The Way I Was

B is for Breath: living well, despite everything

Photo provided courtesy of the website

This series is an alphabetical exploration of 26 options for living well, despite everything. It answers the question–

How can a person live well with an unsolvable, unfixable problem? 

B is for Breath!

Breath–the inspiration of oxygen and exhalation of toxins–performs marvelous healing work in the body and for the soul. Breathing is natural. Babies do it well. But most adults have unlearned how to breath.

What happened to us? Why do people unlearn how to properly, effortlessly breathe?

I was a tree-climbing, cartwheeling, dancing, bike-jumping, swimming-diving, exuberant child. With all that frolicking, I suffered multiple injuries–whiplash, dislocated shoulder, broken tailbone, torn hamstrings, wrenched knees.

Determined not to be a cry-baby, I under-reported my pain, emotional and physical, and therefore it went under-noticed and sometimes untreated. I gutted it out, metaphorically and physiologically by tightening the muscles surrounding my injuries and I kept on going. This is called “splinting.”

Early in life I instinctively learned that by tensing my muscles–my chest, my abdominals, my back and shoulder–I could hide my weakness and pain. Tightening the muscles is useful for hiding emotional hurts as well as physical. It was an effective strategy to keep myself from crying or screaming.

We adults habitually do what we, in childhood, learned to do to calm ourselves. Instead of weeping and wailing when we feel twinges or jabs of physical or emotional pain, we tighten and contract our muscles.

  • In anger we clench jaws, stiffen arms or make fists to keep from exploding.
  • In fear we tighten chests and throats so we don’t scream.
  • In grief we fold our arms around ourselves to keep from wailing.
  • Physical pain causes us to hunch our shoulders. If it’s really intense, we’ll curl into a fetal position.

We don’t want to embarrass ourselves by crying like a baby!

Clenching naturally inhibits the flow of emotion and energy, which increases our sense of self-control. But it also constricts breathing. This is fine for a moment’s worth of coping, but modern life is so stressful that this constriction frequently turns into a persistent habit.

My muscle-tightening response to stress induces greater stress which creates more and more tension in my body until I become perpetually and painfully stressed-out. And then I burn out.

One way to help break a pain/stress/fear-cycle is to relearn how to properly breathe.

Rodale offers 3 good, easy breathing exercises (click here to learn them). 

Inspiration happens when the breath of life flows into the body.

Inspiration is also the divine influence which moves me to think, speak and act in harmony with the precepts of wisdom.

Both physical and divine inspiration are vital comforts in the face of adversity.

What makes you breathe easier?

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40 thoughts on “B is for Breath: living well, despite everything”

    1. Thanks Rose Hall. Actually, right now, the person it’s most helpful to is me. Life has thrown me an inordinate number of difficult problems to cope with in the past weeks (a major computer crash, lost files, including a book that was almost complete and I’m not yet sure I can recover, plus a painful and exhausting outbreak of shingles!!!). I’m drawing on all these helps myself (so glad I managed to write them all down last autumn!!!) to keep my sanity. The breathing exercises are coming in handy right now… 🙂

  1. These breathing techniques are great, Tracy. Thank you for sharing the link. I have a tendency to clench my teeth when I’m under stress and in turn, I don’t breathe properly.
    I always breathe easier when my family and loved ones are in good health.
    By the way, thank you again for the link to Rose Hall Media’s blog…good stuff there!

    1. Jill, are you like me? Do you find it more difficult/upsetting to remain calm when you’re concerned about loved ones’ health than when your own health is acting up?

      I’m making good use of these breathing techniques this week. I wrote this book last fall (26 “helps” for remaining calm and optimistic in the middle of problems–one for each letter of the alphabet). I just came down with an outbreak of shingles. Painful! But the having the breathing techniques to fall back on has been quite a saver.

      And I’m glad to share Rose Hall Media’s blog, and happy you like it. 🙂

      1. Oh yes, Tracy. When it comes to my medical condition, I don’t worry or get stressed like I do when a loved one has a health issues.
        I am so sorry to hear you’re dealing with Shingles. Both of my parents and my sister dealt with it last year. Fortunately, they were given the medication early enough to prevent long term suffering. I hope you’re doing better, Tracy. Unfortunately, the current treatments I have for Crohn’s Disease prevents me from getting the vaccine for Shingles. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

        1. Thanks so much. I’ve been absolutely amazed by the outpouring of concern for me, and I can definitely “feel” the power of those prayers. I’m doing pretty well, considering. I was familiar with shingles and got into my doctor immediately, started the antiviral just 16 hours after the first symptoms. I can’t take the vaccine either.

