It's my motto now, but just a few short months ago, it would've infuriated me. I mean, obviously I'm breathing. Everybody breathes. But now, it's one of the biggest weapons in my self-care tool kit.
Whenever I paint a mug for myself or as a gift, I write something on the bottom so that when all the coffee has been drunk, the drinker will see a secret message. Sometimes it's as simple as YOU ROCK, and sometimes I remind myself NOW GO CONQUER. I painted one for my husband once that says PROLLY NOT POISON. My latest mug, as you can see, says JUST BREATHE.
And, well, yeah, if I somehow stopped breathing, I would die. But the reminder goes hand in hand with the emotional and physical work I'm doing to help reduce anxiety and fight depression. Turns out meditation and yoga both focus heavily on breathing and connecting the body with the mind. Counting breaths is part of both practices, and I've learned it helps when I start to feel panicky or can't sleep. Sometimes I count up to 10 with each breath and start over, and sometimes I focus on breathing in for five beats and out for five beats. But it reliably calms me.
I've also realized that when I'm feeling stressed or anxious, I start to notice my breathing in a negative way. I feel like if I stop thinking about breathing, I'll die—especially while falling asleep. Or like I can't draw a full and complete breath. Or like I can't get my breathing under control and might be on my way to a panic attack. When I've eaten too much or of the wrong things, or if I'm in a situation that's overwhelming, I'll find it harder to breathe. In short, when I breathe mindfully and with utter control, it's fantastic, and when I start to panic, my breathing goes wonky and becomes a problem that I can't solve on my own.
Just Breathe also applies to trying to be more present, by which I mean that if I go for a walk and think about my to-do list and worries and stressors, I don't see anything or feel anything. I just think about the same things on repeat, building up to a useless frenzy. But if I focus on breathing and think about the air moving into my body, nourishing me, and then leaving and taking the bad stuff with it, I can feel my legs moving and my arms pumping, and I smell the air and notice the beautiful things going on visually. Breathing becomes the key to being in the moment instead of living in my head, and for me, that's a big deal.
My yoga instructor told us that as you get further into your practice, your body folds in ways that can compress your airways and lungs and make it hard to breathe, and that part of your growth and journey is to find your breath in those spaces and breathe through it. This lesson really struck me, and I think of it often. Wherever I am, mentally or physically, I can find my breath. And in finding it, I find the space I need to be okay.
I used to think breathing was something that happened automatically, something I never had to worry about. I took it for granted. Then I started having panic attacks. As I tuned in to my body, struggling to find the cure to my anxiety, I began to see breathing as something to fear, something that could be taken out of my control, something that heralded a problem. My body felt like a puzzle I couldn't solve, and as my breathing sped up, I felt like my feelings no longer belonged to me, that I was powerless in the face of anxiety. Learning to control my breathing is helping me take back control and understand that wherever I am, I am capable of finding balance and calm. I can find my space.
If any of this rings true for you, here are the things that are helping me:
The Headspace app for meditation. The first 10 lessons are free.
Yoga. But not the kind where you need $80 pants and a Gwyneth Paltrow bod and feel like it's more about appearance than a personal journey. You can even do it at home; YouTube is full of free lessons.
When I feel panic setting in, I count breaths. 1-in. 2-out. 3-in. 4-out. Up to 10, then start over.
When I feel myself caught in a mental loop, worrying over the same thing again and again, I consciously break that and think about something else while, you guessed it, counting breaths.
If I get in a situation where I feel out of control or uncomfortable, I remove myself with utterly no guilt and find a quiet place to drink some water and regroup. It's not being rude; it's protecting yourself. You deserve the space you need to breathe.
Being aware of how my posture affects my breathing and striving for better posture and bigger lungfuls of air.
Funny, how something so simple can make such a big difference.