“Do you know you aren’t breathing?” This is one of the most important questions anyone has ever asked me in my whole life. Why? Because it shed a light on a huge catch 22 pattern alive in my life and it alerted me to one of my biggest stress tells.
I had splurged on a massage with one of the massage therapists that came to work on students during my grad school residential weekends. I was laying there trying to relax but was actually feeling pretty tense. I don’t remember now what I was thinking about but odds are it was either school or about my now husband who was deployed at the time.
At some point during the hour she asked me this all important question and it turns out, the answer was no. I hadn’t realized that I had been holding my breath for who knows how long. As soon as she asked the question, I could feel the tightness in my chest and the anxiety coursing through my body. My whole being unsure of it’s very survival, even as it was me withholding life giving air from myself.
Her bringing my awareness to my held breath allowed me to recenter my attention in my body and to reground in the present moment. As soon as I started to breath again I felt so much better. My tension began to ease and my body and mind were able to relax. This is the power of awareness.
One thing I have noticed about anxiety over the years is that if my mind is anxious, my body becomes anxious too. And if my body is anxious, my mind will search itself until it finds a topic on which to perseverate that matches the anxious tone of my body. It’s a vicious circle and it is often hard to know which came first.
I have come to know that the whole breath holding thing is something I do when I am feeling stressed or anxious or when I am gearing up for something intense (just ask my pilates instructors how often they have had to remind me to breathe over the years). And I will say, that as am empathic person, sometimes the anxiety I am feeling is actually a part of someone else’s story but there I will be, holding my breath like the world champion of free diving. Other times the feeling is mine but it isn’t actually helpful to me, like when I am driving or sitting on the couch after my son goes to bed <ahem, what I was feeling tonight that made me think to write this, ahem>.
I have often wondered over the years how many times I have been feeling stressed because I have been holding my breath (an old swimming induced breathing pattern of mine) verse times when I have been holding my breath because I am stressed.
I am eternally grateful for that one little question because it illuminated for me this whole pervasive pattern. Once you are aware of something it continues to call your attention. Now when I am stressed I know to focus on my breathing to help minimize the stress on my body. I also am now more prone to noticing when I am holding my breath, which allows me to breathe and resettle.
Her bringing this habit in action into my awareness meant that I am better able to see it myself. She pointed it out once but I have since noticed myself doing it frequently.
When I notice that tight chested feeling (like tonight), not only am I able to resume breathing, I am also able to get curious about what I was experiencing that lead me into that anxious state in the first place. Was I anticipating something that made me hold my breath and now I feel anxious? Or was I feeling stressed about something and began to hold my breath.
I can ask the feeling (in this case an agitated and tight feeling) to take me to its roots (in this case that I need to get more done) and I am able to feel compassionate acceptance for that new awareness. And, sometimes, I am able to take right action, which, in this case, meant writing this blog because I actually did need to be a little productive tonight (not always the case when that belief pops up so situational awareness is required).
So I’m here, writing to you, and reminding myself to breathe.