How To Stop An Anxiety Attack And Stay Calm Under Pressure | Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise

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How to Stop an Anxiety Attack

Have you ever been told to take a deep breath and relax? Did it work?

Probably not, but these well-meaning people that tell us to take a deep breath and relax actually had it partly right. Because breathing actually is the key to relaxing—when done right.

Stay tuned. Today on Moxie Talk, we’re going to unpack how to breathe and help you relax not only in your presentations but in your personal life as well.

Lower Anxiety & Keep Calm With Diaphragmatic Breathing

Hey everyone, I’m Fia Fasbinder and welcome to Moxie Talk where we help you find your voice share your message, and lead with confidence.

Today we’re talking about diaphragmatic breathing which I really believe is your power tool for public speaking. In fact, your power tool for a lot of things. The good news about diaphragmatic breathing is:  Not only does it help you relax but it’s free, and all you need is your body.

Let’s talk about how to use this amazing muscle in your body to help you

  • Ground yourself
  • Calm yourself
  • Channel your nerves
  • Give those presentations that you know you’re capable of

The Diaphragm: How It Works & The Advantages

First of all, let’s talk about your diaphragm in general. Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle.

Its whole purpose in your body is to flood your body with extra oxygen, push all that oxygen into your lungs

Most of the time our diaphragms lay dormant because we don’t need extra oxygen but when we are nervous we definitely do! Let me explain why.

First of all, there are two benefits to diaphragmatic breathing. 

Physiological

The first is physiological meaning how it affects our voices.

Psychological

The second is psychological which is how it affects our mindset.

Now actors and singers use their diaphragms for the physiological benefits, how it helps their voice. Up until very recently, the only people we heard about that used their diaphragms for psychological reasons were Yogis and people and meditation.

It got this misconception that it was this Woo-Woo thing that doesn’t work for real people. Now we know that is absolutely not true. In fact— this is pretty cool, check this out—they’re actually teaching diaphragmatic breathing in boot camps to soldiers and there’s nothing Woo-Woo about boot camp.

In fact, I read a really interesting story that a soldier in the Iraqi war, actually this is pretty gruesome he had his leg blown off but because he was taught diaphragmatic breathing, he was able to keep himself grounded and calm enough to actually tie a tourniquet around his own leg and call for help.  He said that the only reason that he was able to save his life was this ability to take deep breaths in the most panicky of situations.

If soldiers can learn it in boot camp then I think it’s probably good enough for the rest of us. Let me break it down for you.

Why Diaphragmatic Breathing Works

Why does this work? What happens in our body that makes breathing from our diaphragm help us calm down?

Well, the first is to understand that your amygdala which is the oldest part of your brain it’s really dumb. In two million years, it hasn’t realized the difference between the threat of giving a presentation and the threat of being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. It’s dumb—it doesn’t understand that these are completely different threats. In fact, a presentation isn’t even a threat.

When the amygdala senses that we are in some kind of threatening situation, no matter what it is, it sends messages to our nervous system that we need to go into fight-or-flight.

First of all, when we go into the fight-or-flight mechanism our diaphragms tighten because our body is trying to protect all of our organs from getting attacked because most of them are behind our diaphragm. 

The other thing that happens is we start taking short, shallow chest breaths. Now, this is a downward spiral that psychologists actually call:

The Cascade of emotional hijack

And if any of you have ever experienced fight-or-flight in your presentations, you know this cascade well. All of a sudden you notice this quickening that’s happening, right? Your breathing gets quicker, which makes your heart rate go quicker, which makes your words go faster and your thoughts start to race and everything starts going in this downward spiral. It’s probably making you nervous by just talking about that.

That fight or flight mechanism is death to our presentation. It might be trying to save us from death in real life but it actually causes a lot of horrible presentations.

What happens to us literally in a presentation when we’re in fight-or-flight is we get deer in headlights syndrome or what I call the Oh, Bleep syndrome, where all of a sudden, despite practicing, you can’t remember what to say.

