Take a breath….
Breathing is one of those things we all do, yet we rarely think about it; when a system like the respiratory works without us having to think about it or make it happen, it’s called “involuntary.” The respiratory system has the unique ability to work all on its own without our help, unlike the muscular system, which works voluntarily.
This month is Mental Health Awareness Month and it’s a perfect time to tune in and tap into how powerful our breath actually is.
When we breathe, we get this precious gift called life. We can survive 21 days without food, seven days without water but can only go one to three minutes without oxygen. And at the 60-second mark, brain cells are already dying. Yet after 20 years of teaching yoga to others, there is one thing I have come to find, many do not like to breathe. I would often notice few would appreciate the art of breathing practices (pranayama) in yoga. You could see people start to fidget, become distracted, and even get annoyed at the idea that they weren’t “doing anything” during their yoga class. Yet without the ability to breathe, nothing on the yoga mat would even be possible.
Breathing is a tool. Those that learn to harness the device and tap into its vast abilities to improve, help and even heal the body get to reap the benefits of increased vitality, health, and happiness. But time and time again, I have observed others choose pills, alcohol, and even violence to manage what we all call stress or our emotions rather than tap into this tool we are all born with and have access to us at any given time.
Stress can alter just about any system in the body if we allow it to.
- Raise our blood pressure
- Increase our heart rate
- Increase our body temperature
- Leave us in physical pain
- Can decrease our immune system
- Give us stomach discomfort
- Make it difficult to sleep
- Can affect your libido
- Tense your muscles
- Cause weight gain
- Burden your nervous system
- Leave shallow breathing
When is the last time you felt the effects of any of the above and thought you should practice deep breathing?
When my oldest son was small, and he’d get stressed out, the first thing I would have him do is deep breathing. Three deep breaths, I’d say, and we’d do them together. He’s now nearly a teenager, and I have observed him repeatedly defaulting to deep breathing when he is stressed, angry, frustrated, or can’t sleep. He automatically uses this incredible tool we all walk around with every day but rarely tap use voluntarily.
The average American breathes with less than 18% of their lung capacity. That’s what I like to call clavicle breathing. It’s no wonder we are a stressed-out, upset, unhealthy out of touch society. I say these are the very things I have felt before yoga and learning how to tap into my breathing. And the same things I think when I’m not in my body, using my breathing, and feeling grounded in my skin.
How do we breathe?
The average person takes about ten breaths per minute; that’s an average of 22,000-24,000 breaths per day. That’s a lot of breathing. And when we breathe, we inhale necessary oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide and toxins that our body wants to remove. When we breathe, our lungs expand and take in air, and our diaphragm lowers and expands as well, taking in oxygen to then be distributed out to the millions of cells throughout our body that need that fresh oxygen to live.
Dr. James Hoyt, a pulmonologist, says, “Our respiratory muscles don’t have the luxury of being out of shape.” Yet how many people can say with certainty that they use them, work them, build them like their bicep regularly? There is a saying, “use it or lose it,” and it fits here with our breathing.
A recent study in the Journal of Neurophysiology may support this, revealing that several brain regions linked to emotion, attention, and body awareness are activated when we pay attention to our breath.
And, also nearly every system in the body is connected to our respiratory system or breathing.
- Our metabolism increases when we practice deep breathing.
- Our autonomic nervous system regulates when we deep breathe.
- Our digestion can settle and improve when deep breathing.
- Our muscles relax and get total oxygen, helping them not to cramp.
- Our lymphatic systems become stimulated, hand and hand, with our immune system, both stimulated when we breathe.
- Our body is fully oxygenated when we deep breathe.
And one of our deep breathing’s most impressive features is that it stimulates our vegas nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves, extending from the brainstem to the abdomen through multiple organs, including the heart, esophagus, and lungs. It controls the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which contains your relaxation response. Most people never breathe deep enough to stimulate this impressive nerve. We need the vagus nerve to be alive and working because the vagus nerve controls your mood, heart rate, digestion, and immune response. Stimulating your vagus nerve can help to regulate many functions in your body.