          I’m absolutely astonished at how many people have contracted shingles. No matter how far science advances in medical technology, there are always plenty of viruses and diseases to make us remember that suffering is part of life, and the only choice we have in the matter is how we’ll respond to it when it happens to us.

    1. For something so essential to our health and well-being, I never really paid attention to it until I needed to pull out all the coping-resources I could find. Thanks for popping in, Diana.

  2. Wonderful post! Do your past, untreated injuries still haunt you today? My hot yoga classes make me breathe easier. Not only is yoga my ‘natural Xanax’, I take the breathing techniques along with me daily to try and soothe myself when anything that makes me want to tense up comes my way.

    1. Hi, M. Yes, the injuries probably contribute to my chronic pain syndrome. I’ve been doing breathing/stretching exercise routines for a number of years, and those have definitely helped. Yoga would be too intense for me (I’m pretty competitive, and tend to push myself too hard when I take classes), but I do a combination of modified pilates and aerobic routines.

      I definitely need some kind of routine/regular mind-body exercise release, not only to keep my past injuries from flaring, but just for routine release of daily stress.

  3. As soon as I read your post title I remembered that I had stopped breathing properly. From time to time I am aware that I am holding my breath, tensing my face, unable to let go of previous tensions forgotten as far as my conscious mind is aware, but not my subconcious. Your explanation regarding how we react to pain and try to dull it was really interesting, not just the physical facts, but what it does to our psyches too.

    I am really holding my breath and wincing at the thought of your shingles though 😦 Thanks for sharing your helpful and uplifting thoughts at such a difficult time, with everything that’s been going on.

    1. I had a similar realization, Denise, when I started reading about breath a few years ago. I realized I had been holding my breath for years. I still have to be very conscious about breathing, and do the exercises frequently. I wish I had taken notes (journaled) during the past few years as my increased sensory awareness (physical consciousness as opposed to intellectual consciousness) began to release the emotional tensions that had become physical.

      I was fortunate that I had written a bunch of posts ahead and scheduled them before the outbreak–it’s almost as if I had prepared for it.

  4. Oh Tracy, I am so sorry to hear that you have Shingles. This is simply no fun at all :-/ I’m sure that even with proper breathing, you’re having a tough time. My thoughts go out to you.

    I do agree that sometimes the simple act of breathing deeply is something that we forget to do in moments of stress. On a day when I’m particularly stressed, I’ll shut my office door and lean forward so I’m upside down and take several deep breaths. I’m sure it looks absolutely silly but it’s such a centering exercise.

    1. For ages, a person simply would not do anything that looks silly. Judgement for being “different” was so very harsh, including shunning, tongue-lashing, even at the extreme end, physical violence. In some ways our “environment” is so much healthier than it was–at least our social environment is, I think. So glad that you can do the breathing in your office to de-stress. It’s very important.

      Thanks for your concern. I’m doing pretty well, considering. I’m going to take a walk today get some sunshine & fresh air.

  5. Great advice. Gaining perspective and focusing on the problem at-hand is the best thing to do and what better way than to just breathe. Hmmm…looking forward to the remaining twenty-four in this series 🙂

    1. I wrote these 26 “helps” as an exercise for myself, at a time when I was feeling very discouraged and needing a huge boost of empowerment. Looking forward to sharing them all! 🙂

  6. I hope and pray you are over the shingles soon, such a painful virus. I was glad you had linked the inspiration of oxygen with the inspiration of the divine. I used to start my services with a short time of getting people to become aware of their bodies and their breathing. To recognize the gift of every breath. Then we would concentrate on our breathing for a while. As we breathed in we would think about all the good things in our lives entering us, as we exhaled we imagined all the anger, tension, worry, pain, etc. leaving our bodies.
    It was also good to remember that we breath in the oxygen produced by plants and trees and in return they make use of the waste carbon dioxide we cannot use.
    Creation is wonderful – breath with happiness and gratitude 🙂

    1. Thank you for your prayers, Rod. The pain is already diminishing–and I’m very grateful.

      I think the physicality of breath, on its own, is powerfully healing, but understanding and relating to the spiritual dimension of it takes that healing power to an exponential level.

