First Step: Breathe
For the life of me, I could not get a good breath.
For hours I struggled to inhale and exhale what seemed like enough oxygen. No, this is not a COVID-19 story; this is the story of my first panic attack.
That night of the attacks, after an extended period of labored breathing, I finally went to the ER thinking I was having an asthma attack.
A quick check of my vitals showed that my racing heart was the cause of my quick, shallow breathing. Many tests later, my heart was cleared; I was given a tranquilizer. Now groggy, I finally took my first deep breath of the day.
I would like to say that was my only panic attack, but unfortunately, it was just the beginning.
From that night on the panic attacks came with disturbing regularity. My whole body and my mind were getting battered with panic and anxiety. I journeyed to a dark and difficult place.
But I was also lucky.
Professors at my school noticed something was wrong and intervened with care and gentleness. I was referred to a therapist. My general practitioner referred me to a psychiatrist.
One of the first things both these members of my anxiety management team told me was this: learn how to breathe again.
To help this process along, my therapist recommended a yoga class.
Week after week I would sit on my mat in a room full of people and focus on my breath. For wonderful long stretches, we would simply practice taking one good, long deep breath after another.
At home, I started practicing deep breathing for 10 minutes daily to calm my body and mind.
Breathe in for a few seconds.
Hold the breath for a few seconds.
Slowly breath out…
My psychiatrist recommended learning my first signs of a panic attack (all those pesky physical signs) and then to shift into deep breathing to lessen the length and severity of the attack.
Eventually, all the breathwork paid off. I was calmer on the whole, and I had one solid tool in my belt to help me deal with my continuing anxiety.
As my anxiety came and went over the years, I always came back to the breath.
When anxiety beat me down the hardest and threatened to take away my hope, the one thing I could always do is choose to breathe
Breath is hope. Breath is life. It is fundamental.
It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we pass into God’s hands.
When I meet folks who are struggling with anxiety and are struggling to find their way forward, the first thing I tell them is to learn to breathe. For your breath is the one thing you always have with you, and modifying it is the simplest and quickest way to calm your body down.
And it is also a subtle way of claiming hope for your life, your future, and all the good plans that God has for you.
Since anxiety is annoying and has a tendency to reappear when we need it least, COVID-19 brought anxiety back to my door.
At first, this really ticked me off. The last thing I needed was to have another bought of anxiety.
But after 25 years of practicing anxiety management, I am more ready to greet the unwanted visitors of anxiety and panic.
When I feel my body tense and tighten, I instinctively take a deep breath.
When my mind starts to run with worry, I consciously take five long, slow breaths in a row.
When I am having trouble falling asleep at night, again, I spend 10–15 minutes in a deep breathing practice.
Deep breathing isn’t magic. It won’t make your anxiety vanish. But it helps.
And sometimes a little help is enough to make it through the day.