Vagus nerve stimulation has been linked to treating epilepsy, improving digestive conditions, reducing inflammation, and managing anxiety disorders. The journal Frontiers in Neuroscience reported in 2018 that the poor function of the vagus nerve could lead to mood and anxiety disorders. But most importantly, when you stimulate the vagus nerve, you can reduce anxiety, stress, and mood disorders. All of this can happen when you learn to breathe more deeply and more often.
WAKE UP, PEOPLE! BREATHING IS FREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Where does your breathing fall?
Clavicle Breathers: Those that breathe only into the upper chest, throat, and shoulders. These breathers often have lifted shoulders and a tense neck.
Chest Breathers: Those that breathe into the center of the chest.
Abdominal Breathers: Those that breathe deep into the belly and feel their lungs and abdomen expand freely.
We have forgotten our unique ability to help and heal ourselves. When you were a baby, no one had to tell you how to breathe, yet there you were, breathing so deeply that your entire torso was expanding and contracting every breath you took. I have listened and watched my children as infants, and now adolescents get upset and even cry only to default to their breathing to calm them down. It’s in you; you have done it; you have just forgotten how to do it.
Deep Abdominal Breathing Technique:
- Sitting tall or lying down comfortably, place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart/chest.
- Exhale completely through your mouth and hear your breath move out of your body.
- Inhale through your nose and move your breath deeply into your lower hand (belly) and feel it expand. Continue to move your breath up to notice your upper hand (chest) rise.
- Exhale slowly move the air out, feeling your belly collapse and your chest lower (in any order).
- Soften your jaw and relax your body, focus on fully emptying your belly when you exhale and fully expanding when you inhale.
- Work yourself up towards a count of four counts on the inhale and eight on the exhale.
- Repeat this for two to five minutes.
- Anytime your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing.
- Allow yourself to hear your breath each time you inhale and exhale.
Continue this practice daily in the morning to wake up, when you are feeling stressed, waiting in traffic (minus the hands-on your body), or before you go to sleep to help you relax.
You have tools to help you breathe, relax, fall asleep. The real question is, are you using them?
Deep Abdominal Breathing Benefits:
Various deep abdominal breathing forms have been linked to cardiovascular benefits, including increased blood flow and improved blood pressure. Deep breathing is also a helpful tool for relaxation and sleep. Taking deep breaths can also help you manage stress and improve cognitive function like brain fog and lack of focus and concentration.
If every tool you are reaching for is outside of yourself, let me ask you, have you tried the tools you were born with? The tools you were given and are the very tools that make this life possible? The tool I am talking about is your breathing.
For one week, practice deep abdominal breathing at least one time a day. Work to practice it at the same time each day. Set the alarm on your phone or in your calendar and make it a priority. All too often, we say something doesn’t work or help, and we have never really tried it, let alone given it the attention required to see results.
After seven days, come back and let us know how you did. What changed, what you noticed or found.
Now take a deep breath and start living!
Today marks 13 years that you’ve been gone. So much has changed and yet so much hasn’t. Yesterday I found myself thinking about the day before I knew you in person and the horrible feeling I had knowing that you were not going to stay. That sick feeling, I had that this little miracle everyone talks about, that “little blessing” that was supposed to be greeted with open arms and smiles was not going to be happening.
Each year that goes by and you are gone just a little bit longer creates a slightly larger space that worries me. I worry that I will somehow forget that feeling and it will be like it never happened which means it would be like you never happened. But as your one day on earth approaches each year I am reminded how that is just not the case. That sick feeling is easily remembered how your life was not meant to be. The sick joke that was played on your Papa and me just months into our marriage-the happiest time in our lives together was robbed along with the happy experience of our first newborn baby being brought into our lives.
You forever changed me, Faith. You forever made my life even more different than everyone else’s. And what I wouldn’t give to get you back for just five more minutes. I hope you knew it was us who were holding you that day, I hope you knew we didn’t choose this for you, and although we were in shock when we first found out you were coming, that shock was not warranting an outcome like the one that happened.
You changed me Faith, that hollowed out feeling the night I went home from the hospital, empty and alone. And those weeks after you were gone I cried so much I eventually became numb, I thought I’d never feel again. You changed me Faith, you changed me.
