Breathing through the Fear

There I was, standing on the first tee at one of the biggest golf tournaments of my life...struggling to catch my breath.

To this point, I'd played a lot of golf tournaments, but never something like this.  This was the All-County tournament.  If I did well here, I'd go on to play in the All-State tournament as one of the best junior golfers from Nassau County.

All the top-ranked junior golfers in Nassau County were there. We were all vying for the All-County Athlete distinction.

I was feeling the pressure.

If that wasn't enough, two years ago, my high school didn't even have a golf team.

A teacher and several friends of mine wanted to re-start a golf team. My friend Jay, who knew I played golf, asked me to join in. Together, we petitioned our school board to allow us to play as an official team.

When the board approved our team, they made their expectations clear. We had to do well enough to garner more support for the sport in the coming years.

In other words, we had to win.

Two years later, I was trying to make good on that promise. I just couldn't calm myself down.

Fearing Embarrassment

I tried my best to loosen up and relax. I hit some practice shots. Drank water. Talked with my teammates. I even spoke to my coach about my game plan for the course. I went through my normal routine, but I couldn't shake my nerves.

My hands were shaking, my muscles were tense, and my mind kept thinking...

what if I hit a terrible first shot with all these people watching.

At the first hole, there were more than 100 people standing around. They were watching the players start their rounds. Some of the people were family members and coaches. Some were college scouts and reporters.

As I waited for my group to get ready to start, I kept looking down the fairway. I should have been thinking about where I wanted my shot to go. But for some reason, my eyes were drawn to a thick group of trees on the left, and all I could think about was... don't hit it in there.

You know how your mind plays that trick on you? You think... don't spill the water or don't drop the groceries, but that's exactly what you end up doing. It's as if you think yourself into doing the one thing you kept telling yourself not to do.

That's what I was facing.

I could feel my breathing becoming more rapid. My nerves were getting the best of me. I kept looking at the crowd, but only saw a sea of strange faces.

Then I caught one familiar face, my dad.

Some Much Needed Advice and Encouragement

Aaron & Dad at Golf Tournament
Me and my dad at a golf tournament. Neither one of us wanted to hold the flower.

My dad always had a way of getting my attention when I played sports.

At my basketball games, he'd shout out my number. At my baseball games, he'd have a certain kind of whistle.

This time, he got close enough for me to hear him and called my name.

When I looked at him, he could tell I was pretty nervous.

Then he gave me this advice:

Breathe and take your time, you got this!

It was simple.

Something I'd heard a million times before, but needed to hear right then and there.

He knew that the shot I was facing wasn't anything I hadn't done before. After all, My dad had me swinging my own little golf clubs well before I could walk.

As a baby, he'd take me with him to the driving range. I'd sit in my stroller and watch him practice his game. Then, when I got old enough, He'd let me tap the balls off the plastic tee. Then he'd pick them up and hit them.

As I grew older my father and I would play thousands of rounds of golf together. He knew my capabilities and often bragged to his friends about how good I was.

For a moment I had forgotten all the practice and rounds of golf I had under my belt.

My focus was stuck on the thought, what if I embarrass myself in front of all these people.

But when dad shouted out Deep Breath! You got this!

It was the spark I needed to start bringing me back.

I started taking long slow deep breaths. In through the nose for a count of 5 and out my mouth to the count of 10. An exercise I'd done several times before.

My heart rate began to drop, my mind settled, and my nerves nearly vanished.

Social Anxiety and Shallow Breathing

I'm sure you've experienced them before.

Those small short breaths you take when you start to feel nervous or embarrassed. It's shallow breathing.

It can be nerve racking to try and figure out why you're breathing so quickly. Shallow breathing is often a catalyst for anxiety and panic attacks. But it's rarely dangerous or a sign of poor health.

When in the throes of an anxiety attack, our breathing speeds up to increase oxygen to our muscles. It's our body's way of preparing for a fight or flight situation.

It's our automatic and innate response to anxiety or fear and it's normal.

But to the anxious mind, shallow breathing feels like you're going to pass out. It causes us to feel light-headed, dizzy, confused, and weak. So we try to take in more air and "catch" our breath.

It seems like a helpful activity, but it actually makes things worse.

Here's the basic science on this.

