Come Back to the Breath

The last week has really shaken me up. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the ability to be able to easily fall asleep and stay asleep my entire life. There have only been a handful of times where this hasn’t been the case. This past week is one of those times. As soon as my brain comes back on line, the normal stillness and sense of ease has been replaced with racing thoughts that send me immediately into a state of panic. It feels too dangerous to fall back asleep. These fear addled thoughts demand my attention.

Somewhere in my half conscious state in the early hours of this morning, a realization struck me. Anxiety feels urgent. It feels like whatever the fear is focusing on is something that needs to be addressed ASAP. The sickening tension in all of my muscles, my short, quick, shallow breaths, these are all things that my mind tells me are a product of impending peril. I have to fix the thoughts to feel better. So I spend countless hours ruminating on unknown eventualities, trying to determine some perfect solution. Agonizing over my inability to do so. Will I feel like this forever?

In the middle of this cycle as I tossed and turned in my bed earlier, a had a glimpse of important insight. These thoughts are not directly causing these physical feelings. No, they are influencing my breath. My erratic breathing is causing these unbearable sensations in my body. I don’t need to fix the thoughts. They can stay exactly as they are, utterly unsolved and unsolvable. All I have to do is consciously come back to my breath. No matter what my mind is telling me, if I can slow down my breathing and extend my exhales, I’m going to feel better.

After just a few short moments of trying this out, I was asleep again, peaceful and safe. One of the most difficult aspects of anxiety for me is being able to convince myself that it’s okay to let it be there. Usually it compounds indefinitely as I try desperately to “fix” whatever it is that is causing my anxiety. But some fears can’t be fixed. Some nights I’m fixated on the fact that I and everyone I love will die one day. There is no mental contortion that I could create to make this okay. My brain begins to panic even more when I can’t come up with a way to eradicate the fear. The important thing is to remind myself that I don’t have to have answers for all of my anxious thoughts. In fact, trying to “fix it” just feeds them.

The breath is where my true power lies. It is the anchor tethering me to the present, the only moment worth living in. Even in the case where I genuinely would benefit from forming an action plan, I can only do that in the present. And I can only do that well from a calm frame of mind. If you’re someone that suffers from severe and chronic anxiety like me, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you don’t have to battle your fearful thoughts. Practice letting them be. Just come back to your breath. The proof that the thoughts themselves are not the problem will become evident when you realize by slowing down and deepening the breath you’ve returned to a calmer state.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I could ever feel better when my fear seems so big and important. It feels like I can’t breathe because this heavy weight of my (sometimes legitimate) fear is pressing me into the dust. In reality, it’s the opposite. Or I suppose it’s rather a feedback loop. I’m afraid so my breath becomes shallow. My shallow breathing makes my sympathetic nervous system take over, and the cycle continues to intensify. The key is in realizing where my control truly lies. I can’t control my thoughts. I can’t control the external world with all its unknown variables and potential dangers. What I can control, if I choose to do so, is my breath. This is my power to break the cycle of distress.

If your thoughts try to tell you that you shouldn’t calm down because you NEED to be alarmed by these fears and address them, just gently remind yourself that if these fears are truly issues that need to be tended to, you can still do that from a state of calm. In fact, you will be better at coming up with a plan once you’ve settled your body and mind anyway. So just breathe. As long as you’re breathing everything is going to be okay.

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