Since you’ve been gone we’ve brought in three amazing children into this world, and because of you I can’t imagine my life without them, but that still doesn’t take the place of missing you. Just writing those words I am choking down my tears and my vision is blurred by welling tear ducts. You changed me, Faith.
I thought surviving a life-sucking eating disorder was the worst I’d ever endure. And I have to be honest, I was wrong. Your short life was a rip-off, a cruel joke on two young soulmates who would have loved you and given you nothing short of a backyard campfire, dirty feet, self-exploration, be your own personal childhood experience. You would have loved us as parents. It was a rip-off.
Still, to this day I watch others race to have babies, act like pregnancy is crappy, and moan about getting rid of their pregnancy body to “get back to normal”, and to those people I say, “you are missing the point.” Don’t chance fate and take for granted a healthy baby, the amazing miracle of bringing a baby into this world, and the privilege you get to become a parent to then raise those children. Your Papa and I will never know the joys of having a first born baby, and to be honest, it took until having your sister Meredith to get rid of the numbness and until Ivan to actually not relive in my mind the experience of having you.
But you changed me, Faith, because of you I am now stronger than before. I was able to prove to myself and others that I could forge into recovery fully and you gave me a reason to take even better care of my body and cherish my life and every life I bring into this world.
You changed me Faith, I now connect with yet another group of people, I get them, I know what they are feeling and I can help yet another group of people.
You changed me Faith, because of you I see life differently, I see sunrises, rainbows, and butterflies differently. Harper, Meredith, and Ivan look forward to your presence when they see a butterfly circling us-they jump for joy and yell to the trees that Faith is here. You changed me Faith, you changed your entire family that we see life and creation in a way only those that have held their baby in their arms and watched that little life leave earth can know.
You changed me Faith, each year on your “life day” I am reminded that I am a strong ass woman, that you gave up your life so I could have one, a debt that I will forever on this earth be repaying. A debt that I will die trying to repay. I don’t know if I can or will ever be able to be as selfless as you, as giving as you, as humble as you.
Many days I feel like life just isn’t’ getting me, that God just isn’t hearing my prayers, my dreams, my goals. There are so many days that I feel like people still just don’t get me, that they just don’t understand. And today as I write this letter to you I have come to realize that many never will. And I will waste much of my precious time trying to get them to. I know you get me, I know that you know my heart, my dreams, that you hear my prayers.
Today I am crying for you, not because you are gone, but because you gave me life.
I know that you’re here, and just last week we saw you for the first time in the back yard. Meredith squealed with joy as you danced with her in the grass.
You changed me Faith, I’m not a mother of three, but a mother of four. And although I never got to see you take your first steps, say your first words, ride a bike or one day, drive a car, graduate, get married and maybe even have a baby one day. All those things aren’t necessary to have made you real, to prove you existed. I grew you in my belly, I was your only life line, I felt your little heart beat to its last beat.
To everyone reading this today, please know I need no sympathy. To those reading this today that have lost a child, that have watched an innocent child leave this earth-it does get better. Some wounds never heal and I think some just aren’t meant to, but you can choose to use your child’s life to bring more life to others. I choose to believe that my daughter chose this life, she chose this path and me too. Today if this message touches even just one person then that is one less person that has to be stuck in grieving longer than necessary. One less person that feels like they can’t move on.
I still remember the first time I told a family member that I am trying to “move on”. They didn’t get me or what had happened from my perspective and told me “well you don’t’ just forget about her”. I still remember yelling at her in my head, like “are you kidding me!?!!?!… How could I?” So to all those out there trying to be a support to someone experiencing loss, just be a shoulder, let them know you are there, they most likely don’t want to hear about your passing Grandma or your lost dog. They don’t want to be told it will get better, or how sorry you are. They just want to have support, they want to have a shoulder without a mouth, and when they are ready they will talk, they will reach out, and when they do you’ll be there.
We received dozens of cards those first few weeks, and of the dozens, I kept only a few, and of those were two unexpected cards from two people who briefly shared their loss of their child. I re-read those cards several times, reading those helped me feel like I wasn’t alone, reading those cards helped me feel that someone out there did understand exactly what I was going through. So to those reading this, I get it, I’ve felt the heartache, I’ve felt the unbearable emptiness, I’ve experienced the fits of rage, anger, and hostility, and I’ve felt every tear you have cried as my own. I get it and I’m here. You’re not alone. Please know this. You will survive and you will find happiness again. Just know it will be a different happiness than what you have felt before-and that is O.K.