      I wish I had an opportunity to go to your church. I would have loved being there. How about you come to Rhode Island and lead a few services?

  7. So sorry to hear you’re suffering with shingles – it’s a nasty thing to deal with – is it brought on by stress, I wonder – it sounds as if stress has been a visitor lately what with your computer/book troubles. I clicked through to the breathing exercises, found them very interesting and a reminder that we do need to stop and centre occasionally on ourselves and our own well being. Taking a few minutes out each day to strengthen a long forgotten breathing pattern is simple and effective. When I used to swim a lot we it was second nature to regulate the breathing – I’m now conscious of having to re-learn it again. What makes me breathe easy? Obviously the well being of friends and family, that’s a given, but that feeling after a deadline is reached – there’s nothing like it … until the next time 🙂
    Great post Tracy, hope you’re feeling better soon.

    1. Thanks, Jenny–my doctor says shingles is brought on my a weakened immune system, and stress definitely plays a part in that. I thought I was doing pretty well with the computer issue–not stressing, but, in fact, it is always stressful.

      And speaking of stress–I think that’s the very thing that causes us to “forget” to breathe. We go into automatic-coping mode, and neglect to do, or just can’t do, many of the things that are crucial to wellness–eat right, sleep, exercise, and breathe.

      And if willpower has anything to do with it, I will feel better very soon. I’m trying hard to take care of myself, and Ken is helping tremendously.

  8. It’s me again, having had a bit of time to click through to the exercises… and well what can I say?? At the age of nine, I remember a teacher (who was quite into yoga and fitness) telling us that breathing with our stomachs was wrong and we should breathe with our chests, and I have done this ever since!! Sometimes feeling that I couldn’t get *enough* breath! When I had singing lessons I was told that I really needed to let my belly fill out to make room for my lungs to expand to make a bigger sound and I found it really unintuitive, and still thought that this was the opposite of “proper” breathing. Looks like breathing with my tummy is fine and dandy after all. I can get so much more air in this way!

    1. I was that same child!

      In nearly half a decade of listening to experts and teacher tell us the right way to do things, (and looking back farther into history at trends and assumptions), I’ve seen how it goes back and forth and up and down, like hemlines (whether to eat meat, fat, eggs, how to breathe, how to stretch and build strength). I’ve decided the “experts” are not really such.

      Or rather, I’d tell everyone, never trust advice, not even this.

      But I do think we’re closer to the truth of what’s natural and normal in breathing, if we look at how babies and animals breathe. And listen to our own bodies’ needs.

  9. I am pleased that you started with breathing. I try to remember, each evening, to take some breaths into my diaphragm but often forget. So it’s good to have a reminder. I look forward to reading B – Z. 😉

  10. What makes me breathe easier is knowing that those I love are doing well and happy. For myself, I have turned to Zen philosophy, music and photography in order to relax. I remind myself that many others have health issues or problems that I do not. That helps me appreciate my own life no matter what bumps I encounter. (Not that this technique is always effective, but it is a tool I turn to.) 😉

  11. As a fellow kid who took a lot of hits and falls, I also gutted out much of the pain. Sometimes that worked, but over the long haul there were many times it did more damage than I realized.
    This was a very helpful blog, Tracy. The Rodale breathing exercises are excellent.
    Thank you!

    1. It’s only been recently that I’ve come to realize the lasting harm I did, by not allowing my body to heal. But then, back then, little was known about physical therapy. Even now, the people who know the most are working with sports stars and olympic athletes, not with us ordinary folk. I’ve finally been able to locate the actual areas of injury that have been causing referred pain for years, but I did this on my own. None of the 7 different physical therapists I saw had any knowledge to help me. Strengthening those muscles after decades of unconsciously protecting them has definitely been a challenge.

  12. Tracy, what a very helpful and informative post this is, although,as with everyone else here, I am so sorry for all the troubles you have been experiencing lately. I didn’t realise your computer troubles were as bad as a crash with lost files (I didn’t lose anything but all my settings have been giving me horrendous problems since I got my laptop back).

    I know full well how stress can cause our muscles to tense up! I know I don’t breathe properly, but I did Pilates for 2 years which really helped me with this. However, and how ironic is this, I had to give it up because I kept getting sciatica in my right hip!

