This is not as easy as it sounds.
Breathing is an autonomic nervous system function. It is mostly involuntary. It is supposed to occur without thought or determination (unless you are a musician or athlete).
Most people don’t think about breathing at all.
And yet, I found myself at the beginning of my journey out of a really bad marriage not only breathing shallowly but not breathing at all.
I caught myself holding my breath, often.
I have suffered from anxiety since I was a child. Unidentified until well into adulthood, I eventually learned to manage the symptoms by thoughtfully controlling situations and my responses that caused the most stress for me. And while I would experience heart palpitations occasionally (usually not during a stressful situation, but when I was relaxing), I had never struggled with hyperventilation.
When I became ill in 2006 and did not recover as expected (or told by doctors that I should), I faced an entirely new level of anxiety. My anxiety toolbox failed me.
Part of the problem was that I had been successfully handling nearly all of my family’s details from paying bills to doing all the shopping to even educating our children for over a decade. I cooked, cleaned, shopped, provided 24-hour care and education for our children, and then companionship to my husband when he was home. None of these responsibilities was taken from me when I became ill. Being task oriented, this caused me a lot of stress.
My husband ignored my health struggles, merely waiting for me to get well so I could do everything again; most household tasks were not completed. I still had to do the grocery shopping even with extreme fatigue. I could no longer cook. I would fill the grocery cart with frozen, packaged and processed foods that my children and I could easily throw in the microwave and conventional oven (really bad choice). Even when I ordered take-out, my husband wasn’t available to stop by on his way home and pick it up. He worked later and later as the months and years passed.
While I knew what needed to be done, I was not able to rise to the challenge any longer. I suffered. Our children suffered. Life fell apart.
One day I had had enough.
I had spent over a year sleeping on the couch because of my husband’s loud snoring and constant movements during the night. My only hope of any sleep at all was on the couch. And yet, he would often come home between 11 p.m. and midnight, stomping up the stairs and burping (he always burped when he walked up the stairs onto the main floor of our house). It didn’t matter if I was trying to sleep; he always demanded attention when he came home. And no, he didn’t offer to let me have the bed so I could get one good night’s sleep. Not once.
One night he came home late as usual and found himself locked out of the house. Now, I fully admit that I handled that all wrong. It wasn’t even legal. Had he spoken with an attorney, he would have been fine, but he refused to hire an attorney for anything (or any other professional). Remember, I was sick and tired, literally. My mind didn’t work properly anymore, literally (neuroborreliosis).
And so began the final and permanent separation that marked the true end of my marriage.
One the one hand, my stress levels were reduced as I didn’t have to deal with the nightly disruptions to my sleep and constant demand for my attention. There was no more yelling and fighting.
At the time, I didn’t know that the separation was permanent. I kept hoping my husband would finally seek the help that I asked him to get for his control and anger issues. I wanted the marriage to work and for us to be reconciled. This is normal. Deluded, but normal.
While the separation removed some stressors from my life, it created an entirely different set.
My anxiety issues became worse.
And one of the symptoms that I experienced was changes to my breathing. It became shallow and rapid when I would think about my situation or what the kids needed (anxiety). Other times, it was shallow, almost tentative, and very slow. Most concerning of all were the times I caught myself holding my breath, not breathing at all. I would take a deep breath and then make myself breath slowly and deeply for a few minutes until I felt better.
I yoyoed between rapid, shallow breathing to slow, shallow breathing. Breathing should not be this much work, but it was.
The Importance of Breathing
Breathing does a lot of vitals things: oxygenates the blood, cells, brain and muscles, expels waste, and keeps the body’s CO2 and pH levels within the normal range.
Anxiety disorder can cause shallow, rapid breathing that actually reduces CO2 levels too much.
This type of breathing disorder can also be caused by infection. I got a double whammy, so to speak.
When Lyme spirochetes get in the brain, they can affect temperature control, mood, cognitive functioning and breathing. Autonomic dysfunction is common. Many people with chronic Lyme struggle with shallow, slow, and inadequate breathing.
On top of all this, I developed a heart arrythmia, eventually diagnosed as benign. It still scared me when my heart would feel like it was flopping around in my chest and I would nearly pass out.
My situation was more complex than most, but the bottom line is that living in an abusive marriage is stressful, and the separation process is even more stressful. Breathing can become an issue.
If breathing has been an issue long enough, it may be necessary to retrain the brain and body how to do it properly.
Slow, deep breathing exercises may be the answer. On the other hand, slow, not-so-deep breathing exercises may be the answer. That is something that should be determined by your physician.
I actually set three alarms a day on my smartphone that said: Breathe.
I would stop whatever I was doing and spend one minute doing breathing exercises.
Here is a great article from Harvard Medical School on breath focus and breathing exercises that are designed to reduce stress.
Whether you struggle with anxiety disorder, a chronic infection that causes autonomic dysfunction, or are dealing with a stressful situation, breathing properly and effectively is vital to feeling well.
A sense of wellbeing is not possible if you are not breathing properly.
If necessary, set an alarm, put sticky notes all around your home and work space, or ask the people around you to remind you to breathe should they notice you struggling.
Focused breathing exercises might just be the answer.
Don’t forget: Just breathe!