Breathing is Hard

I’ve been feeling a lot of pain and anxiety in my body lately and I can’t meditate or do yoga, so I do pilates and I stress bake and cook, read, and watch movies because they distract me from my pain and ruminations at least a little bit. This picture is of one of my happy places: a pond in rural Virginia where the frogs and cicadas call out loudly all evening long.

But I can’t always be there and I’m trying to do more to address my tension: especially to reduce my migraines.

This week, I spent the whole hour talking with my therapist about my breathing. I suck at breathing. Breathing is hard. I hold my breath when I am anxious or in pain or in a thousand other situations. I automatically hold my breath when other people automatically breathe.

This is not unique to me. It’s very common for people with anxiety or histories of chronic pain.

As a result, I struggle to breathe deeply. I don’t remember ever breathing deeply regularly. My earliest memories of breathing are struggling to breathe when scoliosis collapsed my right lung and then after surgery trying to breathe without pain (which can’t be done if you have major back surgery unfortunately).

I still sometimes struggle to breathe without pain. Because of my shallow breathing and tense muscles, my ribs are super tender and I get inflammation of the cartilage that connects my ribs (although part of this is probably a result of nerve damage from my back—the fun of having multiple physical issues). Sometimes it hurts so much I can’t move, can barely breathe, and have to breathe as shallowly as I can without moving my ribs very much. Ironically, part of what causes this in the first place requires me to breathe shallowly.

So now I’m trying to challenge myself to breathe deeper regularly. I’m trying to breathe with my whole torso—fill up my ribs and stomach as much as I can and then breathe out as long as I can so that I deflate everything completely.

I’m going to try to remember to breathe like this when I am relaxing or driving or in tense situations.

Breathing is one of the simplest things we can do and need to do to be alive but it’s also amazingly powerful. Breathing in activates our brain and wakes us up, breathing out slowly triggers our automatic nervous system and reduces our heart rate and slows down our anxiety response.

I believe in medication and use it when I need it—chronically or acutely. But I also want to do what I can to support my body and medication instead of fighting them with poor breathing habits (among other things).

I’ve been doing pilates now for a year and learned a lot about breathing—especially breathing through exercises and situations in which my natural and automatic response to situations is too tighten up and hold myself in as taut as I can.

The pilates instructors constantly remind me to breathe and how to breathe—telling me to breathe in and out, inhale and exhale. I need this reminder just a little bit less than I used to and when I’m not doing pilates I try to remember it in my daily life.

Sometimes, I think I’m breathing in deeply when I’m not—I’m just breathing shallowly but with a lot of noise—and I have to reset and take an actual deep breath that goes all the way to my stomach. There are times I have to do this a lot, over and over again, continually resetting but I hope in the long run I’ll reteach my body just as I am trying to with medication to treat my anxiety and insomnia.

I hope that one day I will be able to sleep on my own but I know there’s no shame in medication when I need it, even if it feels like a step back or a failure. But that’s what having a mental or physical illness is like, what recovery is like.

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