Deep Breathing: Healing Anxiety and Trauma

“Don’t forget to breathe…very important.”

“The Karate Kid” was a movie we watched over and over again when I was a kid. If you’ve seen it, you remember Mr. Miyagi, the unassuming master who taught a bullied teenager the art of karate. Breathing was one of the primary lessons. It seemed almost comical to me that Mr. Miyagi had to remind Daniel to breathe during his exercises.

It’s not comical when I’m working with someone who’s very anxious or who needs healing from past trauma. Many trauma survivors have lost touch with their bodies. Sometimes it’s because their bodies betrayed them in a moment of terror. They wanted to run away or fight off their attackers, but their bodies froze and they were unable to defend themselves. Sometimes their bodies responded hormonally to physical touch that was unwanted, and they now hate those responses. Sometimes they simply stop listening to the signals their bodies give them because they don’t trust themselves to know what to do in difficult situations.

Getting back in touch with our bodies is a primary step in healing from trauma and anxiety, because we need to learn to trust ourselves again. We need to grow in the belief that our bodies are good, created by God and given to us as a gift. If you’re an abuse survivor, you may be cringing as you read these last two sentences. That makes complete sense. But if we want to heal, we need to reconnect – with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Even if you’re not a survivor of trauma, I want to encourage you to try the exercise I’m about to recommend. We all carry stress and pain in our bodies, and deep breathing is a way to release that stress and pain. It’s a way for us to exercise dominion in our bodies, to decrease stress and increase rest so that we can function with sound judgment and wisdom.

Diaphragmatic Breathing:

I recommend you sit in a comfortable chair with a high back so that your head is resting against something. You can also do this exercise lying down, although some people find it uncomfortable. The point is to be as comfortable as possible.

Close your eyes and take in the deepest breath you can, expanding your belly like a balloon. This hopefully takes six to eight seconds to achieve. Hold the breath in your abdomen and chest for three to four seconds, and concentrate on the sensation of being full of breath. Then slowly let the breath out of your body, which should take twelve to fourteen seconds. As you let the breath out, concentrate on how your body feels. Are their muscles that seem tense? What parts of your body feel relaxed, and what parts are holding pain?

Complete the exercise again, only this time concentrate on relaxing the muscles that seem tense as you exhale. Complete the exercise at least four more times, each time gaining greater muscle relaxation.

I recommend doing these breathing exercises twice a day. What you’re doing is teaching your body to respond to stressful moments by taking deep breaths. When we exhale slowly and relax our muscles, we’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system – the “brakes” of our nervous system. We need to tap the brakes when things get stressful, but we have inadvertently taught our bodies to keep the pedal to the metal, so to speak, when we’re stressed. We have learned that the answer to stopping stress is to work harder and get more done. The opposite is true.

Here’s what I noticed when I started doing these exercises (and many others have told me the same): when I consistently practiced these exercises while I was comfortable and at rest, my body started to automatically take deep breaths when I encountered something stressful during the day. Just like lifting weights helps a person be stronger for moments when they’re lifting the grocery bags or a child, deep breathing exercises helps us gain strength to de-stress in moments of tension. Try it out and send me a comment with your results!

Is Anxiety Rooted in Trauma?

People are talking about anxiety right and left these days. It makes sense – so much is happening, and we don’t know exactly how to handle all the pressures and difficult circumstances coming our way. The word “anxiety” has become something of a buzzword in 2020. What do we mean when we use that word? Is anxiety caused strictly by stressful external circumstances? Why do some people seem so even-keeled, while others get bent out of shape over the simplest things?

The answer to whether anxiety is rooted in trauma is not a simple one. I would never want to diagnose anyone over a blog post, but I would like to offer some simple questions and markers that may help you determine what kind of anxiety is plaguing you. At its root, anxiety is defined as a sense of dread that can range from mild to debilitating. But there are different reasons you could be experiencing this kind of dread. Some people dread the future because something horrible has happened in their past, and they’re doing everything they can to keep bad things from happening again. If this is true for you, your anxiety may be rooted in traumatization.

Many people don’t connect their anxiety to traumatic incidents in their past because they’ve never been challenged to do so. Especially in Christian circles, anxiety is seen as something to kill, something to overcome. So we don’t necessarily take the time to be curious enough about our anxious feelings to ask questions about them. But if you’re wondering whether some of your anxiety comes from a wound in your past that hasn’t healed, here are some questions you can ask yourself. I recommend you consider these questions, but then make sure to talk them through with a trusted and wise friend who can help you discern whether there are next steps to take in the process of healing and freedom:

