Fighting Nerves With Deep Breathing

Your single greatest weapon against the cold sweats and heart-pounding nervousness that an irate judge, an unhinged client or an intimidating partner can bring lies in your breathing. Deep or diphragmatic breathing is something we all instinctively do when we’re relaxed and if invoked while stressed can both calm you and make your voice sound more confident.

Lawyers are constantly faced with nerve wracking situations. When placed in a threatening situation, the body’s reflexes prepares to get the heck out of there or kick some ass. Blood flows to the legs and arms, the stomach stops digesting, and coursing adrenaline primes your muscles for action. This process is as inevitable as any reaction in the body and happens to everyone, even professional performers.

Acceptance is the start to effectively dealing with nerves. There is very little you can do to combat thousands of years of evolution. We are here today thanks in part to our ancestors’ ability to run like hell or kill threats.

The anxiety and self-judgment that the modern speaker piles on themselves is not only unnecessary but extremely counterproductive. The key to a persuasive, credible, and engaging speaker depends on their ability to be themselves. Second guessing physiological reactions completely undermines this.  I often ask my students, “If you twisted your ankle, would you feel bad about it swelling up?”

You are not powerless, however.  You can develop an awareness and ability to deal with and reduce the effects of nerves.  The most effective techniques incorporate breathing from the diaphragm. This not only helps stem the escalation of the fight-or-flight reaction but also strengthens your voice.

As a professional actor for twenty years and immigration attorney for fifteen, I’ve relied on deep breathing to help myself to relax which allows me to perform. I once had a client who I just met tell me after my appearance at a three minute master calendar hearing, “I like how you talk.” No other client ever remarked on it and I can’t remember doing anything differently, but in one way or another it had to do with deep breathing.

Step #1: Your Muscle Parachute

Understanding the nature of the process is the first step to developing your deep breathing skill. Hey look at you, reading this post already puts you on your way!

Here’s a pop quiz to see how you’re doing: Take a deep breath. Did you puff out your chest and expand your lungs? If you did, give yourself a “Fail”.

Yes, air goes in the lungs, but it’s drawn there by the negative pressure created by your diaphragm contracting. When you’re relaxed, this works like a charm. Watch someone or a pet sleeping and you’ll see the telltale sign of diaphragm breathing: the rise and fall of their belly. The stomach is making room for the diaphragm to function properly.

Think of the diaphragm as a parachute of muscle that’s right below your lungs. Its job is to contract to pull air into the lungs. The more relaxed the muscles around your stomach and midsection are, the easier it is for the diaphragm to do its job. When we get tense, however, tension in the muscles around our stomach inhibit the natural function of the diaphragm.

Step #2: The Knot In Your Gut

Put your hand on your stomach and take a deep breath. You should be able to feel your stomach almost flop out as the contracting diaphragm pushes the stomach aside. Our image conscious society trains us to suck our guts in. This makes the belly-flopping-out ability tricky. If you periodically check in with your stomach while breathing, in both relaxed and stressful situations, you will, over time, develop an awareness of how and when you are breathing effectively.

Step #3: Flop Your Belly

Some simple breathing exercises can help you strengthen your awareness and ability to control your diaphragm. Yoga and Tai Chi are also excellent disciplines that incorporate conscious breathing.

The goal for anyone regularly confronted by a hostile speaking environment is to accept and acknowledge the heightened stress your body slips into and mitigate it with deep breathing technique.


1 Comment

  1. Avatar Dave S says:

    I’ve read this in public speaking articles/books before and seems to be helpful.


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