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.

How to spot partner abuse

I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, and she was describing her anxiety. She said she felt like she couldn’t get anything right. No matter what she did, it didn’t seem like enough. She wanted to be a responsible person, a person who was loving and compassionate. But she just couldn’t seem to fulfill those expectations.

I told her that I struggle with the same things. I shared that I’m naturally a perfectionist who holds myself to astronomical standards and beats myself up when I don’t get everything right. I said I’m learning that the Lord created me to be finite and dependent on Him. It’s ok not to be perfect.

Then she started to cry. She said she didn’t know how to accept her imperfections. She wanted to be allowed to be human and finite, but she wasn’t sure she could have a more realistic standard. Something in the way she said it made me wonder. So I asked, “Do you hold yourself to an unrealistic standard, or are you trying to be perfect in order to please someone else?”

Her head went down. She stopped looking me in the eye. The silence dragged from seconds to minutes. I knew she wanted to say something, so I just waited. Finally, with eyes still lowered, she said, “I’ve lost track of all the ways I’m failing. And sometimes I don’t even know I’m failing till he gets home. I don’t remember till it’s too late.”

She’s not anxious because she’s a perfectionist. She’s anxious because she hasn’t followed all of his rules perfectly. She’s in an abusive relationship.

Sometimes partner abuse is hard to spot. It can be subtle. It can develop so slowly that it’s imperceptible to the observer. Many women who are struggling with anxiety are actually staggering under the weight of an abusive partner, but they don’t even know to call it that. To them, it’s just how relationships work. And in the Christian world, it can be even more devastating because partner abuse is happening under the definition of wifely submission.

It’s time for the Church to say some really clear things. Submission never means following someone’s rules to avoid punishment. It never means sacrificing the health and safety of yourself or your children in order to appease someone’s preferences. It never means laying yourself on someone else’s altar. This is not submission. It’s abuse.

In whatever ways we have allowed abuse to continue in the name of submission or humility, we need to repent. We need to learn what to look for and how to get help for those who are suffering at the hands of someone else. Abuse is happening right under our noses, to women and men and children. To the elderly and the disabled. We need some education, and we need boldness to advocate.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a great website. That’s where I’ll point you in beginning your education (click HERE). This website defines domestic abuse and gives warning signs to look for. You’ll also find the Power and Control Wheel, a very helpful tool that describes ways in which someone will exert power for selfish gain.

Here’s the Hotline’s list of signs your loved one may be experiencing partner abuse: (https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/)

  • Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry
  • They make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  • Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive
  • They have unexplained marks or injuries
  • They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family
  • They are depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality

Of course, your friend or loved one may not exhibit all these signs, but if you notice even a couple of them, you can ask a few questions to learn more:

  • “I noticed him putting you down, and that bothered me. Does that happen a lot?”
  • “You seem worried about making him mad. Do you feel worried about that often?”
  • “He seems to get jealous easily. Do you see that with him?”
  • “I noticed that bruise. It looks painful. Because I love you, I need to ask – did someone give that to you?”
  • “You seem distant lately, and not because you want to be. I’m wondering if you feel pressured only to be with him, like you’re not allowed to spend time with your friends and family.”
  • “I can tell you’ve been down lately. I want you to know I’m here for you and would love to support you in whatever you’re going through.”

(In these questions, I’m using the female pronoun to describe the abuse victim, but keep in mind that abuse happens to both men and women. No one is exempt from the possibility of being victimized.)

If you ask a few of these questions and sense that the person’s answers may indicate partner abuse, trust your instinct. It’s not your job to investigate. It’s your job to support. You can simply tell your friend that you’re concerned about the relationship, that something doesn’t seem healthy. Ask her if she’s willing to share these concerns with someone more knowledgable, like a professional counselor. Offer to go with her. She may not want to do it, because she feels responsible for protecting her abuser’s reputation. If she doesn’t want to get help, ask if she’d be willing to look at some materials about healthy and unhealthy relationships. You can print some materials from the Hotline website to talk through with her.

