In my mid-twenties I began to experience panic attacks. The first time it happened I was driving in my car and suddenly felt flushed, hot, my heart was pounding, I felt dizzy and my palms were clammy. My mind was racing and I was worried I might be having a heart attack. I pulled over and turned the AC on full power to cool off. After a few seconds I felt normal again and drove away. I dismissed it as an “episode” until it happened again at a restaurant with a friend. This time I felt as if I needed to escape the room as quickly as possible. I told my friend I was not feeling well and needed to go home. These so-called “episodes” would begin happening so frequently that I stopped going out with friends. Oh, I would go to the grocery store and to my mom’s house and to work but I began turning down invitations to go out for an evening of fun or to the movies with friends out of fear. When I finally phoned my doctor he told me it sounded like an anxiety or “panic” attack. He never explained to me what it was but instead prescribed Xanax. I don’t like taking medication so I vowed I would recover from this on my own.
Knowledge is power
I did a bunch of research on my own to find out exactly what this was I was dealing with. I learned about stress and how the body releases cortisol and what cortisol does to the body. I learned about the term “fight or flight”. I discovered that every time I became stressed about something my breathing changed, and when my breathing changed so did my heart rate and my body began to experience symptoms of “stress” so it released cortisol which in turn caused my brain to think something happened or was about to happen which put my body into “panic” mode and created a “fight or flight” experience. Cortisol is helpful when you need it to trigger a quick response during an actual emergency. Like when a mother sees her child about to wander out into the street her body releases cortisol and enables her to move quickly, abruptly and with great strength and endurance. But too much cortisol over a period of time can reek havoc on your body.
Once I discovered what was triggering my panic I became much more aware of my stress levels…and my breathing. After much more research I discovered that most of us don’t breathe properly. Did you ever think that you don’t breathe properly? I sure didn’t. To me breathing was just taking oxygen in and pushing it out. Of course we know that God breathed life into us and so breathing, therefore must be significant to sustain life. But what happens when we don’t breathe right? Well, when my daughter was in the NICU for two-and-a-half months as a preemie the respiratory therapist would come give her breathing treatments regularly which also included tapping on her back. I remember when she was in the hospital at 15 having her spinal fusion surgery they still sent a respiratory therapist in for treatments. I asked the therapist why she needed the treatments since she’s not asthmatic. The therapist told me that when we’re sick or in pain we tend to breathe more shallow and if we continue this shallow breathing for too long our lungs are at risk of Atelectasis.
Atelectasis (at-uh-LEK-tuh-sis) is a condition in which one or more areas of your lungs collapse or don’t inflate properly. If only a small area or a few small areas of the lungs are affected, you may have no signs or symptoms. But, if a large area or several large areas of the lungs are affected, they may not be able to deliver enough oxygen to your blood. This can cause symptoms and complications.
And if that wasn’t enough warning for you, read this…
“Shallow breathing doesn’t just make stress a response, it makes stress a habit our bodies, and therefore, our minds, are locked into,” says John Luckovich, an apprentice Integrative Breathwork facilitator in Brooklyn, New York. According to Luckovich, the chronic stress that is associated with shallow breathing results in lower amounts of lymphocyte, a type of white blood cell that helps to defend the body from invading organisms, and lowers the amounts of proteins that signal other immune cells. The body is then susceptible to contracting acute illnesses, aggravating pre-existing medical conditions, and prolonging healing times. Shallow breathing can turn into panic attacks, cause dry mouth and fatigue, aggravate respiratory problems, and is a precursor for cardiovascular issues. You can read that article here.
Um, you had me at “lung collapse”.
Cortisol’s effect on the body
When I had a doctor visit a few years ago I was told my cortisol level was a little high. The PA told me to try deep breathing and demonstrated what that meant. “Most people don’t deep breathe correctly”, she said. When attempting to take a deep breath we tend to focus on inhaling slowly, when we should actually be focusing on slowing down on the exhale. Try this…take a deep breath and fill your lungs as much as possible…hold for 5 beats. Now, as you exhale, do so very slowly as if you are blowing through a straw or tiny hole with pursed lips until you have no more breath to exhale…repeat 3 or 4 times. This is especially helpful just before sleep while lying in bed. Hey, try this on your kiddos who have trouble falling asleep. According to Dr. Axe, when we breathe from our chest and not from our diaphragm, our entire body begins to experience the symptoms of stress. Here are 5 breathing exercises recommended by Dr. Axe to reduce stress and improve sleep.
Now with modern technology there’s no shortage of phone apps to help you de-stress. One that I use and highly recommend is Calm. This incredible app even has soothing bedtime stories to help you fall into a deep and natural sleep. It’s free so give it a try.
Especially great for children and adults with Autism
As many of you know my oldest daughter has Autism. When she was younger she, too would experience “fight or flight” episodes during thunderstorms and other loud noises. During her anxious episodes I taught her to breathe…just breathe. She’s an adult now and still practices this self-calming activity on an as-needed basis but she no longer needs to be reminded…it’s become a very healthy habit for her. She knows this is helpful because she has experienced it’s effects. Even now, when she senses that I am stressed she will say, “Mom, just breathe.” Thank you Sydney.
Now that you know you’ve been breathing all wrong you should begin to become more aware of your breathing more often. When you find yourself a little stressed or anxious, remember to practice your deep breathing to relieve stress and anxiety and to help you sleep.
Please share with me your experience with these exercises. I’d like to hear how it is helping you or your kids find better sleep as well.
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