Fight, Flight, or Breathe

seated with flowers

If you followed my story in 2018, you read about my life of should—I should be this, I should do that. I was miserable trying to be what others wanted me to be and decided to come out of the closet of should. For 2019, I’m talking about how I stopped being a should-er, and am sharing the lessons I learned through the process. These lessons were earth-shattering for me, drastically improving my entire life. Since we all battle the monster of should, I’m sure you’ll also find something valuable in these lessons. Buckle up and come along for the ride!

Today’s lesson: Breathing. Wait, what?! How’s that a lesson learned? The human body automatically breathes, right? Sure, but just enough to keep you alive. Your body doesn’t automatically do enough to keep your mind and body healthy.

What prevents us from breathing deep all the time? Our brain and the almost constant anxiety it creates. The brain is designed to solve problems, and for most of us, it’s hyperactive. It tries to solve problems that haven’t even come up yet, and to solve things from the past that are already over. It sees threats everywhere. Most of us are so used to the constant hum of anxiety in our heads, we don’t realize it’s happening. That is until it becomes too much and we look to numb it.

Society is filled with many ways to numb pain and anxiety. Drugs and alcohol are the most obvious choices, but for many it can be food, television, and staying busy. Anything to drown out the noise in our heads. My poison was staying busy, and I did it spectacularly. People frequently commented that they couldn’t believe how much I could accomplish. I was in constant motion, hating to sit still. There was always work, a project, cleaning, baking a cake, tending the garden, and canning. You name it, I did it to run away from the scrolling anxiety in my head. I couldn’t sleep, so that created extra time to fuss over all the things I was doing to make other people like me.

As a former opera singer and voice teacher, I learned a lot about deep, meaningful breathing. I was a master. But I discovered that I only did it when I was singing or about to go on stage. When I wasn’t doing those things, I actually held my breath. It sounds dramatic, but it really isn’t. Most people don’t regularly breathe deeply. They take shallow breaths and just get by. They hold their breath, not realizing how tight they’re holding their stomachs and butts. Why does this matter and how can deep breathing help you leave the closet of should?

Breathing deeply and slowly helps soothe the fight or flight responses that your autonomic nervous system frequently sets off in your body even when you aren’t in imminent danger. When this system is triggered, your body releases the hormone cortisol. When cortisol builds up, it can weaken your immune system, negatively affect your mood, and cause insomnia as well as a number of other undesirable effects.

I discovered that while deep breathing helped steady me so I could sing in front of thousands of people, my fight or flight response was firing over and over again in my daily life, each time adding to the cortisol load in my body. As a result, I suffered a variety of unexplained health problems, mood swings, and depression.

Deep breathing is also important because it helps you to be in the moment. Most people—I was one of them—miss out on a lot of what is happening in their lives because they’re too busy thinking through the past or projecting into the future. While they’re dwelling on something that’s over or worrying about what might go wrong in the future, they completely miss what’s going on in the present. In his book The Power of Now , Eckhart Tolle explains how the breath and being connected to your body helps to break free of this miserable cycle.

In my previous life, I was a floating head of misery, trapped between past pain and the worry over how I could soon screw something up. Consistently triggered into fight or flight, my body was locked in tension and my mind locked in panic. I don’t think I even realized I had feet attached to my legs, unless I was going on stage. You have to be present to perform well, and I discovered that the only time I was truly present and alive was on stage. It needed to change.

I started to breathe deeply off stage and noticed that my real life calmed down tremendously. I began to notice how often I was triggered into fight or flight, how much I was holding my breath, and how tight my muscles were. I kept a journal to document the things that sparked my anxiety. Whenever I felt anxious, I stopped what I was doing, closed my eyes, focused on my breathing, and thought purposefully about relaxing my muscles. I started by just feeling my body, my hands, and my feet. Eventually, I could calm my body and mind. It soothed my anxiety. Then, free from anxiety, I could be present in my life and appreciate its beauty.

Breathing deeply and slowly is the first step to being calm and centered, something I call “being where your feet are.” It was only when I started being present that I could stop myself from living according to what others wanted. There are still times I have to remind myself to breathe, but the habit of breathing and being present has gotten much easier. Now when I’m triggered, I have a process to calm myself. I stop whatever I’m doing, close my eyes, sit tall and still, and breathe in and then out as slowly as possible, repeating as needed. By slowing my breath, I slow my heart rate and, thus, calm the other responses in my body that produce the fight or flight reaction. When things are really difficult, I have to stop myself several times a day.

How did you do? Did you notice you breathed more just reading this? Try to do it mindfully throughout the day. Catch yourself when you feel annoyed or anxious—stop and breathe. Feel better? Yep, I thought so. Now go on out there and be where your feet are! I dare you.

Photograph provided by Sandy Eichel

Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.