I don’t recommend that you go behind your loved one’s back in trying to help her. She is living a life under someone else’s power. You want to communicate the opposite to her. She is her own person. She deserves to make her own decisions. She has dignity and worth. Ask her what she wants to do and give her options, but don’t make decisions for her and don’t pressure her.

If she shares with you that children may be endangered, you should report to CPS. Don’t wait, and don’t wonder whether it is actually happening or just suspected. The safety of children is always imperative, and it’s not up to you to figure out – only to report. To report child abuse in Texas, call 1-800-252-5400, or www.txabusehotline.org. The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-4-A-Child, or www.childhelp.org.

 

Reflections on Psalm 23: “I Shall Not Want”

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“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1

Many works have been written about the life of a shepherd and the ways it parallels to God’s care for His children. I won’t go that route today. What I want to explore is the fact that Psalm 23:1 is one sentence. I’m a language junkie – I love words and punctuation. So I pay attention to commas, periods and semicolons. They matter to me. In this verse we see a semicolon. While the Hebrew language didn’t utilize this particular form of punctuation, we find it here because English translators are conveying the writer’s intent: these two phrases are linked inseparably. He means to say, “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Wanting conveys lack. What do you believe you are lacking today? And what do you do when you sense that you lack something you need? Do you strive to gain that thing through human means? Do you ask friends or family to provide it? Do you jump on the hamster wheel of worry, wearing yourself out with endless thoughts of ‘what if’? The answer is ‘yes’. We all do it.

We all want to be our own shepherds. We want to direct our lives and see success come based on our merit, intelligence and wit. We want to be able to look in the mirror and believe we are enough, all by ourselves. But we were never meant to function in this way. We are designed to be lacking.

We are designed to be lacking.

God created us with holes. We can’t see the future. We don’t know how to do everything. We aren’t able to be everywhere at once. And even before there was sin in the world, humans lacked these things. On purpose. God didn’t want us to be self-sufficient. We were created to be dependent on Him.

When I’m faced with my lack, will I look to the Shepherd? Will I remember that He provides all that I need? that I don’t have to see into the future to believe He’s there and already has a plan? that I can trust His providence and goodness to lead me and keep me and grant me joy in the process?

Sometimes I will. And sometimes I’ll worry and strive and look to the wrong shepherds. Praise His name that, by His Spirit, He’s always leading back to Himself. Always reminding me that He’s enough. Am I listening?

Questions for Reflection:

  • What kinds of things do I most often worry about lacking? 
  • Is there a chance that these things are idols in my life? Is that why I’m worrying about them so much?
  • Was there a time in my life when I believed God wasn’t my shepherd? If so, I need to process that pain and confess it to Him, saying out loud that I do trust Him and believe He is my shepherd at all times.
  • Where else in Scripture does God promise to provide the things I’m lacking? 

The Gentle & Quiet Spirit – Not a Personality Trait!

“Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”
1 Peter 3:3-4

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I grew up in the church. I remember learning that a godly woman should have a gentle and quiet spirit. I looked at women in their 70s who never said a word and hid behind their husbands, and I imagined that was what God would find most pleasing. Nobody taught me to see it that way – I just came up with my own definition.

Maybe you didn’t grow up in the church. Maybe hearing that a godly woman has a gentle and quiet spirit makes you want to scream. How could God put women in a box like that, expecting them to behave outside their personalities? Why does God command this to women but not to men?

In this post, I’d like to dispel some of the myths surrounding the definition of a gentle and quiet spirit. I’ll also talk about how to cultivate a gentle and quiet spirit in the way God intended (not by change of personality).

Let’s start by looking back up at 1 Peter 3:3-4. The author is talking about what makes a woman beautiful. He’s not saying we should never put on pretty clothes or wear jewelry. He’s saying our beauty as Christians does not come from our outward appearance. Praise God for that! Our value lies in what is being made beautiful day by day inside our hearts. Whether you’re physically beautiful (by cultural standards) or not, Christ in you is continually increasing your beauty as you grow in Him.

