Breath and the Adrenaline Response

As the 2018-2019 MIT school year and track season started, I received a request from Coach Halston Taylor to educate his track team about reducing performance anxiety before and during track meets. I’ll explain this in more depth later, but the simplest way to put it is there is an important connection between breath adrenaline and the startle response.

He gave me this request as the 80 member track team noisily setup up their mats and props less than a minute before class started then sat down in the rear of the room with his laptop open to observe.  This left me about 15 seconds to prepare the new lesson for the team.  For a second, I froze as the pressure of having to deliver a brand new lesson with no time to prepare in front 80 athletes and the Dean of Athletics overwhelmed me.  Luckily I knew what to do to calm down, so with a breath I relaxed and proceeded to teach the team to relax under the same pressure I ironically felt just moments before.  I spent 10 minutes at the start of class and at the end instructing them on breathing.  At the end of class Coach Taylor said, “We’ll see how they do, they have a meet this weekend,” then promptly walked out to attend to the team.

I lingered as I locked up the equipment wondering, did I communicate well? Did the team understand me? Coach Taylor is a prolific athlete with a serious foundation in anatomy. Did he agree with what I told the team?  I didn’t have time to think about it as my next class stated in 45 minutes across campus. This was Thursday evening.

On Friday afternoon I attended my Pilates Teacher Training session and the same subject came up as we discussed proper breathing during Pilates mat exercises.  I briefly told him about the track team and Coach Taylor's request and that I planned to revisit the discussion the following week.  Arnold Lee, a Master Trainer, referred to it as the “startle response,” which briefly involves a sharp inhale, an increase heart rate, and an adrenaline dump into the blood stream. Speaking with him gave me some clarity on the topic, which was great because a few days later a private client came for a treatment with very high levels of anxiety.

This person had been to the emergency room the week before with respiratory issues and a concussion that were made more complex because they were triggering childhood traumas.  It was clear that the best thing to do was reduce the immediate anxiety and grief before moving forward with anything else.  For that session, all we did was learn how to breath properly and I got instant feedback about whether or not it was working.  By the end of the session we were have such a good time laughing, joking and learning, that neither of us realized we had gone an hour over our appointment time. For me, this was a good illustration of how to reduce anxiety with deep breathing in the span of a few short moments.

Thursday came along and it was time to teach the track team again.  This time, eighty-plus students came into class and noisily set up their mats and props.  As the last of the students entered, Coach Taylor walked in and said, “Oh, they did great last weekend;” meaning the team competed well at their first meet of the year and did not succumb to the pressure. At the time, there were so many distractions in the room and I was so involved in mentally preparing to deliver a refined lesson on deep breathing, it almost didn’t register.

Ivor Edmonds