Happy 13th life day Faith…
That’s all I have to say… Until next year… I’ll be seeing you in the sky.
Do you know those things that make you sweat? The things that make you feel anxious? The ones that make you want to apologize when you didn’t even do anything wrong? Well, that is how I feel when it comes to verbal communication.
Communication has never been a strength of mine. Well, let me rephrase that–verbally communicating how I feel and what I need has never been easy for me. My brain was wired to devalue my feelings and needs and overvalue another. It was a learned behavior that I needed to learn how to harness.
Courage to Communicate
I remember distinctly the first time I verbally voiced what I needed to my husband.
My husband and I were sitting on the couch one night after he had gotten home from work. I knew that walking, yoga and physical activity helped me manage my anxiety and could feel my anxiety slowly creeping up. I wanted to go for a walk by myself to breathe, take a time out from the kids, and relax. However, with two small kids at home and a husband that was working a very physical job, I felt that his happiness and relaxation were more important than mine. Asking for a “break” made me feel guilty.
However, at that moment, I knew exactly what I needed and I needed it so badly I had no choice. I swallowed my fear and verbally communicated to my husband that I needed to go for a walk. I paused. And waited. Brian, my husband, said, “Go, hun. I’m good” without flinching. I felt an immediate sense of relief at that moment.
This may not seem like a big deal to some but for me, it was a milestone. That moment where I voiced my needs and wants set a solid foundation for my future. Today, I am able to voice bigger things like my views on parenting, life, and business. It’s also led me to now be able to agree to disagree, be okay with someone not liking what I have to say, and setting time for myself and not feel like I have to ask for permission.
Learning How to Listen
About ten years into recovery, I discovered that I didn’t know how to effectively communicate. I also learned that how well you listen has a major impact on the quality of your relationships with others.
I didn’t know how to listen. I was continually projecting what I thought others were thinking and saying before they even finished talking. With that, I was actually preparing for a rebuttal and would instantly shut down or bark back the moment I would receive a response that I didn’t like.
I had to relearn how to listen.
Even though listening may ‘sound’ easy, listening well is a gift that not everyone has. Improving your ability to listen well will enable you to assess situations with more clarity and gain insight into other people, their opinions and the overall circumstances of an event. Listening well can prevent you from misreading a situation and making mistakes –like I was doing.
Make Your Voice Heard
I decided somewhere along my journey, with the help of the yoga I know, meditation, and fully embracing the love of those around me to press on. To keep voicing up. To keep asking those uncomfortable questions. To say what I need to say.
Speak up, friend. You deserve to speak. You have something valuable to say and your voice matters.
And each time it will only get better. Each time you voice up and choose to communicate instead of hold it in, you will get better at it. Each time you ask that uncomfortable question it feels less uncomfortable. Each time you will get more precise at what you need to say and how you need to say it.
Work in Progress
I have learned time and time again in life and business that it is MY responsibility to ask questions, inquire, and do research if needed. This practice, in a sense, is putting myself first, and at the same time putting the other person first as well, because now communication is open. My advice, start with safe people. Start in safe environments and with small less scary things to communicate. For me, it was wanting to go for a walk. For you it may be voicing that you want Mexican food tonight instead of just saying “I don’t care”.
Full disclosure, doing these things is super hard for me. Still, I’ve discovered that time and time again; I am continually putting others’ well-being, happiness, comfort, and satisfaction above mine. And I am so grateful I have developed an ever-growing toolbox to help me build up these muscles in my life and business.
Let me help you get rid of stress so you can press on to the next phase of your life.
Check out my blog: 3 Yoga Poses to Banish Stress Instantly
I didn’t want to write this blog post. Not one bit. But I felt I needed to share some insight from someone who has struggled with mental health for most of her life.
If you could only see the look on my face right now, you would wonder what gives? What’s the deal? Why is it so hard to say that?
