Breathe better to present better

What do you have in common with a highly-skilled ninja-type assassin? A lot more than you may think.

In the novel “The Rhythm Section” (soon to be a major motion picture), a down-on-her-luck young woman is selected to become a secret agent. She goes through a gruelling training process that pushes her to her limits, and beyond. In the depths of cold, wet, exhausted despair her trainer, Geordie, then gives her a valuable tip: “‘When you’re in a tight situation, you canna be panicking. You gotta keep hold of yourself [..] By looking after your rhythm section […] When you panic, you gotta get your breathing sorted. Once you do that, you’re in control of yourself again […] It’s like in music. Drums and bass are the rhythm section, right? Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass. You get those two sorted, then you’re sorted. You can’t panic when your breathing’s under control and you’ve got your pulse in check. […] Keep the rhythm section tight and the rest of the song plays itself.”

Ninjas, you, everybody can panic in situations that feel threatening. It may be when coming up against a heavily-armed adversary, even if it’s in a computer game rather than in real life. For most of us, it’s more likely to be a less life-or-death situation – having a difficult conversation, speaking up in an important meeting, or making a presentation. Whatever the situation, real or imaginary, your sense of panic is real and it has the same effect. It’s the stress response, also known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. Automatically adrenalin is released into your bloodstream, your heart rate goes up, you breathe faster and you have trouble thinking clearly. In effect, your thinking brain goes offline. You revert to habit and impulse.

As Geordie in the novel says, when panic looms, it’s time to pay attention to your breathing. Breathing is the one vital function that you can control deliberately, just by deciding to breathe more fully and more slowly. This is why breathing exercises and breath control are an essential part of so many disciplines. Deliberately breathing more slowly and deeply puts you back in control. It calms you down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and that brings your thinking brain back online. It’s a classic example of how mind and body are two aspects of the same system, continually playing off each other – like the rhythm players and melody players of a band.

Try this exercise

Imagine a stressful situation that you may be facing. Maybe making a presentation to a difficult audience. Imagine it going really badly – really badly. Let your imagination run riot, and notice what happens to your heart rate and breathing. As you pay attention to your breathing, you will probably start breathing more slowly and deeply without even trying, because that’s what happens when you pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in through your nose and feel your breath going down through your chest and heart area. Breathe out gently through your mouth, slightly open. For added benefit, mentally count as you breathe, with the same count on the in-breath and the out-breath. You can vary the number until you find the one that feels easiest to do.

You can do this exercise pretty much any time, any place. Give it a try and let me know how it goes