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Building Confidence #3—Deep Breathing Exercises

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Ariel Bennett, ADCRG, is a teacher and judge who has been Irish dancing for 30 years.

Whenever you get stressed or nervous—about a test, a job interview, or a feis, for instance—your body reacts to your mental state with a “fight or flight” response. This is a survival mechanism where your body gets you ready to either run away from danger or fight it. Here are some of the things that happen during the fight or flight response:

*Your body releases hormones, including adrenaline
*Your muscles begin to tense and shake, enabling them to react quickly
*Your heart starts pounding and you start taking fast, shallow breaths, sending oxygen-rich blood around your body
*Your body floods your muscles with blood but restricts blood flow to other parts of your body
*Tear and saliva production are slowed down, so your mouth feels dry
*Glucose and fats are released into your blood stream, raising your blood sugar level
*Your digestive system slows down, so you don’t feel hungry (and sometimes you might feel sick to your stomach)

All of these things give your body extra strength and speed for you to run away or fight. If you were a caveman being attacked by a bear, that would be a good thing. Unfortunately, when you’re an Irish dancer getting ready to compete at a feis, this stress response is a bad thing. The burst of energy you get only lasts a short time, leaving you feeling weak and tired long before you actually go onstage. Also, you dance best when your muscles are more relaxed and responsive, not tense and shaking. And, of course, if you don’t feel like eating or drinking the morning of a feis, you are going to run out of steam halfway through the day.

So what can you do? The fight or flight response is instinctive, and it gets triggered by any kind of mental stress, whether you’re in actual physical danger or not. You need to signal your body and your brain that you don’t need to go into panic mode.

The best way to start is by doing breathing exercises. Taking deep, controlled breaths helps send a message to your brain and body that you are not in danger. That, in turn, can help reduce your physical stress response.

Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. A quiet place is best if possible, but if you’re at a feis or another noisy place, try listening to music to block out other sounds. Close your eyes, and go through one of these breathing exercises:


1. Even Breaths

Breathe in through your nose for a slow count of 4. Then breathe out for your mouth for the same slow count of 4. Repeat several times. If a count of 4 seems too short, try a count of 5 or 6. You can also try breathing both in and out through your nose.

2. 4-2-5 Breathing

Inhale through your nose for a slow count of 4. Then hold your breath for a count of 2. Try to stay completely relaxed as you hold your breath. Then exhale for a slow count of 5. Repeat several times.

3. Triangle Breathing

Inhale for a slow count of 4. Then hold your breath for a slow count of 4. Then exhale for a slow count of 4. Again, if this feels too short, you can increase the count until it feels like the right length.

4. Square Breathing

Inhale for a slow count of 4. Hold your breath for a slow count of 4. Exhale for a slow count of 4. Then hold your breath again for 4 before inhaling again. Stay relaxed when you’re holding your breath—don’t let any of your muscles tense.


Controlling your breathing like this helps you focus your mind on something besides whatever you’re stressed about. It also forces your body out of its automatic stress-response shallow breathing. Both things will help break the fight or flight cycle.

However, just like with your dancing, breathing exercises take practice. They will be much more effective when you need them if you practice them regularly. So try doing ten deep breaths every day, maybe when you’re lying in bed before going to sleep. Then, at your next feis, try doing some breathing exercises whenever you start feeling nervous. The more you do these exercises, the more they will help keep you calm so you can dance your best.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons


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