My business partner, Michele, and I recently worked with Mike, a young man newly promoted, to help him with his communication skills. His new position required him to do weekly "Lunch and Learns." (Short presentations delivered at lunchtime to his co-workers on various topics relating to their business.) He told us that the mere thought of having to stand in front of a group to speak was causing him a lot of anxiety. He knew the material but was afraid that his chest would tighten to the point he wouldn't be able to breathe. Michele and I have heard this same worry many times, which is why we developed a program based on proper breathing techniques.
Nine out of ten people breathe incorrectly. I know you're inhaling and exhaling while reading this and thinking, "Well, I'm not having any difficulty taking in oxygen." But, have you stopped to consider how deeply you breathe or where in your body the inhalation starts? Now, you're thinking about it. Take a breath through your nose and notice if your chest rises or your stomach expands. Most people will find that their chest rises and lowers as they inhale and exhale, causing shallow breathing. We take deeper breaths when we breathe from our diaphragm and let our stomachs expand with air.
Watch a baby breathe, and you'll see how natural it is to breathe from our diaphragm. Unfortunately, I believe that most of us stop this way of breathing when we become teenagers. We change the path of our inhalation to suck our bellies in to keep our stomachs looking flat. The problem with breathing from our chest causes us to take shorter breaths which only contributes to our anxiety. We reduce stress when we breathe from our diaphragm and take slower, longer breaths.
Another benefit of breathing from our diaphragm is gaining power in our voice. As a result, we can enhance our vocal projection and clarity when speaking one-on-one or to a group.
Here's an exercise for you to try. Put one hand up close to your mouth and the other hand on your chest. Take a breath filling up your chest and say, "Hello, how are you?" Now, remove your hand from your chest and place it on your stomach. Take a breath, fill your belly with air, and say, "Hello, how are you?" You'll feel more air hitting your hand when you breathe from your diaphragm.
If you're still having trouble finding how to breathe from your diaphragm, try lying down on your back. Place your hands on your stomach, right under your rib cage. Direct your breath to your belly and let it fill up and inflate your stomach like a balloon. It may take some practice, but soon it will become natural again.
When Michele and I taught our new friend, Mike, how to breathe correctly, he noticed a couple of benefits right away. The first was how clear his words sounded, with a new resonance that smoothed out the tone of his voice. The second was how much more relaxed he felt. He said he could feel his shoulders relax, and his chest wasn't feeling tight.
We tend to hold our breath throughout the day without realizing it. When we stop and take a moment to take a few deep breaths, we give ourselves a mini-vacation that helps us to refocus and center ourselves. Now relax and breathe.