I do not accept this as my bill of health, or that this is my end game. I have mood swings, I have highs and lows, I have anxiety. Sometimes I don’t sleep well. For most of my life, I expressed my feelings by self-harming.
Does any person ever really want to say something like that to anyone, let alone the entire world?
The truth is, writing those words makes me feel broken. Like a young lamb incapable of fending for herself. And if you have ever met me in person, you would say emphatically that I am anything but an incapable little lamb.
But that’s just it.
Mental illness (there it is again, that pit in my stomach when I refer to myself with those words) is real and it’s not verbiage I like to throw around lightly. Why? Because I do not believe I am a victim of anything, and I do believe that I can live a happy life. I know I can. Because 98% of the time I am.
Maybe the cards were kind of stacked against me.
My father is one of the most hardworking men I have EVER met in my entire life. Someone who has done and seen things in his lifetime NO ONE would EVER choose to do or see. But there he was. And in some ways, he is my hero. In other ways…well, it’s complicated. But like me, he has had his own demons to face in this lifetime. I am pretty certain if I would even whisper “mental health” to him, the hairs on his back would stand up like a dog ready to attack.
As for me, I’m pretty sure I was in the boat before I even knew it. But in 1996, (I was 12 by the way) who was talking about mental health? Unless you were a PhD attending elite conferences far away from my Wisconsin hometown, you didn’t even know that existed. People with mental health issues lived in institutions with padded walls and were drugged to the point of walking zombies, right?
And I say that with slight humor, but that is my cover for the complete discomfort I still feel when I categorize myself as someone with mental health issues.
I wish I knew then, what I know now. Things may have been different.
I wish my parents would have been more comfortable and knowledgeable with dealing with a child with addiction, depression, and anxiety. But then they would had to have been more comfortable with their own confrontations with it as well.
I wish I would have understood more about what was going on inside me when I was 12, 14, 18. All the while, feeling alone, embarrassed, and judged.
But truly, I don’t want to change any of it. It’s my life. My story.
And maybe it doesn’t bother me quite as much as it used to because I’ve survived. I decided long ago to fight. To not just mask the issues, but uncover them, and start dealing with them.
I was chemically imbalanced and a holistic nutritionist helped me with that. I was low in just about every single vital nutrient, thanks to an eating disorder, and I got help.
I ate my feelings for more than a decade, and I got help with that.
Talking about my feelings, expressing my feelings, or just feeling anything was scary to me. And I got help with that.
I lost a friend two years ago who she struggled with mental health as well. Something she said to me years before has always stuck with me. “Hope, I can’t go get help, because it will be in my file, and I might then lose my job”. Be that true or not. It was true to her. And as a result, she didn’t feel she could get the help she needed when she wanted… she passed from drug-use two years ago.
What if she had felt comfortable enough to get help?
What if she had felt safe enough to share her struggles?
What if she would have felt mental health was as easy to care for as a broken bone? Or as accepted as seeking cancer treatment?
I will never know that answer.
But I do know help is available. And it is VITAL. Let me say that again. It is VITAL that you reach out. Those uncomfortable feelings you feel just thinking about reaching out won’t last.
See your mental health as a priority. Not as a silly stigma.
Talk to your partner about your struggles. Let them in. Do not be embarrassed about seeking out a therapist. Everyone can benefit from an outside perspective and sound advice.
Support others on their journey. They may not be ready to talk about their struggles or concerns with you. And they may never be, but support them by simply holding a space of safety for them by learning what the warning signs are that they may be struggling. By giving them room to breathe and letting them know you are there with a card, a text, or a call.
And if you are feeling like you need the care yourself, then do not hesitate. The world needs you. You have something amazing to offer and this one moment is a part of that amazing journey unfolding.
We all have to take care of our health: physically, emotionally and mentally. And let this be a gentle reminder that there is help out there. I’m living proof it works.
For More Information about Mental Health, check out these articles:
Mental Health and Parenting: What No One is Talking About
6 Simple Self-Help & Recovery Tips for an Eating Disorder
Mindful Ways to Reduce Stress
Ground Yourself by Coming Into Your Root Chakra
Depression | Recognizing Depression, Causes and Treatments
This was originally published for Thrive Global on May 28, 2019.