In scuba diving they teach you that if you feel like you’re out of breath, you must exhale. It means you’ve taken in too much air for fear of not getting enough and you’ve forgotten to let it out. It sounds ridiculous but it happens to me on every dive. I start suffocating underwater with a tank full of air on my back.
It’s a paralyzing fear that comes on out of nowhere, that hits you like a brick as you’re floating along in the big blue. And trust me — there’s nothing you want to do LESS when you find yourself panicking under 30 meters of water than exhale, instead of taking a big gasping gulp of air. But that’s what you have to do – that really counterintuitive thing – and it’s the only thing that works.
Around this time last year I went to something called a “mensendieck” therapist, because I was struggling with being unable to breathe on land. My sudden attacks of shortness of breath could not be explained by any apparent lung problems (thankfully) so the doctor assumed it was psychosomatic and sent me to this lady, who looked like the crazy girl from Orange is the New Black and in the full 5 weeks I saw her never learned to pronounce my name.
Over the course of those sessions, she taught me various relaxation and meditation exercises, guided me through a lot of breathing techniques, et cetera. But the most important thing she asked me was in our very first session: “Exactly what are you so afraid of? And what will happen if that exact situation occurs? And why don’t you stop, just for a second, and let yourself process whatever it is that you are trying so hard not to imagine?”
I’ve since come to realize that those two pieces of advice – the physical and the emotional – are so complementary as to be almost identical.
When, like today, I find myself so overwhelmed with work that stepping away from my computer seems physically impossible, and climbing the three flights of stairs to my apartment totally insurmountable, I remember these two pieces of advice. Stop. Exhale. Process. And I close my computer and go for a run, even though my legs feel like lead, and it takes me twice as long as usual to run a puny distance. By the end of the run I’m taking full, slow, deep breaths of air, and I’m not thinking about work, and I forget about the panic. That’s the power of exhalation.
We must remember to exhale in a tense, panicked situation. We must remember to give slack when every one of our instincts is telling us to push harder instead.
And at the end of the day, asking, and really imagining, “what if that terrifying thing happens? What then?” and realizing that nothing is so bad that it warrants forgetting to breathe.
So please – if you need this today – ask yourself “what are you afraid of?” And then – trust me. Exhale.