energy to benefit my presentation style, but it’s not always easy.
Not too long ago I was being introduced at a colloquium on campus where I was scheduled to share some of my research. I regularly present in front of larger and more unfamiliar audiences, but on this occasion I noticed my heart beating much faster than usual.
I had stopped breathing or was only taking shallow breaths. Meanwhile, my body was preparing for what it perceived as something that would require Herculean strength. The internal dialogue I had with myself went something like this:
My heart is racing. I haven’t felt this in a long time.
What advice would you give someone else right now?
After a few moments of focused breathing, my heart rate slowed down to the point that it didn’t feel like my heart was going to pound out of my chest. I still noticed that I needed more air, but I doubt anyone in the room had any idea I was suffering from what some people might classify as stage fright. Note, I say “some people” because I don’t find the phrase to be that helpful. Instead, I try to define the problem more clearly: increased energy.
Included in most of my courses are a variety of science backed strategies speakers can use to reduce their fear of public speaking. I've come to realize that most of the advice I share is also helpful in many other life situations. So this article shares what’s happening in our bodies when we perceive tension, explains how breathing can benefit our health, and offers some breathing resources.
Breathing Can Regulate Your Nerves
Why does your heart rate increase so much prior to speaking? When your body senses it is going to need energy, your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates your bodily functions without direction from you, begins to manage your body's fight or flight response. When your body perceives a threat, two parts of the ANS - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems - work together to anticipate your body’s needs.
A combination of signals tell your body to release adrenaline and cortisol. Both of these hormones quickly work their way through your bloodstream. Adrenaline produces a variety of changes in your body including increased heart rate. Cortisol increases sugars in the bloodstream and curbs nonessential bodily functions like memory recall. This could explain why you may forget what you plan to say when experiencing increased energy while presenting.
While your body’s response is automatic, there is one thing you can do to help take back some control. Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, says that breathing is the only biological way we can deliberately influence our nervous system. Moving from breathing in your upper chest to the bottom of your diaphragm will help your parasympathetic nervous system work to slow down your heart rate. Deep breathing can also make your voice sound more confident.
Breathing Benefits Your Health
In addition to calming your nerves, breathing is something we all should pay more attention to because of how much it impacts other areas of our lives. Research shows proper breathing can lower anxiety, heart rate, restlessness, and stress.
When I'm not teaching or meeting with students, I'm often sitting quietly at my desk in my office. During these uninterrupted periods, I sometimes catch myself taking shallow breaths, and some days I don’t pay any attention to my breathing until I step outside and notice fresh air. Poor breathing habits can result in fatigue and lower productivity, but proper breathing increases clarity and energy.
Positive outcomes from proper breathing include increased awareness, alertness, centeredness and relaxation. A growing number of studies are also connecting proper breathing to long term health benefits.
Breathing Is A Practice
While breathing is something we do unconsciously, we might not be doing it well. The good news is that if we raise our awareness of our breathing we can get better at it with practice.
Most breathing techniques shared in best selling books and popular apps boil down to the same advice:
Stand/sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor.
Breathe in slowly through your nose.
Breathe from your diaphragm/abdomen.
Exhale slowly through your nose.
Advice about the time you should take to inhale and exhale varies. Take a moment now to see how many breath cycles you complete in one minute. Keep in mind that slower is better. In addition to helping you become more observant of your own breathing, you are likely to experience the almost immediate benefit of feeling more calm.
Note: We continue to learn more about breathing thanks researchers who are actively studying the topic and how it relates to our mental, physical and emotional health.
André, Christopher (2019). Proper breathing brings better health. Scientific American. Online.
Chen, Y. F., Huang, X. Y., Chien, C. H., & Cheng, J. F. (2017). The effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training for reducing anxiety. Perspectives in psychiatric care, 53(4), 329-336.
DiNardo, Kelly (2020). Breathe better with these nine exercises. New York Times. Online.