  1. What kinds of people, places or situations do I want to avoid?

    When I experience a situation that leads me toward feelings of anxiety, it’s natural that I may want to avoid that type of situation in the future. For example, if I am forced to make a presentation in class and I get so anxious that I have heart palpitations and shortness of breath, I probably won’t volunteer to be a presenter at a conference. It’s normal (though sometimes not best) to want to avoid what brings anxiety. But those whose anxiety includes a history of trauma will avoid situations, people or places because they evoke strong and visceral sensations that can play tricks on their brains. For example, I may feel anxious about dark alleys. If I enter a dark and empty street and suddenly feel a sense of panic in my entire body, as if I’m back in the dark alley in which I was attacked as a teenager, perhaps that particular situation evokes anxiety because the trauma of being attacked has not yet been healed. I know that’s an extreme example, but even fears of situations like being alone in a room or standing in a small space could be rooted in a memory of something traumatic. So the key is to explore whether avoidance may be rooted in a traumatic memory.

  2. What’s my reaction time when I feel anxious?

    When our anxious feelings are triggered by traumatic memory, it can seem as if the stimulus evokes an immediate reaction that doesn’t allow us to engage our logical minds. The fear response is a God-given function of the brain that is meant to help keep us alive in a dangerous and life-threatening situation. It’s possible that your brain carries “procedural memory” of something that was dangerous, which is stored in a different way than most memories. If your brain carries a procedural memory that tells your body to immediately react because a threat is present, you will go into “flight/fight/freeze” response without even realizing why. It will also sometimes seem silly to you, as if you shouldn’t be so keyed-up about a perceived threat, but your reaction is strong and quick. Sometimes this type of reaction happens because your body is being triggered by a stimulus that reminds your brain of a traumatic memory.

  3. What thoughts are connected to the feeling of anxiety when it occurs?

    A lot of people have trouble putting thoughts next to their feelings. When I ask what they’re thinking in connection to an anxious feeling, they don’t know right off the bat. That’s ok. But I encourage you to be curious about your anxious feelings. Ask yourself what you’re thinking. If your thoughts seem to go to extremes, there’s a possibility that anxiety is being provoked by unhealed trauma. For example, people who have been traumatized may have extreme thoughts such as, “No one is trustworthy,” or “Every place is unsafe.” You can have these thoughts without having been traumatized, but these kinds of extreme thoughts can be categorized as “absolutism,” which is a potential marker of traumatization.

  4. What’s happening in my body when I feel anxious?

    When anxiety hits, we often have bodily responses. Our hands sweat, our hearts race, our muscles tense up. These responses are our bodies’ way of alerting us of anxiety, but they’re also designed to help us either fight or flee in a dangerous situation. But when a threat or a perceived threat has ended, our bodies are supposed to return to a state of equilibrium. Both chronically anxious people and people with unhealed trauma have trouble getting back to that state of calm. People who have been traumatized often perpetuate a state of “hyper-vigilance,” both in their minds and in their bodies. It’s as if they’re waiting for some threat to come around every corner. Because they’re constantly on the lookout for danger, their bodies stay keyed up and have trouble becoming calm. Again, chronic anxiety can also include a constant state of bodily tension, but people with unhealed trauma will often share that they cannot sleep or relax.

Again, you cannot diagnose traumatization from any written source. If your answers to these questions lead you to believe you may have unhealed trauma, talk with a trusted friend or counselor. We are NEVER meant to walk through difficult things alone. The most constant factor in a person’s healing is the presence of a safe and compassionate person.

We Shall Not Be Moved

This morning as I was praying for my family, church and friends, a picture came into my head that I’d like to share. I saw a person standing straight up with arms full of stuff. Then the ground began to shake all around her. Some of the things in her arms began to fall, and she clutched the remaining things more tightly. The ground shook even more, and suddenly her face showed panic and she dropped everything she was holding. She reached out her arms to either side of her to grab hold of anything stable. What she found were two steady beams on either side of her, neither of which were being shaken at all. Her face grew calm as she clung to the beams. Even though the ground continued to shake, she was stable because she was holding on to the beams.

I felt enormous peace and hope as I saw this picture. Those beams on either side of all of us represent Jesus. He cannot and will not be shaken. He provides stability no matter how much the earth quakes.

I was reminded of Psalm 46:1-5:

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

Selah.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.”

All the things we’re holding so tightly will be shaken loose. The things that aren’t shaken loose will be dropped as we decide to cling to Jesus. Nothing sustains but Him. No one bears up under our grief and fear but Him. Never can we be forsaken by Him.

I feel great hope as I pray that the Lord will use this season of shaken ground to lead us toward dropping all the things we’re clinging to for hope and life. We will find when we cling to Jesus that we’re drinking from the river that makes glad the city of God. He is in the midst of us. We shall not be moved.

Cultivating Beauty

How do we cultivate beauty in a season with so many stressors weighing us down?

 

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
    which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
    and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them,
    and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Psalm 19:1-6