Breath. Our life-force. Goes without saying, we wouldn’t be here without it.
I always knew it was was essential, but I never realized how powerful my breath was until I learned a super simple exercise that changed my life in the most unexpected way.
I have suffered from chronic anxiety since childhood. I had my first, full-blown panic attack during a 5th grade chorus class. These attacks would come, out of nowhere, all throughout my life. (One time I was rushed to an ER during an audition for a high school play. My actual nightmare )
The attacks would start with a tightness in my chest. My heart would start to race, and then all of a sudden it felt like I couldn’t breathe. I would get tunnel vision and go into full body convulsions. I’d be completely out of commission until the episode passed. Afterwards, I’d feel disoriented, scared and ashamed for the rest of the day.
It wasn’t until college, when these attacks were happening on a regular basis, that I was given a diagnosis (anxiety disorder) and a prescription. But that was it. No understanding of why this was happening to me. No explanation of what went on in my body during these attacks. Just a pill and the knowledge that sometimes, out of nowhere, my body will completely betray me and leave me rendered temporarily useless, because I have a disorder.
It wasn’t until YEARS later, when I was going through my kid’s yoga teacher training, that I was taught about my nervous system in a way that I could actually understand. (Because it was the way you would teach it to a 4-year old)
I learned that the body doesn’t know the difference between physical danger and emotional danger. Meaning, my body responds to emotional stress the same way it would respond to being chased by a lion.
I learned that I spend the majority of my day with an activated sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight.) And THEN I learned that I could use my OWN BREATH to move myself out of this stress state!
It was so simple. (Again, a 4-year old could do it.)
First step: breathe slowly and deeply, in and out through your nose. This activates the parasympathetic nervous
system (rest and digest)
Next step: Make the exhale longer and slower than the inhale. This has a calming effect on the nervous system. (You can choose your own count. In for a count of 3 and out for a count of 6 is a great place to start, but as long as the exhale is longer than the inhale, you’re crushing it!)
That’s it! That’s the exercise! Easy- Peasy!
A few days after my training, I was spending the night at my then-boyfriend’s apartment. We were getting ready for bed when I totally caught him in a lie. As he tried to wiggle his way out of it, I knew where this conversation was heading. An inevitable break-up.
That’s when I felt it. The tightness in my chest. The racing heart, the short breath.
“Oh $hit!” I thought. “Here we go.”
I started to brace for the worst, but then I remembered: In through the nose. Out through the nose Make the exhale longer Again and again and again.
And something amazing happened....
Nothing else happened. No tunnel vision. No body convulsions. No full-blown attack rendering me useless.
HO-LY $hit!!!! I just breathed my way out of an anxiety attack! It was part miracle, part magic-trick. It was complete relief.
I use this exercise regularly. I’ve only had 2 full-blown attacks in the past 8 years since I learned it (Both were in 2020. Do with that information what you will.)
Maybe someday, if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, if your body thinks it’s being chased by lions, you might try it too. If you do, I hope it helps you as much as it helped me!