Remember to Breath

After my husband’s death I found it hard to do many things. Even the simplest of things was not simple anymore. Clean the bathroom, go to the grocery store, respond to emails, read and retain more than few sentences of a book, remember where I parked my car, or placed my keys, or where I put the dishwashing liquid (that one turned out to be in the fridge, which was better than leaving the ice-cream by the laundry machine for three days).

Everything, even small and mundane tasks, require effort, energy and concentration I was deeply depleted of.

There was something in particular that I found very hard to do, something that I had to actually relearn how to do: Breathe.

For someone who haven’t experience life altering trauma, this may sound ridiculous. A colleague once said to me “What do you mean, you don’t know how to breathe? Don’t be silly.”

But I wasn’t being silly, I was really struggling to breathe. The air would get caught right under my collarbone and it felt like there was no room for it go down into my lungs. I constantly feelt like I was suffocating. And it hurt. So, yes I had to learn to breath again.

So I started looking for ways to help myself breathe freely again and I came across different breathing exercises.

This may or may not help you, but through trial and error I found some that worked best for me. There are many different breathing exercises, and you can find detailed explanations and videos online. The one I personally found most helpful, and still use to this day, is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. I learn this breathing technique with my counsellor, and although its meant to help with sleep, I found it very good to calm my mind and racing heart as well.

If I am able to find a quiet and secluded place I close my eyes and place one hand on my tummy (over my belly button) and another hand in the middle of my chest. But once I got the hang of it I could do it anywhere, in the car, while walking my dog, in the supermarket, sitting in a meeting, in the shower… its very easy and I often found that it did alleviate a lot of the anxiety and the mental distress I was constantly under.

The following steps should all be carried out in the cycle of one breath: 

  1. First, let your lips part. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.

  2. Next, close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.

  3. Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath.

  4. Make another whooshing exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.

When you inhale again, you initiate a new cycle of breath. Practice this pattern for four full breaths.

You can find a more detailed explanation on 4-7-8 breathing here:

I used the alarm on my phone to remind me to breathe for one minute every hour. Sometimes I was too busy worrying, or to agitated to do it, but whenever I did take the time to practice it more constantly I definitely found it beneficial.

I also try to pay attention to my breath and be intentional about breathing through my nose and making the exhale longer than the inhale. Making our exhale longer than our inhale soothes the nervous system and calms down the flight-fight response in the brain. It’s a simple and effective way to gain control of our minds and bodies when everything else is out of control.

My other options to practice breathing exercises are restorative yoga, box breathing, meditation, mindfulness, walking, massage, and morning stretches.

As valid as it is to hear about what other people do to breathe well, it’s important that you find what works best for you. But don’t give up if the first few things you try may feel like they are not helping. I only realised that certain things were helpful after doing them for some time. A little drop of goodness may feel insignificant when we are dealing with the magnitude of grief, but even small and insignificant things can compound and became a beneficial and a valuable part of our wellbeing amidst the pain.