One Simple Solution to Reduce Stress and Anxiety in Minutes
Job Interview Stress
For the past year or so, I’ve been delivering a training session, Interview with Impact: First Impressions Count, for the Department of Education’s Leadership Institute. One thing we focus on during the session is quelling interview stress. Since most people have had a job interview, I’m sure you can relate to how stressful it can feel.
In this article, I’m going to give you one simple solution to control stress. This not only works for the type of stress that occurs in a high stakes situation, like an interview, public speaking or exams, it also helps reduce ongoing anxieties and high blood pressure when practised over time.
As a side note, I’m launching a similar online course, on Interviewing with Impact, soon.
I’ll show you how to control stress, instead of stress controlling you.
The Effects of Stress
If you let it, stress can get so out of control that you lose the ability to think clearly–negatively impacting your performance. At worst, your mind goes completely blank–you either can’t speak, or ramble comes out, sometimes as a high pitched squeak. Have you experienced this? Share your story in the comments. It’s good to hear how common it is because most people believe it’s just them experiencing it. Guess what? I work with executives, leaders and influencers and many of them battle the same thing.
Here’s my Story
Before I went full-time as a Body Language Specialist and before I knew all the tricks and tips that I now use regularly, I was delivering a presentation to almost a thousand people, on a topic that I’d had little experience with–social media. I researched my subject well but was still out of my comfort zone because I’d had a short time available to prepare.
As an introvert, preparation for me is crucial. It’s the difference between me being able to perform, or not. If I don't feel prepared, my stress levels hit the roof. Add to that almost a thousand hundred pairs of eyes–all on me. Enough to send me spiralling out of control. And that’s precisely what happened. Two lines into my presentation, I blanked.
Fortunately, those first two lines were positive, and the audience assumed my ‘pause’ was their cue to applause. I let them, as I regained my focus, remembering what I had planned to say. The whole thing went unnoticed. Phew–I was lucky.
Before we get to how to reduce stress, there’s a lesson we can learn from this–identify the things that can exacerbate your stress and minimise them where you can. Prevention is better than cure.
What happens inside the brain and body during stress?
Fear as the Cause of Stress
If we take a job interview as an example, the interview lies between you and your success. You can have the best track record and success stories behind you. But if you fail to impress your interviewer, you’re less likely to win the position that brings you ’success’. Whether that’s an increase in pay, career progression or simply a job that fits in with a lifestyle need, this opportunity for success comes with a risk of failure. It stems from the emotion of fear–that’s why we sometimes call it anxiety.
Different emotions, such as sadness, also put stress on our body, but generally, when we say we’re stressed, we’re talking about the type of stress which comes from the emotion of fear–fear of failure and the consequences surrounding it. What if I don’t get the job? What if I don’t get my assignment in on time? What if my boss doesn’t like my presentation? What if my team doesn’t accept the change? What if I blank on stage? What if I’m not capable of achieving this?
Stress and the Brain
While your cognitive brain can process this rationally, “it’s not the end of the world”, “something else will come up”, “maybe it’s not the right job for you anyway”, your limbic brain, the primitive part of the brain which is designed to keep you safe, perceives this risk of failure as a threat. It fears the potential negative consequences of failure.
Not getting a job, not getting your assignment in on time, performing poorly, etc. are not threats to your survival, but the brain is going to deal with the perceived threat the only way it knows how–in the same way it has done for thousands of years. It’s going to prepare your body for the freeze, fight or flight response. This is your body's survival mechanism at work. If like most people you feel emotion, it is absolutely normal to feel stressed in these kinds of situations.
Stress and the Body
When your body goes into its emergency response system, physiological changes occur within your body. These are changes in your autonomic processes–processes that you don’t consciously control–for example, your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase. Blood is pumped to the large thigh muscles (in case you need to run), your vocal cords tighten, and adrenaline is released. These are just some of the physiological changes which occur in your body.
Most people are not consciously aware of these changes taking place inside them. Some may be more sensitive, consciously noting their heart rate and breathing increase. However, what many people are aware of are the physical feelings created by the physiological changes. These physical feelings can be shaky legs and hands (from the adrenaline release), a higher-pitched or squeaky voice (from the vocal cords tightening), gasping for air (from the breathing rate increase) and butterflies in the stomach (from changes to digestion and possibly the gut-brain connection).
