By Maja Dezulovic
I Can’t Breathe
I wish there were only one scenario in which that thought takes over my mind, but unfortunately there are two. Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate and understand what is happening in the moment, so I’ve learned to pause and consciously make myself aware of my breathing.
My asthma and anxiety are closely linked. I remember as a child I had a recurring dream about drowning. It would end with me waking up and gasping for air. The nightmare freaked me out but for a long time it bore no significance to my real life. That is until I developed asthma as a teenager. Children diagnosed with asthma early on in childhood often recover from the disease when they become young adults. Unfortunately when asthma is diagnosed in late childhood, it is likely to become something that will stick to you for life. So my nightmares of drowning were replaced by a real and incurable disease. Once my asthma started up, the attacks usually came when I was anxious or in a stressful situation.
I felt sure that I was dying and there were a few instances in which this fear was founded. I wasn’t imaging it. My chest was closing and when I landed in the E.R. the doctors would say that I’d got there just in time. It took a long time for me to accept the asthma as something very real that I had to continually manage. Once the medication took care of the physiology of it, it became less likely for me to trigger an asthma attack during moments of panic.
My asthma also came to the surface shortly after I suffered my first major episode of depression. The link between mind and body is shockingly evident to me. Because my asthma has remained under control for most of the last decade, nowadays when I realise I’m having trouble breathing, I begin easing my mind out of the ‘Oh my God! I’m dying!’ thought loop.
Step 1: Stop!
When I realise that I’m not breathing properly, the first thing I do is stop whatever I’m doing. I sit down (or lie down if I can) then take a deep and long breath. I begin to make myself aware of my breathing, focusing on one breathe at a time.
Step 2: Slow, Easy Breathing
I take slow and easy breaths to follow the first, taking note of how the air flows through my body. I also note how I’m feeling physically, and if I have any pains or physiological needs that I’m neglecting. It’s happened before that upon doing this I realise that I’m really hungry or thirsty, and after satisfying those needs I feel fine again.
Step 3: Step Outside
I mean this on both a physical and mental level.
Physically, I’ve always felt better out in fresh air. I’ll go outside in the dead of winter, covered in blankets with just my nose and mouth sticking out so I can take in the cool, night air. It has been a literal life saver.
Mentally step out of yourself and take in your surroundings. Notice how you’re feeling and what external factors are affecting you. Your body is reacting to something and it is trying to tell you that this issue needs resolving. Perhaps write down your thoughts and try to tackle the problems that need attention and how to best deal with them.
Step 4: Let go
Rachel describes her Three-Step Breathing Exercise in Chapter Seven of Walking on Sunshine. Step 1 ends with the words: ‘Notice your thoughts – just observe them with an open, non-judgmental curiosity… And then gently let them go, like leaves floating down the stream.’
For me this is the last step in getting out of a moment of panic. I realise what I’m feeling, acknowledge it and let go. This is the most important piece of advice I like to share with worriers – let go. Find the solutions to the problems you can control;if you can’t find the solutions now, trust that they will come to you at the right time; and simply acknowledge the reality of those things you cannot control. Then let go. Let what is troubling you float down the stream or be carried away with the wind. Take one last deep breath and move on with a lighter step.
Step 5: Keep Breathing
I’ve learned that it doesn’t help to just focus on my breathing when it becomes a problem. The more generally aware I am of how I’m breathing, the better I’m able to deal with situations that create emotions likely to trigger too much excitement, irritation or panic.It also makes me sensitive to subtle changes in my breathing so I can react faster to prevent anxiety.
The best way to do this is by daily meditation. I take time out for three sessions of meditation per day and I do my best to keep to these appointments with myself.
People sometimes complain that they don’t have any time to meditate. My questions is: If you don’t have time for yourself, then what else is there? You come first and breathing is perhaps the most essential part of your living. So, take a deep breath, think about all this for a moment, exhale, then share this with others whom it may help.