The Centering Breath – Control Pre-Competition Stress

By Dr. Stephen Walker

Do you get uncontrollable “jitters” prior to competing?  Do you sometimes want to throw up before a race? The “Centering Breath” is a stress control technique employed to reduce an individual’s experience of nervousness and/or anxiety and enable them to “control” how much their ‘butterflies’ affect them. This article provides a strong breathing technique to help overcome pre-competition anxiety.

Whether the sensation involves a pre-competition arousal or anxiety, the experience is usually regarded as unpleasant and is sometimes experienced as a precursor to panic attack. Like any other skill, it requires practice to be effective and should be used regularly if one is to master it. To best understand the importance of the centering breath, it’s valuable to know a little about the physiology of our nervous system. There is no doubt that the brain is indeed a master computer. Its interaction with the network of nerves, muscles and organs within the nervous system represents both the miracle of our existence and the key to our creative musical and athletic capabilities.  Some sports call for as many as 200-250 centering breaths focused during a training session to help achieve a sense of mindfulness about breathing while progressing toward mastery.

Literally billions of nerve cells link together in a multitude of ways and tie every function, sensation, and conscious choice we make to an incredibly complex yet synchronized pattern of impulses which serves our every need and desire. Most of these impulses we will recognize as voluntary actions…..

….., as sophisticated as a Chopin nocturn played on the piano, to the “Ahhhh” uttered from our lips after our first sip of coffee in the morning. Although we recognize the importance of many unconscious functions, we don’t often appreciate how digestion, cardio-respiratory, or neuro-endocrinological functions are executed.

Biofeedback Research and Self-Regulation

For our purposes, I will keep this explanation as simple as is necessary for you to get an adequate understanding of how valuable the centering breath can be for controlling arousal. For years I researched and practiced biofeedback with sophisticated equipment designed to help people self-regulate certain functions in their body. As a specialist in the treatment of stress related disorders, it was important to understand each person’s neurological and psycho-physiological responses to stress.

Practitioners with this training study blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory patterns, electrodermal response, regulation of blood flow throughout the body and muscle tension in different locations. They identify a baseline measure under a relaxed condition with quiet music and soft lights, later shifting the environmental stimulus to trigger a startle response, a series of mental tasks and the visualization of a stressful event one might remember. Finally, reinstating the relaxing lights and quiet music, measurements are taken to determine how long it takes for an individual to recover or get back to that relaxed state again.

Research protocols often call for relaxed arousal – recovery – arousal – recovery repetitions to see how capable an individual might be at centering themselves following the exposure of a stressor.

This process engages two different nervous systems within our body, voluntary and involuntary. It is the involuntary nervous system that is of primary concern because the triggers and cascade of arousal, nervousness, and anxiety reside primarily within this domain. “Fight or flight” is the term commonly used for this type of experience and although a sense of panic is viewed as an extreme response most will recognize mild stress, excitement and nervousness on a continuum of arousal. Our goal is to control this experience of arousal so that we can think clearly and perform our best under stress or “in the clutch situation” competition often presents.

Body, Mind & Purpose

One of the largest concentrations of both voluntary and involuntary neural pathways converge in the diaphragm muscle in the torso. Not only does this system allow for us to breathe unconsciously in our sleep, but it also enables Pavarotti’s meticulous voice control, or Kenny G’s virtuosity on the saxophone. Control of the diaphragm muscle is synonymous with management of arousal.

The skill requires our mind to focus attention on a specific muscle group and physiological function in the body with intent. Just as good fortune comes when preparation meets opportunity, arousal control comes when the mind focuses on our body with a specific purpose. This process not only provides an opportunity to get emotions under control, it enables the taming of an unruly imagination.

The Process

The centering breath can be performed in any position, standing sitting or lying down. Although it is possible to do, I recommend limiting movement during the process so as to enhance concentration. To begin, take a comfortable seat and if possible, one that will support your head and neck as well as your upper legs and torso. Close your eyes and settle into the support beneath you until you feel settled. It is helpful to relax a few specific muscle groups in preparation for the centering breath.

Step 1. Relax your jaw, tongue, pelvic floor, shoulders, hands and feet. Sometimes we’re so wound up it’s a little difficult to really sense the level of relaxation we might carry in these particular muscle groups. For example, we don’t often pay attention to the pelvic floor and we might not realize the degree of tension carried there. One method for making sure it is relaxed is to alternate tension with relaxation. After childbirth, women will often practice Kegel exercises to realign and tone the muscles of the pelvic floor. Tightening the sphincter muscle and surrounding muscles to a point of contraction and following that with a relaxation of the pelvic floor is a Kegel. To be sure of the level of relaxation, systematically tense and relax first the jaw, then the tongue, pelvic floor, and so on until you feel more relaxed in the chair.

Step 2. Begin with a long breath in through your nose and fill your lungs to about 50%. Now take a deeper breath to 80%….and finally take a deeper breath and exhale to a heavy sigh out your mouth. Remember to take your time, this is not a quick process, it is best if you can take a brief pause at the end of the exhalation before you start another breath.

Step 3. On the heavy sigh breath, pay particular attention to your exhalation. Most people will experience a sensation that drops down into the abdomen during the letting go of the breath. Follow that sensation down to the end of the breath and notice where that finishing spot is. Ideally, you well feel that at the navel or lower. You will notice that if you do this exercise after a stretching session, your finishing point will be lower in your torso. Again, remember to emphasize the pause at the end of the breath.

Form Points. Hopefully, this breathing process will employ only the diaphragm muscle and a few surrounding para-spinal muscles. If you find that your shoulders have crept up during the inhale, do your best to keep them relaxed because our goal is to engage only the muscles recruited for the technique. Also, remember that the pause is designed to punctuate the end of the exhalation, nothing more. Do not hold your breath.

Frequency and Duration. Early on, this technique should be practiced several times a day and under different circumstances, waiting at a stop light, in bed before you start the day, at work before a group meeting. The circumstances should include relaxing ones as well as stressful ones. I’ve known people who have mastered this skill and employ it hundreds of times a day. They have put post-it notes on their computer screens, telephone, refrigerator door, and their neighbor’s foreheads to remind them to breathe. Repetition and practice lead to mastery.

Why the Centering Breath Works

The average human being breathes between 12 and 24 times per minute. While practicing the centering breath, that number of respirations is likely to be reduced to less than 5 per minute. What’s more, the process engages a parasympathetic neural pattern that slows the nervous system and sets in motion a calming response. These physiological explanations are only part of the story.

The process of concentration on our breathing changes the focal point of our attention. Oftentimes this means we take our attention away from a stressor and direct it to where we have a locus of control. Not all stressors are physically present when we experience arousal. A good many stressors tend to reside in our imaginations especially as we anticipate a stressful event. This technique calls upon our ability to specifically direct our attention to a physiological process or function. Both memory of an unpleasant event or anticipation of a stressor loses traction when this focus shifts both our focus to the “now” moment and to a physical skill we’ve practiced for control.

Finally, because even marginal success may reduce the level of arousal we experience, pre-competition nervousness might feel more like excitement, more like the sensation we feel awaiting something we look forward to. We can engage this process anywhere, at most anytime and almost no one will know what we are doing. For those competitors seeking an edge of calm before the storm, consider this method for SSC (stealth stress control).

Dr. Stephen Walker

He is certified by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, National Board of Certified Counselors, and is a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Registry of Sport Psychologists and the American Psychological Association – he is also editor-in-chief of Podium Sports Journal. He is the director of Health & Sport Performance Associates, of Boulder Colorado.

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