I don’t consider myself a particularly nervous or anxious person (well, my friends might beg to differ about the anxious part; downtown Los Angeles can be a scary place, okay?). I grew up as a drama nerd, performing in musicals, singing in choir, playing piano… Wherever there was a stage, my spotlight-loving self followed. And yet, when it came to piano performances, I would always suffer from the worst bout of nerves, right before it was my turn to play—think clammy, shaky hands; shallow breaths; and lots of shivering. (I blame this piano-specific reaction to the unfortunate experience I had once of forgetting my piece halfway through playing—so traumatic.) Needless to say, this is not the ideal state to be in when you’re about to (attempt to) play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in front of a solemn adjudicator.
I would do what I could to overcome the crippling nervousness—wear gloves, sit on my hands, sip hot tea, take deep breaths… Nothing seemed to really work, and I always started every performance with a pounding heart, shaky hands, and vague feeling of nausea. Then, one day, my voice teacher (funnily, not my piano teacher) taught me a breathing trick that forever changed the way I deal with anxiety-inducing situations.
Keep scrolling to find out more about my anxiety-reducing trick.
This is what my calm and comforting voice teacher taught me: When you’re feeling nervous, jittery, or like your body is teetering out of control, you—to quote an angsty songstress from my teenage years—just breathe (it’s Michelle Branch, by the way). But the technique she shared with me goes beyond the typical “take deep breaths” advice you’ve been hearing your entire life. Here’s the secret breathing trick: Close your eyes and sit in an upright position. Focus your mind on the pinky toes of each foot—you can even give them a little wiggle. It might take a second, but give your brain time to slow down and focus on one those two tiny toes.
Now, start to inhale, counting slowly from one to five and picturing the breath literally traveling up your calves, thighs, stomach, and chest, all the way to the top of your head. Hold it there for a second, then slowly exhale, counting from five to one, and picture the breath traveling all the way down your body back to your little toes. Then, shift your focus to the toe right next to your pinky toe, and start breathing in, picturing the breath traveling all the way up to your head but only counting from one to four this time. Exhale, slowly counting from four to one, and picture the breath traveling down to that toe.
Repeat this with your middle toe, but only counting through three, and so on. By the time you get to your big toe, you should only be breathing in one sweeping breath (feel free to hold it for a bit when it’s “reached” your head) and exhaling one count. You can repeat this process if you’re still feeling your nerves, but most of the time, you should feel considerably calmer after just one cycle.
Doing this before piano competition helped soothe my nerves noticeably; I always felt so much more at peace afterward. Were my hands still slightly clammy? Yes. But did my heart rate slow down considerably and my shallow breaths return back to normal? In most cases, yes and yes. Much like this trick my fellow editor uses to help herself fall asleep in under a minute, this mindful breathing forces your heart rate to slow and increases oxygen to your bloodstream; the result is a sedative-like effect that is extremely calming. The visualization aspect, where you’re actually picturing the breath flowing up and down your body, is based on a special breathing technique that dates all the way back to the 11th century. It’s called “breath moving,” and it was created by Russian monks. Curious? Here’s a little history…
About "Breath Moving"
Here’s some background on the concept of deep breathing. According to Therese Borchard, associate editor at Psych Central and author of The Pocket Therapist, deep breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (PSN), which is responsible for everything that happens in your body when you are at rest. It’s the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system, which basically stimulates your body’s fight-or-flight response. Out of all the automatic functions of your body—from cardiovascular to your immune system—only your breath can be controlled voluntarily. She quotes Richard P. Brown, M.D., and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., in their book, The Healing Power of the Breath, where they say, “By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain.”
“Breath moving” in particular is when you picture the breath moving through your body—which is exactly what my voice teacher shared with me over a decade ago. The technique they talk about in their book is similar: As you breathe in, imagine you are moving your breath to the top of your head, and as you breathe out, imagine you are moving your breath to the base of your spine and all the way to your “sit bones.” Repeat this until you feel at peace. According to Brown and Gerbarg, this technique of “moving the breath” was created by Russian Christian Orthodox Hesychast monks in the 11th century; they would teach this to holy Russian warriors to give them strength and empower them. (The other two breathing techniques are fascinating, too—you can read about them here.)
My piano days may be behind me, but I still use this tip whenever I’m feeling nervous or anxious—whether it’s for a job interview, disturbingly turbulent flight (may you never have to experience one), or work presentation. I highly recommend you try it—your life might just change for the better.
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