Proverbs 31 is the primary passage talking about a woman’s internal beauty. Verse 25 says, “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” So this woman clothes herself with strength and dignity. Upon first glance this could sound contradictory to the woman who is gentle and quiet. However, let’s look at the second half of the verse – “she laughs at the time to come.”  What does it mean to laugh at the future?

This truth is irreversibly tied to quietness of spirit. The Proverbs 31 woman looks ahead into the unknown and isn’t afraid. She is confident in God’s provision and love, so she is able to fulfill her responsibilities and leave everything else to God. This is what makes her full of strength and dignity.

As I began to learn about this and process the vast difference between me and this godly woman in Scripture, I remembered the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha was getting stuff done. She was working hard to serve Jesus when he came over for dinner. Her sister, Mary, was sitting around listening to Jesus talk instead of helping with preparations. Martha was angry and asked Jesus to tell Mary to help. Jesus rebuked Martha and said Mary had chosen the better thing. That story really frustrates me because I was cut from the same cloth as Martha. I know how to get stuff done. This is a great gift, but I also misuse it and begin to do things I’m not called to do. The Proverbs 31 woman fulfills her responsibilities and leaves everything else to God.

The words Jesus said to Martha haunt me: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.” If I want to cultivate a gentle and quiet spirit, I have to take a look at what troubles me and makes me anxious. The opposite of quietness is loudness. My spirit is LOUD. I’m always talking, always trying to figure things out and plan for all contingencies. I’m frustrated when things don’t go my way. I wish I could be in charge of everything and everyone because then I could make things (and people) better. Basically, I’m taking on God’s responsibilities.

Psalm 56:3-4 says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” So first I need to acknowledge that my desire to control circumstances and people reveals that I don’t trust God to do His job. I think I need to help Him (or take over completely) because I don’t see Him as a good Father who provides what I need. I also need to acknowledge that my desire to control is based in FEAR. I am afraid of what is to come, so I seek to prepare and control outcomes.

When I acknowledge my desire to control and its root in fear, I must confess and repent of the ways I’ve tossed God off His throne and put myself there. Where I don’t feel the weight of that sin, I beg Him to convict me deeply. Then I receive His forgiveness and grace, knowing His steadfast love and faithfulness are from everlasting to everlasting for those who love and fear Him (Sidenote: remember previous posts about the fear of God? Dwelling in the fear of God naturally cultivates quietness of spirit!)

Finally, I must engage in the discipline of sitting at his feet, just as Mary did. We have to make the conscious choice to rest in His provision and wisdom and goodness. Warning: this will be really hard to do, especially if you’ve spent your life doing the opposite. Here is an example of a way to start the process:

  1. Set aside a 30-minute block of time when you are wide awake and free from distraction.
  2. Recognize you’ll be distracted even if there are no outside forces distracting you. Some find it helpful to write down all the things they still need to do that day and/or the things swirling around in their minds.
  3. Begin with prayer, and pray out loud. This is vital. Praying aloud keeps you locked in and focused on what you’re doing.
  4. Read a short passage such as Psalm 23 or Psalm 91. Read it out loud and slowly.
  5. Pray the passage back to God. For example: “Father, thank you that you are my shepherd and provide everything I need.” Focus on His attributes and character, and don’t ask Him for anything.
  6. Write down the ways in which you’ve seen a particular character trait displayed in your life and throughout Scripture you know. For example: If you’re thinking about His provision, write down times He clearly provided for you, and then write down examples you remember when God provided in the Bible.
  7. Make a habit of engaging God in this way on a daily basis. Stop just asking him for stuff. He wants to hear your requests, but He also wants to hear your praise and adoration.

I think the reason many people struggle to find rest in God’s presence is because they wrongly think rest means they just sit there and listen to God talk. I promise, He’s talking to you as you pray and think and write. Sitting in quietness is a good thing, but first you must learn to worship Him by reflecting on His character. As you see Him more and more correctly over time, you will find your mind and heart at rest to listen quietly.

In our next post, we’ll talk about the obstacles to becoming a woman with a gentle and quiet spirit.