It also causes us to have all those crazy vocal qualities. Sometimes it causes this kind of breathy sound that you hear in speakers like they can’t get enough air out to get to the end of their sentences, right? You’ve probably experienced some of these. This is all because we are not breathing from our diaphragm.

The only way to counteract any of these awful things that happen to us when we’re presenting and our diaphragms tighten is to learn how to relax our diaphragm and breathe from it.

We’ve got this really cool nerve in our body that is called our vagal nerve and vagal actually means wanderer in Greek. This nerve wanders our body for signs that we are either in fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest. It actually starts at your amygdala and attaches to your abdomen.

This really cool thing happens—if your vagal nerve senses that you are starting to take shallow rapid chest breaths, it can feel in your abdomen, it sends this signal to your sympathetic nervous system – Oh no! we’re in fight-or-flight, you better you know start all that cascade of emotional hijack, ruin this person’s presentation.

If it senses that you’re taking nice deep relaxed breaths, it sends a message to your parasympathetic nervous system: Everything’s chill, we can go into rest and digest, this person’s got it, they’re going to give an amazing, grounded, calm presentation. This is really cool because this nerve can literally change your body chemistry. It’s like you can be an alchemist of your body chemistry.

Here’s how:

If you can start to take those deep relaxed breaths, you will send a signal to your vagal nerve that everything’s cool which will then send a signal to your amygdala to release the fight-or-flight mechanism, put you in rest-and-digest and when you do this you start secreting all these great hormones like dopamine and serotonin and you remember what to say and you can give a confident grounded presentation. You literally can change your body chemistry simply by deep breathing.

That’s an amazing benefit, if that wasn’t enough for you I’m going to give you one more because I dig diaphragmatic breathing—I think it’s the most amazing thing. 

The other reason you should learn to breathe from your diaphragm is that when we use our diaphragm, we are pushing more oxygen into our body and when we flood our body with the oxygen, we increase our blood oxygen levels. When we increase our blood oxygen levels our heart rate lowers. When our heart rate lowers all that great circulation comes back to our prefrontal cortex which is responsible for memory and logic and rational thought which is kind of needed when you give a presentation.

In fact, I have taught diaphragmatic breathing to a lot of engineers that you need to prove everything, they never just believe it. So they have worn their watches and taken their heart rate before and after their diaphragmatic breathing exercises and literally seen their heart rate go down.

So those are two amazing benefits in our body when we learn to breathe from our diaphragm.

The other is more about the mindset. If you can remember a time that you were anxious, what happens? You’re either anxious about something that happened—you’re like it’s something that happened in the past—or you’re anxious about something that’s coming up in the future. You’re completely not present.

Worry happens in the past or the present.

But when you start breathing from your diaphragm, you bring your thoughts back to your body and back to the present moment and when you come back to the present moment and back to consciousness and mindfulness then you can start to make good choices about how to present.

I’ve set up why it’s so important to breathe from your diaphragm. Hopefully, I’ve got you eating out the palm of my hand now and thinking Yes, Fia, Yes! Teach me how to do this! All right, I’ll teach you!

How To Breathe From Your Diaphragm

We have this place right here where our diaphragm lives and I want you to put your hand on your belly. 

Your diaphragm is right below the lungs and heart and just above your belly—you don’t have to put your hands specifically on the exact spot but just put your hand right above on your belly—and I want you just for a second to tune into the place in your belly that’s rising and falling.

Take some big, deep, relaxed breaths. You’ll probably notice that when you inhale, your hand pushes out and your belly expands. And when you exhale, your hand goes in towards your belly button and all that air comes out of your nose and your mouth.

If this is difficult for you, you can lay down on your back because we naturally fall into diaphragmatic breathing when we’re sleeping. A lot of times I will call this belly breathing or

Balloon Breathing

Balloon breathing because we are going to imagine a giant balloon in our belly but you are not breathing from your belly. We cannot breathe from our belly people—we breathe from our diaphragm (and our lungs).

Another good thing to do is put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. What you want to make sure is when you’re breathing, your belly is expanding and not your chest. You’re not heaving your chest because you’ll never be able to drop into diaphragmatic breathing if you’re incorporating your chest.

