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How to Breathe to Control Your Public Speaking Nerves

How to Breathe to Control Your Public Speaking Nerves

Do you suffer from speech anxiety? Want to become calmer and more confident? Here's how to breathe to control your public speaking nerves. 

Last month, I wrote about how your brain tricks you into feeling stage fright. Part of that response is due to the way the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system, can override your executive brain, the prefrontal cortex. Your fearful experiences are also flagged as significant by the "danger center" of your brain—the amygdala.

So what's a brain to do? This week, we'll look at a key answer to that question. This article highlights a powerful technique that uses breathing to control your public speaking nerves.

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Dr. Gary Genard's book on how to overcome stage fright, Fearless Speaking.

Breathing and Anxiety Reduction

You may have noticed that some speakers gasp for breath at times. That’s because nerves can make us so focused on trying to survive a perilous situation that we forget to breathe. This response is probably related to the ‘freeze’ reaction of our ancestors. When these people spotted, say, a saber-toothed tiger turning in their direction, they probably halted any movement, including breathing. Like them (remember, we probably haven’t evolved out of these behaviors), when faced with the ‘danger’ of having to keep a group of strangers under our control, we may just stop breathing. The gasping reaction that soon occurs is our body sending our brain an urgent message: “We need some oxygen down here!”

This scenario can be turned on its head, however, because your breath is also a potent weapon for reducing your speaking fear. It’s all a question of gaining control of the breathing mechanism while activating the calming components of your nervous system.

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Activating the Vagus Nerve

As I explained earlier, your physiological response to what appears to be a dangerous situation is instantaneous and overwhelming. When your survival is at stake, your brain is willing to wait a while to reach full comprehension until your body gets you out of the hazardous situation.

In reality, it takes all of a second or so for your mind to come back online. But that’s long enough for your physical response to have cascaded quickly into hyper mode: the pounding heart, rapid breathing, sweating, and the other symptoms I noted above. By the time this occurs, it’s too late to do anything about it. The stress hormones are in the bloodstream and it will take some time for them to be absorbed by the body. Concerning the hormone cortisol in particular, this process can take several hours.1

The way to counteract this extreme physiological response is to get your body in the right mode before the anxiety-provoking situation shows up. That means using the breath to turn on the part of your nervous system that exists to calm you rather than excite you.

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Dr. Gary Genard's book on extraordinary public speaking, Speak for Leadership.

The "calming" response involves the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS. The opposite mode—the one that’s involved in the “fight-or-flight” or activating mechanism—is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When you’re experiencing speaking fear—or a fearful response of any kind—it’s the sympathetic nervous system that’s in operation. In fact, in such a situation it is working overtime, which is where the fight-or-flight designation comes in. And it lives up to its name during fear of speaking! Your parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is often called the “rest-and-digest” system. If you can learn how to turn it on before you’re in the stress-provoking speaking situation, it will be much easier for you to call upon it at the moment when you need it most.

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What you’re actually doing when you turn on the calming mode is activating the vagus nerve. This is the longest cranial nerve in the body that runs all the way from the head to the abdominal region. One of its relevant functions (vital for our purposes) is that it helps regulate the heart rate, speeding up the heart slightly each time you inhale, and slowing it down slightly each time you exhale. Equally important, the vagus nerve is also responsible for switching on the parasympathetic “calming” nervous system. And again, it’s the act of exhalation that makes this happen. So, the answer to reining in your galloping heart (which makes you uncomfortable in more than one way) is really a simple one: make your exhalation longer than your inhalation.

The 4-4-6-2 Pattern. You can breathe in a 4-4-6-2 pattern, for instance. This means inhaling for a silent count of four; pausing for the same amount of time; exhaling for a silent count of six; then stopping the process for a count of two. Then begin it all over again, continuing the process for a few minutes.

You may find this breathing pattern very relaxing, since it brings the parasympathetic system online. As we've seen, its job is to S-L-O-W  T-H-I-N-G-S  D-O-W-N. Don’t do it when you need to be fully alert or operating machinery, of course. And feel free to adjust the duration of any of the numbers if you feel oxygen starved. But if you can learn to use mindful breathing in this simple way, you’ll give yourself a powerful tool when anxiety is pressuring you to lose control.

1 Kara E. Hannibal and Mark D. Bishop, "Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation."

This article is excerpted from my book, Speak for Leadership. Get a signed copy here. Or find it on here on Amazon.

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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking and overcoming speaking fear. His company, The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching  and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speakingwas named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in videoconferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership PresenceContact Gary here. 

Main photo credit: Barbara Olsen on 


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