Stressed? Breathe. Here’s Why and How.
A sharp inhale. A heavy sigh. A deep, relaxed, full breath.
Do you ever consider your breathing? What about when you’re under stress? Breathing just … happens. No thought or intention needed! But though you may not consciously notice these nonverbal cues, your breathing sends a strong signal to others about your stress levels and emotional state.
I’ll never forget the time I was supposed to meet a friend downtown for happy hour. We planned to have drinks and then head to a concert, but she got stuck in traffic. Waiting for her gave me ample time to play on my phone, read and reread the menu, and people-watch. I kept noticing a man a few tables away. Even from a distance, I could tell from his breathing that he was agitated, nervous, and seemed to be gearing up for a desperate move. At one point, I noticed he was gone. My first thought was, “He ran off without paying his bill!” I then noticed he was smoking outside and chided myself, “Why on earth would you leap to such a ridiculous and condemning conclusion!?”
My friend arrived so late we went straight to the concert, but returned for drinks afterward. The same waiter I’d previously had hurried over. “You missed all the excitement!” he told us breathlessly. “Some dude, when he was done with his beer, robbed the till at the bar! Jerry called the police and I chased after the dude and caught him and had to hold him pinned to the ground until the police arrived!!!!”
My friend and I stared at him, open-mouthed, and finally I recovered enough to ask, “Who? Where was he sitting?”
It was the same guy!
His breathing had sent a clear message (to me) that he was dangerous. He was trying to appear nonchalant, but his erratic, shallow breathing betrayed him. This breathing is natural when under stress. But the last thing you want to do when you’re greeting clients, conducting a workshop, or heading a company-wide meeting is communicate danger! Your stress or nervousness may be perfectly reasonable and not come from any devious motives (unlike the guy at the restaurant)—but you can’t control how it will be interpreted.
Luckily, you can control how you breathe. Even under stress. When you breathe calmly and deeply in the midst of chaos and stress, you convey confidence and inner strength. You nonverbally express that you are capable of handling the situation and that others can trust you. To do this, you have to practice—before you’re in a stressful situation. It doesn’t come naturally. Get your mind and body attuned to what good breathing feels like so you can access it at any time.
Here are some ways to do that:
Aerobic exercise forces you to breathe, so it can be a great way to familiarize yourself with the sensations. Exercise breathing isn’t exactly what you’re looking for in a stressful situation; however, when you exercise regularly you increase your capacity to breathe well. Both your muscles and your lungs work more efficiently. This means you will be able to communicate with purpose and confidence even when your body and brain are working hard.
Another way to practice breathing under pressure is to stay aware of your breathing while you try new things. Some practices, like certain types of Yoga, purposefully put your body in “stressful” (i.e., difficult) positions while you focus on your breath. Pilates and some forms of Martial Arts are other examples of exercise regimens that focus on breathing while working your body. Of course, you can turn any new activity into a chance to practice breathing under pressure simply by turning your attention to it.
A fun way (at least, I think it’s fun!) to practice breathing is to sing! Sing in the shower. Sing in the car. Sing your babies to sleep at night. It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune. Singing is good for you! It’s good for your body, good for your brain, and most importantly in this context, good for your breathing.
Perhaps the best way to improve your breathing under stress is through visualization. Close your eyes and imagine a stressful situation. You might remember a recent incident or think of an upcoming event that’s stressing you out. See it play out in your mind. Feel all the feelings that go with it—maybe hostility, anxiety, embarrassment, dismay, inadequacy, betrayal, fury… As you watch the scene play out and feel all those feelings, breathe. Since it’s only happening in your head, you can stop any time you need to. Practicing breathing even when those feelings (because they’re real, even if the situation isn’t) overwhelm you gives you the tools and the confidence to handle real life situations in a calm, competent manner. If you have a daunting situation looming in your future, do yourself a favor and imagine yourself breathing calmly through it beforehand.
What, exactly, is “good” breathing? A full breath inflates the lungs from bottom to top, expanding your entire abdomen. First, your diaphragm—the thin muscle that separates your thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity—pushes downward, which in turn pushes your lower abdominal area out. Your rib cage expands outward, causing your chest to swell. Finally, your collar bones raise, allowing even more space for the breath. You know you took a full breath when your whole abdomen, from top to bottom, is engaged. Also, it feels really good!
How you breathe affects every aspect of your nonverbal communication: it affects your facial expressions, your posture and fluidity of movement, and your tone of voice. And as some side benefits, good breathing helps you think clearly and creatively, releases toxins from your body, and helps others stay calm, too. It’s hardest to breathe well in times of stress, yet that’s when you need it the most! So, practice. No other skill will improve your communication and presence so dramatically.