As I sat across from her, I could feel her body react to memories she shared. She was fire and courage in one person and I couldn’t help but appreciate what I saw. It took time and work to face her story, but I admire that she did.
She owned every piece of her life.
As we talked, I observed she was intentional and kind with herself. She acknowledged God’s grace, but she didn’t pretend it wasn’t hard. As we spoke, even her breathing seemed to be regulated by this calm.
Later, I thought about how brave begets brave. People like this inspire and make you want to take risks in the best possible way. They make you want to stare at the fierce critic in each of us and tell them to step on back.
The longer I walk with folks through their stories, the more I notice most of us have a way of being with pain. Somewhere along the way, we learn to tiptoe around discomfort and conflict and difficult stuff.
And we forget how to breathe.
In my own life, I learned that trying hard and making things look good and pleasing people would bring peace. I thought I learned this made God happy, too.
Even as I write this, those coping skills don’t seem to make much sense. But all of us learn our way to be in the world, and this way was mine.
In the process of my tiptoeing, I think this is where I learned to breathe real shallow, both metaphorically and physically. Maybe it’s because I didn’t even want to take up much space with my breath. Even that felt like an inconvenience.
All I wanted was to prove my value.
Consequently, in learning this kind of coping, I rarely let my nervous system slow down enough to connect to a restorative place.
I began to think that was just normal.
Now, years and years later, I know the science behind our breathing. Research shows us that proper breathing has the effect of calming our fight/flight/freeze response and re-balancing our body so we can connect to more rational thinking (Han, 1997).
And let’s be blunt, the ability to think rationally can be a game changer.
The longer I am a counselor, the more integrated I see us as people. There is no escaping it, we were made for our whole person to be treated and addressed. We simply can’t pay attention to one part of ourselves and ignore other pieces.
For every person I meet that is truly leaning into healing and recovery in their own life, I always see one thing: they’ve begun to learn how to honor their body, as their soul and mind and hearts heal too.
Sometimes that means learning how to connect with relaxation techniques, other times it means simply paying attention to their body and recognizing that it's part of the whole.
But always, I see the acknowledgement that they don't have to tiptoe anymore.
So today, I wonder, what would it take for you to honor your body and allow yourself to breathe? Maybe it's physically or metaphorically, but I'm guessing it's both.
What would it look like to give your lungs the opportunity to dig down deep and get comfortable to allow air to move it's way through?
Let's try, shall we?
Let's choose to breathe and live fully in the bodies God has given us.
Han, J. N., et al. Unsteadiness of breathing in patients with hyperventilation syndrome and anxiety disorders. European Respiratory Journal 10.1 (1997): 167-176.