Trying to get more air through rapid breathing causes you to take in too much oxygen. Too much oxygen doesn't allow enough time for your lungs to make carbon dioxide.

If your body doesn't make carbon dioxide, then you have an imbalance in your lungs. This imbalance makes all the symptoms you're trying to relieve worse. This often results in hyperventilating or worse, passing out.

This is why when people hyperventilate, they're told to breathe into a paper bag. Breathing into the paper bag allows you to breathe in more carbon dioxide. This rebalances your system and makes you feel better.

A Simple Breathing Strategy

The very best thing you can do when experiencing shallow breathing is slow your breathing.

Take longer slower breaths in, hold it for a couple of seconds, then slowly exhale all the air out of your lungs. Repeat this a few times and you're breathing will come back under normal control.

Why does this work?

First, it gives you something else to focus on. Instead of worrying about passing out, you can focus on slow steady breathing.

By focusing on deep slow breathing, you shift your focus from not getting enough air, to finding a rhythm. This is why most breathing advice says to breathe in and out for a specific number of seconds.

The second reason this works is the breathing rhythm gives your body time to make carbon dioxide.

My First Shot

Thankfully, I didn't need a brown paper bag to get my breathing under control. By doing my simple breathing exercise, I was able to calm down and remember I was playing a game that I'd loved.

When it was my groups turn to tee off, I had to hit first.

So, I teed up my golf ball and took a couple practice swings. I stood behind the ball to select my target and took one more deep breath.

During those few seconds, I didn't notice anything but the golf ball and my target.  I don't remember ever having that kind of laser focus, but I walked up to my ball, looked at my target one last time, then back to the ball and swung.

I watched as the ball flew off my golf club and straight toward my target like a dart.

It was perfect.

The crowd of strangers began applauding and shouting "great shot!"

I locked eyes with my dad and smiled. He was smiling and clapping.

Then, he shouted out, "Every shot, just like that!"

And that's exactly what I did the rest of the day. Before every shot, I took a deep breath and proceeded to shoot one of the best tournament rounds of my life.

After that day, I started using the breathing technique every time I got nervous or anxious. It always calmed me enough to tackle whatever obstacle in my way.

Just breathe, was some of the best advice I'd ever received. So, I offer it to you as a great strategy to overcome social anxiety.

Do your best to breathe deeply for a few seconds. Then conquer the obstacle before you. You can do it!

Aaron Kelley All-County Golf

Do this in the Next 10 Minutes...

Follow these 5 simple steps to practice this breathing strategy.

1.  Slowly inhale through your nose for 3 seconds. You should feel your belly expanding and filling with air.

2.  Hold your breath for 3 seconds.

3.  Slowly begin to exhale out of your mouth for 6 seconds. Control your breath so that exhaling for the entire 6 seconds.

4.  Repeat steps one through three 5 times to experience the calming effect of deep breathing.

5.  Practice this breathing strategy at least once a day for 5 days. Then use it as needed to calm your nerves.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I have 3 kids so my life can be a bit overwhelming so I try to breathe and honestly sometimes that doesn't even work.

    1. 3 Kids can definitely be overwhelming. My parents raised my two sisters and I, but, my mother did the bulk of the work since she was home with us most of the time. I'm not a parent, but I'd love to know what coping skills you do use when things get overwhelming. Also, you might enjoy the work of my friend Lisa over at She's raising 5 children and sometimes writes about it. here are two posts I'd recommend that may be helpful to you: Parenting with Anxiety and Meanwhile, In a House on Anxiety Street I hope these posts are helpful, and thank you so much for your comment.

  2. Deep Breathing does work in certain situations for me. For instance, right before my team performs I get so nervous that I take a few deep breathes to calm me down and it work. But before I get ready to sing, it does not work. I think that is a phobia type thing. That is way more serious. But I have tried the deep breathing exercise and it does work. I have my team to deep breathe before we start to practice sometimes.

    1. Hey Cindy, thanks so much for your comment.

      I'm glad to hear that you've tried deep breathing with some success. I love that you've taught your team to do it too. It's a tool that can be helpful to them in the future too, which is great!

      But you're right, It doesn't always work by itself. Sometimes we have to use multiple strategies at the same time to decrease our anxiety and fear.

      But stick around, we will be digging into many more tactics that will hopefully be helpful to you and relax you enough to sing. 🙂

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