“What are you sighing about, then?” My colleague’s amused tone pierced the email I’d been reading which, as it happens, was nothing to sigh about at all. “Ah yeah, she loves a good sigh,” laughed another.
I have endless things I’m self-conscious about, but this one was new. Inevitably, I became acutely aware of every time I exhaled loudly – and in doing so, found there’s no external stimulus for it: I’m not bored, annoyed or frustrated. It is simply this: I barely breathe so, every so often, I have to take, and let out, a deep lungful of air.
Meeting Julie Ann Horrox, a transformational breath facilitator, for a one-on-one session, she quickly establishes that my regular breathing is shallow: an inhale gets about as far as the middle of my rib cage before being expelled again. This, she assures me, is very common. “When we breathe, we are breathing in energy, breathing in life,” she explains. “It stirs up memories, so we use our breath to control this; we close down or restrict our natural breathing pattern in order to feel safe.”
If life is already stressful, the coronavirus pandemic, with its lockdown and loneliness, plus fears about job security, finances, health and, in many cases, the responsibility of home education, has sent stress levels soaring.
Dominique Antiglio, sophrologist at BeSophro clinic, says: “When we are stressed, our breathing becomes more fast and shallow, and more centred in the chest.” Now, more than ever, one imagines, we are probably a nation of shallow breathers. “Abdominal breathing shifts the breath from your chest down to your tummy,” adds Dominique. “Breathing from this region automatically activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the mechanism that encourages the body to relax and climb down from stressful situations.” Additionally, she says, anyone can engage in simple but physiologically powerful breathwork at home and on their own.
I soon learn that being guided in a safe environment is not, initially at least, enough to get me breathing therapeutically. Even with Julie Ann’s gentle encouragement, my jaw is resolutely clenched and my breath determinedly shallow. At her suggestion, we implement a medical mouthpiece to encourage me to loosen my jaw and breathe, more fully utilising my diaphragm. It feels horrible. When I revisit the experience, I’m aware that the ‘horrible’ is something I’m attributing to the mouthpiece: the sensation of a foreign body jammed in my mouth, the pooling of saliva as I struggle to activate my ‘swallow’ reflex.
None of that was pleasant. But here’s what really happened. I saw faces and relived moments from my past, as clearly as if I had time-travelled. My heart ached and splintered. My insides felt like they were being yanked out. Remembering now, I know that I was sobbing, vaguely aware of Julie Ann holding and comforting me. Her wonderfully calm, patient voice was there with me. I can’t remember what she said, only that I was reassured by her presence. Even when you’re as intimacy-avoidant as I am, it’s nice to have someone nurturing and non-judgemental near when you gather your senses and find yourself lying on the floor in a sweat-soaked dress with drool inching down your chin.
“With breathwork, you can potentially bypass years of talking therapy,” says Julie Ann. “This is why the breath is so powerful. With the assistance of a facilitator, it can guide you in to meet and connect with those places in the past you’ve shut down.”
It occurs to me that breathing, a necessary survival function – even if many of us are not doing it correctly – is possibly a more natural, less intrusive way of accessing trauma than speech. What may take multiple talking sessions to unearth can be confronted with some diaphragm-busting breathing and, mercifully, I don’t need to chew over it endlessly.
With statistics showing that stress and anxiety continue to be the biggest factors affecting our well-being at the moment, we could probably all benefit from taking a few deep breaths.
How to breathe
Follow these steps for proper breathing, courtesy of BeSophro clinic.
• Place one hand on your chest, the other on your tummy.
• Imagine you have a balloon where your tummy is. As you inhale, the balloon starts to inflate; as you exhale, it deflates.
• Exhale to double the length of your inhales, so in through your nose for three counts, and out through the mouth for six. For experienced deep breathers, you can increase those counts proportionally, i.e. in for five, out for 10.
• Repeat mindfully for 2-3 minutes.
The Daily Telegraph