Breathing to manage public speaking fear really works. However, it only works if you practice it regularly and integrate conscious deep breathing into daily activities. It is often called mindful breathing.
Every article you read on managing fear and anxiety for public speaking will suggest learning to breathe deeply and diaphragmatically. I concur that breathing is helpful, but only if you learn to breathe deeply and consciously while you are holding the center of attention and actually speaking. That means you have to be mindful of breathing in and out while speaking in front of others.
Yogis have the right idea for integrating breath into physical action. Yogis use breathing to manage stress and anxiety. In yoga, you move one way on an inhale and move another way on an exhale. Sometimes in yoga, you move into a physical position, hold the position and breathe deeply into the part of the body you are holding. Breathing in and out becomes integrated with movement and allows you to relax more deeply into the yoga practice.
When you become anxious or fearful, as in public speaking, you often stop breathing and hold the breath. You unconsciously hold the breath to keep yourself from feeling emotions and sensing physical sensations. When the breath is not flowing smoothly, mind, body and spirit are separated. This creates a disconnection from self. It results in feeling scattered and not all here, not present.
In order to use breath to stay calm and present when speaking, train yourself to breathe consciously while holding the center of attention and speaking.
How to Breathe Diaphragmatically
The best way I know to learn to breathe diaphragmatically is to start lying on your back on the floor. Put your knees up and feet flat on the floor. Inhale deeply and watch where the air goes in your body. When you lie down, you automatically breathe diaphragmatically. Notice how deeply your breath goes into the body without effort.
Place one hand on your navel and one on your upper chest. Allow the hand on your navel to rise as you inhale. Your belly will expand as you inhale and contract back down as you exhale. The hand on your upper chest will hardly move.
Now place your two hands on the sides of your bottom ribs, just above the waist. As you inhale, notice how your ribcage expands and your hands are pressed outward. As you exhale, your ribs contract back in and hands naturally come in.
Diaphragmatic breathing is deep into the navel and side areas because the breath fills the lower part of the lungs. Once you can feel this action of the breath, then sit up or stand up. Now breathe diaphragmatically. Feel the same action of expanding around the navel and sides when you inhale and contracting when you exhale.
How to Practice Breathing to Manage Public Speaking Fear
Practice the following sequence of exercises to connect the breath to the body while in action.
- Breathe deeply during a simple task. While standing in line somewhere, focus attention on taking slow deep inhales and exhales. Notice you can feel yourself consciously present as you wait in line. Keep breathing even when you’re more forward in the line.
- Practice deep breathing while speaking on the phone. As you hold a conversation on the phone, stay conscious of taking deep slow inhales and exhales. Notice you feel your breath when listening to the person you are conversing with. Notice you are using your breath as you are speaking. You are always exhaling as you actually talk.
- Try breathing consciously as in exercise 2 during a face to face conversation.
- Use conscious breathing during a meeting where you are simply a participant.
- Try it during a meeting where you are leading the meeting. Notice how your breath flowing slowly and deeply helps you stay present and keeps your fear and anxiety way down. Maybe you even feel wonderful as you breathe, hold the center of attention and speak!
Work your way through these exercises slowly. Give yourself time to train your body and breath to coordinate during activities. Don’t expect yourself to be able to use your breathing to manage public speaking fear effectively in a few days. Yogis practice integrated breathing for years, so give yourself at least a few weeks. You may be utterly surprised at how well this will work to help you manage the fear of public speaking.