Control Your Breathing When You’re Nervous

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

When you’re nervous, does your heart rate speed up? Does your breath quicken and become shallow? Do your legs start to shake? Does your mouth go dry? Do you become hot and sweaty? Do you tense up?  These are reactions to the ‘fight or flight’ response that prepares us for action in situations of perceived danger. Unfortunately, they are not necessarily helpful for singing! So, why do our bodies do this and how can we combat its negative effects?

The autonomic nervous system that takes care of our unconscious bodily functions has two components: the sympathetic nervous system which readies us for tackling danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system that relaxes us. Our pre-show/gig/audition nerves trigger the sympathetic nervous system into the ‘fight or flight’ response and, annoying as it is before a performance, it is a perfectly normal reaction. Rather than get angry with ourselves, we can learn how to counteract it and get the body and breathing back under our control. For this, it is worth understanding more about why these irritating responses occur.

Fight or Flight Mode

You need to tell the brain that you are not under attack. Some major changes happen to our body and mind as we prepare to protect ourselves or to physically run away. Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. The heart rate increases and blood is pumped towards major limb muscles and away from muscles that are not required for survival. The muscles tense for the pending physical activity and the body sweats to speed up heat loss. The mouth dries and we feel nauseous because the digestive system is not needed and shuts down.

On top of all this our thinking becomes more instinctive and less rational, resulting in potential memory loss as brain activity moves back into the reptilian brain. The impact on singing is we lose muscular control, we become tense and our lips stick to our teeth as saliva production reduces and we can’t think rationally. As if this isn’t enough, our breathing speeds up, adopting a shallow pattern to transport an increase of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Stretch, Breath, Visualize

As you stretch, visualise the performance going well.  So what do you do? You need to call in the help of the parasympathetic nervous system and tell the brain that you are not under attack. The quickest way to do this is to do some physical stretching and lengthening exercises similar to those you would do in a yoga class or a cool down after a work out. Within the stretches, focus on your breathing  paying particular attention to the exhalation.

As you stretch, visualise the performance going well. Picture the audience responding to your performance in the way you intend and imagine the positive feeling you will have afterwards. Now you have stretched your muscles, regulated your breathing and used visualization to regain control over your thoughts. During this process, respiratory function should return to normal, the heart rate decrease, muscle tension lessen and the digestive system reboot.

With this three-stage strategy of exercise, breathing and visualization you have counteracted the negative effects of the sympathetic nervous system by inviting the parasympathetic nervous system back in to restore some calm.


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