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Saturday, January 14, 2012

13: Just Breathe

One day back in the spring when I was battling with general anxiety, a couple of months before my adrenals pooped out, I remember saying to my husband, “I need to put on some classical music a couple of times a day, lie down on the floor, and do some deep breathing.” I really believed that this would help me, but I didn’t do it—not even once.

So it seemed ironic that, once I went to see a naturopath, he told me that one of the important things in the recovery of my adrenals was going to be the practice of deep breathing. “Take a few minutes, 3 or 4 times a day,” he said, “and do 15 or 20 rounds.” Too bad I hadn’t taken my own advice a few months earlier; I might have avoided this burnout. The naturopath continued: “It will seem kind of useless, like it’s not really going to make any difference, but it’s one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself.” The more I will practice this, the more effective it becomes, I’m told, and it will teach my body to breathe healthily, unconsciously.

I’ve come to realize that when any kind of tension, fear, or excitement comes upon me, my tendency is to revert to shallow breathing—or even hold my breath. I never knew this before. The naturopath explained that when my breathing gets shallow, my oxygen level drops and my adrenal glands receive a message that there is a crisis and so they kick into action. Deep breathing reverses that message. How empowering, to know that I can actually take physical control over a response in my body (the release of adrenaline and cortisol and the ensuing anxiety). I always thought it was completely involuntary and beyond my reach.

Now when I’m at the computer and I get too intense, either because of a deadline or because of the excitement and focus of what I’m doing, and then anxiety starts to kick in—or when I’m getting ready to go somewhere and I’m running late (as I nearly always am) and I suddenly realize that my breathing is shallow, the adrenaline is coursing through my veins, and my head feels light—I make myself start breathing deeply. Inhale through the nostrils while counting to 4; hold for 4; exhale through pursed lips for 6; pause if I don’t need a breath right away. And it is the most marvellous thing: the anxiety immediately begins to abate.

In September, I began the work of abridging my book Made in Heaven. After working with this book for 8 years, I thought I knew it well. But now I was surprised by all the references to the state of my breathing in this chronicle—I had never noticed before what a recurring theme it has been with me. Over and over I came across phrases like the following:

“ ‘Hi,’ I said, trying to breathe normally.” “I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.” “His words made my heart pound in my chest so that I could hardly breathe.” “I made myself breathe, slowly and evenly.” “ ‘Well, Nancy,’ it began, and my breath caught in my throat ....” “I had run upstairs to check the mail slot, holding my breath ....” “ ‘I should just hold my breath and not even think until you show up.’ ” “Then suddenly, such a rush of excitement and anticipation, I could hardly breathe.” “ ‘Nancy …’ he said, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe ....”

So this underscored for me that breathing normally has been a challenge most of my life and that I have a need to establish healthier habits. Although I’ve been faithful since my adrenal crash to do my “crisis management” exercises, I have been unable to discipline myself to establish “preventative maintenance”—the daily routine that the doctor recommended.

A couple of weeks ago I had a chat with a friend who has the same kind of difficulties and wants to try this too. So we hit on the idea of texting one another to help us keep on track. Each time one of us “breathes,” we text the other, who then has the obligation to fit in a session ASAP. It’s working well for us. We’re breathing up to 4 times a day.


  1. Great post Nancy. If you ever want to guest blog on my site let me know. Something along these lines will resonate with my readers.

  2. Many thanks again for your blog - so fascinating to read!

    I went through the same thing, and through yoga learned to breathe again. In time it became a habit which is with me still.