Breathing Practices to Calm the Mind Before a Test

Apr 30, 2019 by Hillary Acer

Osmosis team member, Hillary Acer, and Yoga Instructor shares breathing techniques to help relieve stress.

At some point in medical school, you might have found yourself feeling a little bit stressed out. Maybe that stress even presented itself in a physiological sensation in the body—like tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, or an increased heart rate. If that was the case, your body was likely responding to stress with its sympathetic response or “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Although your body is just doing its job—responding to a perceived threat—being in this state can prevent you from thinking clearly, problem solving, and doing other high-level tasks that may be important, like studying complex material, taking exams, and performing procedures.

So how do you make friends with that stress response? One thing you can do is teach yourself breathing techniques. Respiration and the nervous system are closely intertwined. A stress response can cause your sympathetic nervous system to get revved up which in turn leads to fast breathing or hyperventilation. If you do that for long enough, you start to lose too much CO2. As a result you develop a respiratory alkalosis, in other words, your blood pH rises. So the solution is to simply hold on to some of that CO2 by breathing more slowly and allowing your blood pH to settle back down. By regulating your breathing, you can shift your physiological response to stress and help yourself calmly breathe through whatever is in front of you.

Before we begin, it is important to note that you should talk to your doctor before trying any breathing practices. If you feel lightheaded or dizzy, resume a normal breathing pattern.

Breathing practices to calm the mind before a test:

Practice 1: Belly Breathing

Find a comfortable seat. Close your eyes or focus your gaze on something that is unmoving. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Notice which part moves when you breathe? Chances are, there is a little bit more movement in the upper part of the chest. See if you can shift your breath downward and breathe into your belly. Try to minimize the movement underneath your hand on your chest and allow your belly to fully expand and contract. Be sure to keep the body relaxed. If you notice yourself straining or overworking, resume regular breathing. Take 10-20 breaths and once you finish, take a full inhale, and open your mouth to exhale and sigh.

Practice 2: Three-Part Breathing

Find a comfortable seat. Close your eyes or focus your gaze on something that is unmoving. Place one hand on your belly, and one hand on your chest. Feel the movement of the chest and belly as you breathe. Begin to split the breath into two parts, inhale and exhale. Then, break down the inhale into three more parts—beginning, middle, and end—and do the same with the exhale.

As you breathe, try to find the beginning of the breath, middle of the breath, and end of the breath. Then, try to move each part of the breath into a different area of the body. On the inhale, start by breathing down into the belly, then let the breath rise to the chest, and finally, allow the breath to fill to the top of the throat. On the exhale, start by breathing out from the throat, then the chest, and finally the belly. Once you find a rhythm to the breath, you might begin to repeat to yourself:

  • Inhale: Belly, Chest, Throat
  • Exhale: Throat, Chest, Belly

Feel the breath move steadily up and down the thorax and do your best to keep the breath smooth and even. Try to make your inhale breath as long and as voluminous as your exhale breath and vice versa. Try to cycle through at least 5 to 10 rounds of breath. Be sure to keep the body relaxed. If you notice yourself straining or overworking, you’ll want to decrease the length of the pause or resume regular breathing. Once you finish your 5 to 10 rounds of breathing, take a really big inhale, and open your mouth to exhale and sigh.

Practice 3: Breath Retention

Find a comfortable seat. Close your eyes or steady your gaze at something unmoving. Take a few regular breaths just to notice your current breathing pattern. As you breathe regularly, see if you can notice the transition point in the breath, the top of the inhale right before you start to exhale, and the bottom of the exhale right before you start to inhale. See if you can start to pause for 1 second at the top of your inhale and at the bottom of your exhale. Continue breathing at a steady rate and slowly increase the pause for up to 3 seconds. As you lengthen the pause at the top of the breath and at the bottom of the exhale, be sure to keep the body relaxed. If you notice yourself straining or overworking, you’ll want to decrease the length of the pause or resume regular breathing. After 5-10 rounds, take a big inhale, and then open your mouth to exhale and sigh.

About Hillary

Hillary Acer is the Director of People Operations at Osmosis. Hillary is also a 500-Hour Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) with a passion for education and wellness. She has been teaching yoga since 2010 and currently leads trainings, workshops, and worldwide retreats. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Hillary worked in health care and research labs before making a leap to People Operations to try and improve the health and wellbeing of organizations and the people make those organizations succeed.