Breathe In, Breathe Out
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Breathe In, Breathe Out

3 Breathing Exercises to Calm Your Nerves

Have you ever noticed yourself holding your breath?  I certainly have!  It’s usually when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and I realize I’m having to remind myself to take a breath.  This is probably not healthy, but the good news is that it’s an easy problem to solve.

I learned a few different breathing techniques when I first started my acting career, mostly to manage anxiety about performing.  These were not the same breathing exercises I learned in college while I was earning my vocal or theater degrees…those were more tailored toward breath support, projection, and vocal control.

What I’m talking about are breathing exercises that work when you feel like you’re being chased by tigers—they can instantly lower the heart rate and instill a better sense of calmness.

I’d like to share three specific breathing techniques that can be done anywhere by anyone, either overtly or covertly.  You would typically find me in a corner somewhere or in my car doing any one or all three of these prior to an audition, an acting job or any other kind of performance (well, except teaching, because that doesn’t stir up the butterflies).  Mind you, these are just three of possibly hundreds of different breathing techniques, but I’ve found them to be the most immediately helpful and calming in anxiety-inducing situations.  These three exercises are blowing on your thumb, square breathing, and 5-7-9 breathing, respectively. 

Blowing on Your Thumb

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the inhale that lowers the heart rate, it’s the exhale.  If you gulp in air and don’t give your body time to properly exhale, you’ll hyperventilate, which is why being told to take deep breaths when you’re panicking is not helpful.  I usually start with this exercise because it’s easiest and it works the fasted to settle my system.

The method to this exercise is simple:

  • Inhale slowly, feeling your breath go all the way to your belly. Try not to breathe up into your chest but, instead, imagine settling the breath underneath your belly button.
  • Then hold your thumb up six inches from your face, round your lips as if to whistle, and blow on your thumb. Keep the opening of your lips as small as possible and aim the air right at your thumbnail.
  • Exhale as slowly as possible until you’ve run out of breath and then inhale. There’s no need to squeeze out a last puff of air just to blow longer.  Doing so can trigger your throat to close, which isn’t pleasant and isn’t conducive to inhaling again.
  • If you want more focus, close your eyes while you do this and visualize the stream of air going from your lips to your thumbnail. When you inhale, visualize the air rushing into your body all the way down.

Repeat…slow inhale, blow on your thumb.  Do this at least three times or until you feel your heart rate ease up.

Square Breathing (also called Box Breathing)

The concept for this exercise starts with visualizing a square or a box.  The square has four sides, of course, and you’re going to breathe in, breathe out, or hold your breath for 4-5 seconds on each side.  Note:  when I say hold your breath, I don’t mean set and hold it as if you’re about to jump into water (the “hup” pursed-lips-blowfish-cheeks kind of breath holding).  I mean simply stop the airflow either in or out.  You should not feel any pressure in your throat or mouth as you stop the inhale or exhale.  It will feel odd at first, but you’ll get the hang of it!

You will inhale and exhale through your nose for this technique.  If your exhale takes a second or two longer than your inhale, it’s okay.  Just make sure the exhale is always at least as many counts as the inhale so you don’t hyperventilate.

I usually start up the left side of my square and go clockwise, but you can start on whichever side, top or bottom you wish.  Here’s how I do my square breathing:

  1. Inhale up the left side 4 counts
  2. Hold breath across the top 4 counts
  3. Exhale down the right side 4 counts
  4. Hold breath across the bottom 4 counts

Repeat at least three times.  If you’re feeling calm enough, try increasing the counts to 5 on each side.square_breathing

5-7-9 Breathing

This exercise is named for the counts used for the inhale, hold and exhale.  You will hold your breath the same way for this technique as you did for the square breathing (don’t “set” the breath, just stop the inhale or exhale).  Inhale through your nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips to control the air flow.  As with square breathing, there’s no need to squeeze out any air once you feel you’ve fully exhaled.

Expect this exercise to take more focus than the other two due to the varying counts.  The extra focus is extremely helpful with clearing away anxious thoughts or rumination—I find this one to be especially effective when I’m trying to sleep and my mind is racing.

Here’s how to do 5-7-9 breathing:

  1. Inhale through your nose for 5 counts
  2. Hold for 7 counts
  3. Exhale through pursed lips for 9 counts

Repeat at least three times.  If you’re feeling calm enough, repeat twice more pushing the right and then the left nostril closed on the inhales.  This might be challenging for anyone with sinus issues or a deviated septum like me, so please stick with the regular method if you have trouble breathing through one nostril.

I hope you find at least one of these breathing techniques to be useful.  You can do any of them while you sit at your desk, in your car, in Starbucks, while you’re walking or anywhere else to help settle your body down into a more sedate state or if you find you’ve inadvertently been holding your breath.  No matter which one works, just keep breathing!

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