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Tuesday, April 22, 2003
By Paul Ford
How to breathe deeply when you're nervous.
This morning I went to a studio and recorded some writing for eventual radio broadcast. During my readings, I could not get my breath. I sucked in as much air as I could between takes, took off my sweater, wiped my brow, pushed away the chair and knelt on the floor, took a break, and sipped water—but no matter what I tried, I would find myself gasping by the end of every second sentence.
Because of this, I couldn't get back to the calm, measured reading I'd rehearsed. The producer was understanding, and I was able to go over many parts of the piece several times, and everything ended up okay. But it wasn't my best work, and I never want that to happen again.
My girlfriend is an opera singer and performance studies expert who has spent years working on breathing, so I asked her what to do next time. “[Breathlessness] is very normal and brought on by nerves,” she said. “And there's a simple exercise that fixes it.” For you, and for all those who might search Google for “running out of breath,” “breathing control,” and “reading for the radio,” I offer her opera-tested 4-step routine:
1. Exhale completely, as if you're blowing out the candles on a very big birthday cake.
2. Bend over. This expels the last bits of air from your lungs. When you're totally out of air, don't let any air come into your throat.
3. Stand up. This increases lung volume, so air will want to flow into your lungs, but don't breathe. Wait until your body needs a breath—10 seconds or so.
4. Then, when you can't take much more, breathe. Your body will have moved over from your normal, everyday breathing to unregulated, autonomic “response breathing.”
That's it. Once you let your body take that unregulated breath in step 4, it sort of “reboots your lungs,” and the nervous, “holding-pattern” breathing becomes a thing of memory.