    Like you, I was very active in school with gymnastics, sports and horse riding. I had many falls and injuries over the years but ignored them all. Then, in 2012, I suffered two back-to-back whiplash injuries from two rear-end collisions (neither one my fault!). It was only at that point that I started any kind of physio.

    I also have scoliosis but nothing was ever done about it. I try to get massages when I can but can’t always afford this luxury. The physio I had at first didn’t help at all but as a result of my injuries I at last found a physiotherapist who was really able to help with the sciatica and other, linked problems. Needless to say, I am more watchful now and I do try to remember my breathing. Thank you so much for the link you have provided for the breathing exercises.

    Yes, I worry far more about my loved one’s health. Last year my daughter suffered a terrible health crisis and then my son was very unwell as a result of his breakup. Now that things are semi-calm (I hardly dare say it) I admit that I have been suffering from a rather bad depression. One thing leads to another, right?

    Tracy, I am so sorry for all you have had to deal with and I have heard that shingles is extremely painful, I’ve never had it. Isn’t it something anyone can get later in life if they had chicken pox as a child? Stress makes it worse doesn’t it? Like all things, there’s the rub 😉

    Your posts in this health series are so helpful and concise and I do really hope you are feeling a little better at the time I write this and also that your computer issues are now resolved too. Keep breathing 🙂 Big Hug coming out to you…

    1. A million thanks for the hug and well-wishes, Sherri. Yes, I am already feeling somewhat better. And feeling under the weather is, for me, definitely not the worst thing in the world.

      I think, when people are standing on the healthy side of life, when they’ve never been personally impacted, in their own bodies, by really intense health problems, they tend to say, “health is the most important thing,” or, “as long as I’m healthy, I have to be grateful for my life.” I know I felt that way. I think that’s tied up with our feeling so helpless when other people are suffering, and imagining that their suffering is the worst possible thing that could happen.

      But as you’ve experienced, health problems are just one more problem to confront and work through. As with every problem, we try to live through it, despite it, and most of us, I think, really want to live with abundant joy and gratitude, despite anything and everything that happens.

      In the past decades, because of chronic pain, I’ve built up an arsenal of bullets to aim at pain–so I think I had it easier than people who aren’t accustomed to dealing with pain on a daily basis. (That’s the silver lining in the cloud! 🙂 )

      And yes, my computer issues are resolving themselves, slowly. Learning patience, learning to wait for God’s timing on everything (instead of thinking I need to press my own agendas), is the silver lining in that could.

      Thanks for encouraging me. It means a lot! I’ll pop over to your site now, and write there.

  13. Beloved Tracy! shingles – ouch! I remember all too well my Mother’s discomfort (pain!) when she had them. I hope you are recovering quickly! If anyone can, you can.
    I can hardly wait for the whole Alphabet book!
    Hoping to be in NE the weekend of 3/14-3/16. Will confirm closer to the date if it happens. I’m SO eager to see you and Ken! Be Well! XXOO

    1. I’m doing amazingly well. The anti-viral medication definitely worked. The pain was shorter than expected. 🙂

      And we’re SO looking forward to seeing, and hugging you, in person! Hoping it happens!

  14. When I was in the midst of the early traumatic days of my ‘crisis’, breathing became a top priority for me, along with other fundamental basics of life (like food, warmth and shelter). As my situation improved (or at least my outlook on my situation improved) so too my focus changed to higher level needs such as companionship and routine. Further improvements and the focus shifted again to a search for meaning, identity and self-esteem. What happened to my breathing and diet and sensible routine?
    I think your series of post is fascinating because you are aiming this for people in need, and for those going through difficult periods. However, the suggestions are important for everyone. Too often, once we feel that we are “all right”, we forget about these important basics.
    Thanks for the reminder 🙂

    1. Can you read my mind Elizabeth? I often feel like you can. Or, rather, that you express the thoughts that I forget to say.

      This really is exactly about the crises moments, but also about the things that I constantly have to remind myself of. I wanted to put it all together, to keep it in mind.

      And I do wonder why I have to keep reminding myself of the basic things I’ve learned. Even when I make them into habits, it’s so easy for me to let the good habits lapse. I don’t know why…. (note to self– explore the why of this question)

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