Elizabeth Evans is a Mathematics teacher who has recently discovered a love of creative writing and the benefits of writing about her own experiences of mental health. She has experienced depression since childhood, but only faced the reality of her own condition after a recent major depressive episode.
Elizabeth shares her lightbulb moment when it came to harnessing her breathing for calm.
Sometimes people can be trying to tell you the same message, usually something they think you’d benefit from doing, but it doesn’t quite get through. Then one day someone else tells you the same thing and ‘Bingo’ – you get it. You proudly recount your new found knowledge to your closest, only to be beaten back with ‘I’ve been trying to tell you that for years!’. Often it’s called that light bulb moment, where a message finally hits home. I had such a moment recently, less of a light bulb and more of a finally getting the key to turn in the lock, and it was with regards to me breathing.
I think I’m pretty good at breathing, I’m still here aren’t I, breathing steadily, inflating my lungs and breathing out the carbon dioxide. I remember learning about the lungs and heart in school, carefully colouring in the blue and red and showing the process of oxygen exchange. I also remember that first childlike marvel at the bodies ability to do all this without me consciously controlling it. Now, as an adult I actually need to control it, I benefit from concentrating on my breathing and imagining that exchange and the cleansing that occurs when we ‘breathe out spent energy’ as my yoga teacher likes to remind us.
In yoga my teacher had been encouraging me to breathe through my nose during flows and balances, it creates a slower exhalation, allowing the lungs a greater time to extract the oxygen. Don’t forget to breathe (through your nose). In running however, I need to breathe in through my nose and then exhale fully through my mouth, I can’t keep up with myself otherwise!
After Christmas I had a sinus infection which was causing pain not only across my cheek but uncomfortably in my ear and jaw too, I visited the Osteopath where I berated the bad design of the sinuses resulting in an explanation from her of how breathing properly through the nose allows the mucous to clear to prevent infections, not a bad design at all… Just breathe through your nose.
I’ve been trying to keep up with my meditation recently, the app that I use to send me into a blissful state (usually followed by a peaceful nap) reminds me to breathe slowly, deliberately, observing the breath stating that each breath is unique, I love this fact. Belly breathing gets me to really observe each breath and makes me feel grounded and this slower breathing decreases the heart rate and blood pressure. Breathe fully.
I recently received Rachel Kelly’s new book Singing in the Rain. In one of the first chapters entitled ‘Belly Breathing’, she discusses why this method is so soothing and the rhythm for breath. I found that I like to breathe in to the count of 3 and out to 5. Being a Mathematician I’m pleased by the ratio aspect of two odd numbers being needed for the in and out count to give me an optimum calming effect. Breathe in the here and now.
Twice now I have had the awful experience of a panic attack and bizarrely they were both completely different. One was breathing too rapidly and the other was not taking a breath at all. Both are very typical stress responses. I was reminded recently that learning to breathe consciously is the best form of treatment for an impending attack, if you can engage your brain and count your breathe in and out it will prevent hyperventilation and all it’s horrible side kicks. Practice everyday and it is another tool in your first aid kit against anxiety. Take your mind to the breath.
I’m a terrible swimmer, I self taught as an adult but I still find the water very calming and I’m trying to work up to being strong enough to go out and wild water swim, it’s supposed to be a fantastic antidote to depression. The only stroke I can do is a wonky breaststroke and even then, my head only half dips into the water. Sitting at the side of the pool listening to my son being instructed by his swim teacher in the breathing technique gave me a starting point and just last week I found myself breathing perfectly in time as I hopefully more gracefully began to glide through the water. The effect on my mind was unbeatable, I felt so calm, I didn’t want to leave the water and that has never happened to me before. Breathe slowly and deeply.
Back to my initial point, I’d been hearing a lot about this breathing, and as I said, I thought I was pretty good at it. Then on the next yoga practice following my reading of Rachel Kelly’s book I found it just clicked. I was no longer striving with my breath and I wasn’t counting, I wasn’t puffing out through my mouth in desperation. I was just breathing, flooding my body with positivity, strength and balanced energy and it felt really, really good. All these different people telling me to breathe, showing me how and it had taken so much time for me to grasp this simple physical act that my body had known since I was born. An image came to me… I’d been here for a while, trying to get the key to turn in the lock and after a lot of fiddling it had finally turned and I’d opened the door. After all that fiddling about with the key, whatever is through the door has to be somewhere like a Nirvana, surely.
If you’re trying something new for your toolkit like breathing or meditation and it’s not working, be patient, the key will turn.
I’ll leave you with a song I find incredibly calming and one that serves an important message – breathe by Alexi Murdoch.