We all have lungs and we have upper and lower lungs so your chest is going to rise a little bit because your upper lungs are going to be incorporated. But really we want this bottom half and our belly to do most of the work.

Here’s the other reason: Your lungs, if you can picture in your mind, in your lungs, there are two parts and your lower lungs are bigger and they’re also the most oxygen-rich part of your lungs. We want to make sure we’re standing or sitting really straight—posture does matter. If you’re hunched over, your poor little diaphragm is all scrunched up in there and so are your lungs. Therefore, nice posture whether you’re sitting or standing.

If you’re lying down you don’t have to worry about this. Again, both hands. One on your chest and one on your belly. And now we are going to imagine a giant red balloon in our belly and every time we inhale that balloon fills up with air and our belly pushes out and then when we exhale it all comes out of our nose and mouth.

Now to make sure you’re doing this correctly:

When you breathe in, I want you to breathe in from your nostrils. We call this dragon breath. If you can imagine a dragon with his nostrils flaring, right?

When you breathe out, I want you to blow out a birthday candle and the farther you put your birthday candle away the more you blow out. This means the more you’ll inhale, the more oxygen you’ll get into your body. So put that birthday candle far away. Try it now. 

We talked about using diaphragmatic breathing for your voices. And when you do for your voice, it’s one deep diaphragmatic breath. Now when you want to use it to calm and relax yourself, the key is actually

rhythmic breathing

and we’re going to breathe and a fixed ratio of four-four-six

4-4-6

And before we do this, I want you to imagine in your head a crew team. If you’ve ever seen a crew team row in the water you know that their oars go in and out of the water in a very rhythmic fashion. That’s what we’re gonna do with our breathing.

  • we’re gonna breathe in for a count of 4
  • we’re gonna hold for a count of 4 and
  • we’re gonna breathe out for a count of 6

Now you’re thinking why 4-4-6? Why not 4-4-4?

Well, I already told you that the bigger you breathe out, the bigger you’re gonna breathe in and the bigger your lungs will get and the more oxygen-rich they’ll get and all that air will come out your voice and out your nose and mouth and it will get your prefrontal cortex circulating again and your heart rate lowering.

So big breaths are really key to this.

I’m going to count this time and you are going to try this because I can’t breathe and count at the same time. So I’m going to breathe and remember, we’re going to inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of six.

And I’m actually going to go through three times.

Depending on how nervous you are you might have to do this a lot more. 3 might not even be close to getting your nerves like, to where you need them to be. This is not going to hurt you, so if you need to do it 20 times to calm yourself, do it 20 times.

I’m just going to do it three to just demonstrate to you so here we go:

breathe in 2,3,4 – hold 2,3,4 – breathe out 2,3,4,5,6

one more time,

breathe in 2,3,4 hold 2,3,4 breathe out 2,3,4,5,6

this last time, make sure you’re taking dragon breaths on your inhale and blowing out that birthday candle on your exhale,

breathe in 2,3,4 hold 2,3,4 breathe out 2,3,4,5,6

Do you feel calmer? If you did this correctly I bet you do.

How do you practice diaphragmatic breathing? I really suggest if you’re using this for the psychological benefit that you start simply by doing it in bed.

Do it when you first wake up or do it right before you go to sleep. Do it when you’re already in a relaxed state so that you can just simply focus on what your body is doing and incorporating your diaphragm.

Once you really feel like you’ve mastered that, then put it to the test. Find a stressful situation and if you’re like most of us that’s not hard to do it’s like 10 times a day. See if you can, in that stressful situation, switch from shallow chest breaths or even worse holding your breath, to diaphragmatic breathing which we call

Breathing low and slow.

That’s it, everyone. Thank you so much for reading. I hope that this blog helps you ground, focus, flood your body with all those feel-good hormones, and we’ll see you on next Moxie Talk Blog.

For more information about Moxie Institute, check out moxieinstitute.com look at all of our training options our one-on-one coaching options we would love to see you there and work with you.

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