The key to controlling stress is in your breath! Breathing is an autonomic process–you don't have to think about it consciously, and you still breathe. However, it's unique as an autonomic process, because you can control if you want to.
When you start to control your breath, by focusing on it and slowing it down, something incredible happens within your body. It starts to regulate all the other autonomic processes that have gone into overdrive as a result of the stress. It’s that simple. Control your breath, and the rest will take care of itself.
I use this solution whenever I need it–for me, that's before I present to an audience, before I'm being interviewed and at night in bed to help me get to sleep. It’s incredibly relaxing. It hasn't let me down. Oh, and it also works, for me, to get rid of hiccups.
Researchers have found that slowing down your breathing can:
Improve your mood and ease depressive symptoms
Reduce anger, pain, sweating, muscle tension and temperature
Improve asthma, oxygen saturation and heart rate variability
Lower blood pressure
Leaving you calmer, healthier and happier.
Slow Breathing Exercise
Most people breathe on average around twelve to eighteen breaths per minute. When we are stressed, this can increase from about twenty to forty-five breaths per minute. I slow my breathing down to four breaths per minute, to prevent or to reduce stress. It feels great.
While there are many breathing exercises, I'm going to teach you my technique–the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. I use this technique because it also helps strengthen vocal power–that's a whole new blog post, but in a nutshell, it helps you to avoid running out of air mid-sentence.
Don’t go lower than four breaths per minute as it can have adverse effects. Five or six breaths per minute are also very effective. At first, it may feel like a challenge if you aren’t used to slow breathing. If you find it too much of a challenge, or if you have asthma, try breathing slowly but at a rate that works for you.
I usually set aside ten minutes for this before a speaking gig. Often, I do it on the train, and then as I get off, I feel like I'm floating on a bed of calm. Life feels wonderful, even though I’m about to go into a situation, which otherwise, would feel stressful. Some people take drugs, I breathe.
I try to maintain slower than normal breathing once I'm there, without counting the pace. If I find my stress levels start to increase, which sometimes happens when I'm early and have to wait around, I take myself to the bathroom to breathe (and power-pose).
If you only have two minutes to spare, breathe like this and you'll still gain the benefits.
The breathing technique and patterns are explained below.
How to Breathe Properly–Breathing from the Abdomen
Get comfortable, relax your shoulders, straighten your back and make sure your head is aligned, over your body. Make sure your arms aren't across your body. All this will open your airways and help you to breathe correctly.
Breathe from your abdomen instead of your chest. With abdominal breathing, the diaphragm extends to fill the entire lung capacity for efficient respiration. We breathe from the abdomen while we sleep, and babies breathe this way too–it's the correct way to breathe. Chest breathing is what most adults do while they are awake. However, it's a bad habit and is associated with anxiety. It also creates tension in the shoulders and neck.
Try this–take a deep breath in and then exhale. Did your shoulders rise and fall? If they did, you're breathing from the chest. Try to get into the habit of abdominal breathing instead. You may find it easier to practise (initially) lying down.
Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest, to ensure your chest isn't moving, but your abdomen is. As you inhale, feel your abdomen expand like a balloon as your diaphragm pushes it outwards. As you exhale, feel your abdomen slowly sink back towards your body. Once you think you're breathing from the abdomen, you can begin.
The Slow Breathing Exercises
I’ve created some follow-along animations of the breathing exercises so you can follow the pace without counting. These are located below, as well as on my SOS page for quick access. I prefer to follow the animations because it also relaxes my eyes, as I allow my gaze to lose focus–this is my meditation. Of course, if I’m out and about, I usually just count the pace (see pattern below).
Four Breaths Per Minute
If the four breaths per minute breathing exercise is too much of a challenge (it should feel somewhat challenging initially), if you have asthma or other breathing issues*, scroll down and try the five or six breaths per minute exercises instead.
*Check with your doctor before trying any of these breathing exercises.
Use the time that you have, if it’s only two minutes, take two minutes. The videos last for ten minutes–if you have ten, breathe for ten.
Always breathe in through your nose. In this exercise breathe out through pursed lips.
Straighten your posture, get comfortable and feel your abdomen rise as you breathe in, and lower as you breathe out.
There is no sound on these videos, feel free to add music or sounds that are soothing to you.