Growing up in a household of anxiety sufferers, I always thought fear was a way of life. As a little girl, I was afraid of everything. Afraid of being kidnapped, afraid of riding my bike too far away from the house, afraid of hypodermic needles lingering in the seats of movie theaters…AND afraid of my mother dying. Needless to say, not a moment went by without me thinking about a “worst-case-scenario.”
As I approached adolescence, this fear and anxiety manifested its way into physical ailments. My stomach always hurt. I would ask my mother to hold my hand before school and pray that I wouldn’t have stomach cramps. The type of cramps that lead you to the bathroom as you double over in pain. Starting in middle school, I began calling in sick to school at least four to five days a month. My fear of the next attack left me paralyzed and unable to focus my thoughts on anything else.
These psychosomatic symptoms continued throughout high school and were especially noticeable during stressful times in my life. When I experienced my boyfriend cheating for the first time, my body failed me and gifted me with mononucleosis, followed by appendicitis and an appendectomy.
When I graduated from college and began teaching neurodiverse and disabled students, I noticed my students’ anxiety impeded their ability to succeed academically. They harbored so much hurt and fear that class work was the last thing on their minds.
I began wondering how I could possibly help my students cope if I still hadn’t helped myself.
Years passed and I forced myself to take risks despite my constant worry. By the time I traveled to Belize and met my husband, I was still deeply affected by my anxiety, but I had learned to live with it. After getting married and moving to a new country, my anxiety was palpable. I knew my partner was greatly affected by my attacks and the more I tried to push my anxiety away, the more intense and embedded it became.
I learned about mindfulness during the few yoga classes I had taken and I knew that it was a way to be present and cope with every day challenges. I also knew it involved meditation. Fellow anxiety sufferers expressed how liberating meditation practice was for them.
One year, one pregnancy, and a child later, mindfulness has changed my life. And I can thank one word: breath.
One of the seemingly simplest yet most challenging practices for me was breathing meditations. My panic attacks implant themselves in my throat and the physical sensations travel to my mind where my mind labels them as “FEELINGS OF DEATH!” Suddenly my mind exemplifies these physical sensations until my entire sensory board is shouting, “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! FOR REAL THIS TIME!”
It was with apprehension that I began breathing meditations. It was incredibly difficult at first, and I would hear the negative stories play over and over again. I would feel my throat tightening and my heart racing. But then, over time, something amazing happened. These physical sensations passed. The terror passed. And guess what? My breath continued and it stayed with me. Like the best friend I never knew I had. The best friend who will stay with me until the very end.
A mentor of mine likened these sensations and racing thoughts to clouds moving over the whole of the sky. The clouds come in and out, dark and light, but the sky remains unchanged by these clouds. This is our mind and our breath.
We tell ourselves stories, often scary “what if” stories, but what if we can change the outcome of these stories and recognize our hook before we get carried away? What if we can use our breath, something that is always accessible and free, to carry oxygen and cool, calming, and invigorating feelings throughout our bodies?
What if sitting with our breath is what we need to liberate ourselves from anxiety and live happy and peaceful lives?
Breath doesn’t discriminate and it doesn’t ascribe to one religion. Breath connects all living beings and it is a means to freedom, from the inside out. If you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you.
Give yourself the gift of breath today. Feel the natural ebb and flow of your breath; in and out, in and out. Stay present as you tune into the places you feel your breath the most. Is it in your chest? Your throat? Your abdomen? Your toes? Take three deep breaths in and out. Do you feel more alive? Grateful? Kind?
Your breath is always there, she is just waiting for you to say hello.