We live in a chaotic world, with many different crises occurring almost simultaneously. We all need a little (or a lot) of inspiration and practical tips to help us destress and increase our physical, emotional and spiritual resilience.
In my conversations with family and friends, I kept hearing about how stressed people were about some of the troubling events in their lives and in the world at large. From the drought in Southern California to racial and social tensions exploding into violence, from difficult, very personal financial and health challenges to the struggles of loved ones and coworkers, it seemed as if daily burdens were becoming harder and harder to bear, even with the most fervent faith!
So, I dug into the topic of coping with crises, especially eager to see if there were any practical tools we might have at hand to help us tackle the ill effects of stress. I thought about instances in my own life, when I had faced natural disasters, personal health challenges, and even civil unrest, and I tried to study these experiences with the luxury of hindsight to see what I had learned and what I could tell others about them.
I thought about historic figures, too, and how they had dealt with crises of many kinds, ever persevering and meeting the obstacles before them with strength and remarkable leadership. There are so many examples to choose from! So many to inspire and encourage us!
For nearly 20 years, I have written about health and wellness with a focus on the role of our faith and spirituality in helping us live with chronic pain and illness. Could there be a connection, I wondered, between physical activities, such as deep breathing, and our ability to build physical, emotional, and spiritual strength? I discovered a treasure trove of medical experts and research that answered with a resounding, “Yes!”
Ordinarily, we are unaware of our breath. But sometimes, we might want to use it to reduce stress or as a part of a meditative or exercise practice. One way of breathing that can be useful when we are anxious or feel ourselves become stressed (that fight or flight feeling) is diaphragmatic breathing.
How to do it: Sit quietly and inhale through the nose, feeling your abdomen expand as the air moves deep into your lungs. Then exhale through the mouth easily and slowly. Repeat this a few times as you gauge how well you’re responding. At first, some people might become lightheaded, so be particularly vigilant. If this happens, pause the exercise until the lightheadedness has resolved. If this persists, call your doctor.
Diaphragmatic breathing is used by many people, including athletes, musicians (especially singers and wind instrument players), to prepare them for their work. Your doctor can easily show you the proper way to do it, or you can learn from a music teacher or choir director or sports coach.
There are Internet resources, too; a very helpful video, provided by the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center gives a brief lesson in diaphragmatic breathing. It is useful to learn and practice it before a crisis or difficult situation arises and you want to call upon it to calm your anxiety.
Knowing how to ease feelings of stress using breath can be very empowering, making you more prepared and confident—and less likely to panic! –from Don’t Panic!
From Scripture, I gleaned specific support for reframing our struggles with the prism of faith. With prayer, especially, I learned that what we do to communicate with God informs our spiritual life, and also supports our physical strength and emotional resolve.
Spiritual Breathing in Action
For thirteen years, I conducted an African American, Catholic gospel choir at a church near south Los Angeles. I have many wonderful memories from that time, but within the context of facing crises and emotional-spiritual breathing, one really stands out.
Marilyn White, a soprano in the choir, arrived at church a little late one Sunday morning. As she zipped up her choir robe and joined us in the prayer circle, she raised her voice to pray for her son. The night before, he’d been the victim of a drive-by shooting on a street not far from his college dorm in Atlanta. He was in the hospital, and his condition was serious, his prognosis unclear.
Of course, everyone in the choir surrounded her (and her son) with love, support, and especially prayer. As I joined hands with the group and bowed my head, my heart broke for this dear mother and for her son, who had such a bright future ahead of him. But I was stunned, too, that she had come to church that morning as usual instead of getting on the first plane to Atlanta.
Little did I realize that I was about to learn a huge lesson in the importance of taking a deep and deeply spiritual breath.
After we prayed, I asked my friend why she’d decided to postpone her trip so she could come to Mass. With a smile, she replied, “The devil would have wanted me to skip church, but I’m not going to let him have that. I have to be here, to sing, pray, and praise God. Then, I’ll go.”
Years later, when we talked about that difficult period, she explained further why she had to come to church before traveling to her son’s hospital bed.
“It wasn’t a knee-jerk time,” Marilyn said. “It was a knee-bending time. I knew my son was in God’s hands, and I knew what I had to do before I went to be with him.” –from Don’t Panic!
Learning from personal experiences and the experiences of those around us, we find there are practical activities we can all do to build strength inside and out.
Don’t Panic! is a coach for anyone who feels edgy, even on the verge of panic, because of the instability we see around us and, sometimes, within us. And I pray that it will reach readers far and wide and bring great comfort and hope!
And, in the meantime, peace in Our Lord Jesus Christ, much joy, and don't panic!