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Vacuuming the Lungs

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.

Phew.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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