I know it may be hard to tell from my calm, cool demeanor (heh), but I’m actually a pretty anxious person. Maybe I have the central nervous system of Alice’s white rabbit. Or it could be the result of the family system I grew up in. Or maybe it’s just my own funzie personality… probably a combination of all of the above. I tend to look for the negative in everything first, sussing out what could possibly go wrong before I will believe it might work. I’m anxious about new situations or places, even though I power through and push myself to “do it anyway.” I anticipate and ruminate and fret and go over things in my mind a million times. You get the picture.
In the course of what I call my Recovery from Many Things, I’ve been told time and again about breathing– breathing to calm anxiety, breathing to de-stress, square breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, yoga breathing, breathing to come back to the present moment. And I really didn’t get it. I waved it off. How could it really matter? And when I tried, it just didn’t do anything for me. Over the years I’ve also tried meditating with similar results. I’d watch my mind race and never get to the calming part.
I mean, yeah, I’m breathing. Otherwise I wouldn’t be alive. I seem to be doing okay at it. But when a therapist or teacher tried to get me to take a deep breath or try one of those manipulated ways of doing it, I couldn’t do it. It felt like trying to suck a thick malt through a straw. I was too tight. I had little space for allowing more breath.
I really didn’t “get it” until a few things happened. First, I realized just how big a problem stress and anxiety are for me. In my recovery, as I peeled back the layers of my eating disorder and other issues, I came to see that being anxious and negative and fretting all the time were coping strategies standing in the way of my health and emotional well-being. I needed to deal with stress if I wanted to grow.
Also, in dealing with lots of pain over the last year, I started to look into ways to help myself through that, especially since the medical world was shrugging its shoulders at me. Someone told me about a special yoga class for people with chronic pain. A lot of it involved laying on cushions on the floor and focusing on breath and small muscle movements. Through the guidance of this teacher, I was able to breathe and relax. Amazingly, it did help me feel better. Not long-term, but feeling-better-getting-through-the-day. Hey, I’ll take that!
A Yoga for Body Image class also nudged me very gently into practicing more structured breathing. It took some time before I could relax enough to breathe more deeply, to count and control it. I tried using this deeper breathing in my daily life — it started feeling good to calm down my over-excited nerves, and begin to relax my body.
I learned that breathing and relaxing really can help with pain management. It won’t necessarily take away the pain, but if my calf is throbbing as I lay in bed at night, focusing on relaxing around the pain is so much better than tensing up, which is a normal response to pain.
When I had my recent knee procedures, I really relied on my breathing tools to get me through. The nerve block and radiofrequency ablations procedures ended up being surprisingly excruciating. Long needles jammed repeatedly deep into my knee was no fun at all. I closed my eyes, squeezed my fists tight and focused on deep breaths, relaxing my legs. It really helped me get through it.
So, despite my earlier reluctance, I’m now an advocate for learning to use breathing as a tool, especially if you’re an anxious person like me. It’s free, it’s easy, lowers your cortisol stress hormone, stabilizes blood pressure, along with a host of other benefits. Give it a try! Or maybe you already use breath or meditation or yoga… let me know in the comments below.
** Here is a short article explaining the simple breathing technique that has been most helpful to me–“It’s All About the Exhale.” There are tons of great articles and videos online if you want to explore breathing techniques.
Photos by Tim Goedhart, Mariam Soliman, and Caique Silva , courtesy of Unsplash.com