Breathing: The best way to keep living

Life isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s flat-out hard. When it is, there is one thing you absolutely have to do: Breathe.

In case you weren’t tracking, if you stop breathing you’ll die. That said the act of breathing comes in several forms. There’s the day-to-day, not even paying attention to it breathing. There’s heavy breathing – athletic or being chased kind, of course. Then there’s the things are going severely awry causing erratic and ineffective breathing.

That’s the kind of breathing being discussed here. I openly acknowledge that I have some anxiety. In my case, I’m a personal and professional perfectionist. This causes me to feel great stress when I’m (or even just told I’m) not doing it all completely right. I also fully acknowledge that this is not a reasonable expectation of myself and am a work in progress at curbing it.

Over the past years, I’ve seen or heard of a lot of breathing exercises. I’ve read some self-help books that talk about it. I’ve read books on Buddhism and meditation. The one that I always invariably come back to at the roughest of moments, though, was taught to me during a professional development course.

A company had been brought in to have Resilency Trainers teach a technique to help lower one’s heart rate and in turn stress. Of course, in keeping with this post, it focused on breathing. They asked for a volunteer, and my hand shot up. Chosen, they sat me down at the front of the training room (stress) and hooked me up to a heart rate monitor (more stress).

Then they instructed me to think of a very stressful situation (more stress straight ahead). I chose 9/11 because of the fact that I was also away at a training. That time it was outside of Washington D.C. My amazing wife was pregnant with our first son. We couldn’t talk for hours. She imagined the worst, and I imagined her imagining the worst. I closed my eyes, concentrated as instructed, and as expected, my heart rate rose noticeably.

Next, they instructed me to breathe in and fill my stomach like a basketball (5 count). I was to then hold the breath (8 count), exhale (7 count). Once complete, I would continue the cycle until told to stop. Simultaneously, I was to close my eyes and retrieve a memory from a moment that was joyful, peaceful, calming, etc. More specifically, I was told to try and remember each moment from start to finish, as well as any sensory elements of it.

Fully trained, I was told to begin. I pictured the birth of our first son (because the second one wasn’t even on the planning calendar yet). I did as instructed and allowed myself to become fully immersed in the memory. It felt as real as the moment that it originally happened. After what seemed like no more than a minute, I was told to open my eyes. Five minutes had passed.

To say I was amazed would be an understatement. I felt mentally and physically as calm as I could ever remember feeling. My heart rate had dropped more significantly than it had increased and well below what it had been even when I ”calmly” began. I’ve never forgotten this lesson. And since then, I have used the technique when the stress reaches a worriesome (irony?) point.

It’s not always bad enough to necessitate full-on positive memory meditation, as I’ve come to call it. Daily family, personal and professional life – but mostly professional life – can make it spike. In most of these instance, I just sit still, close my eyes, clear my mind, and count my breaths (4, 4, 4, 4). As stated in the post title, I don’t just naturally breathe to live. I purposefully breathe to live well, and I hope you will, too.

Be well, friends.