I could feel my heart race as I thought about the circumstances my friend was facing. The trauma, fear and confusion from betrayal that I once experienced all came back to me. As my friend’s story of heartbreak, infidelity, and lies unfolded, I felt a cold and unwelcome darkness begin to wrap around me. Then the panic began to set in.
Though I’ve been working on my healing for over two years, I still have triggers that set me back a bit. Thankfully, the triggers are much less intense and far less frequent than they used to be. I’ve learned that I can manage my triggers before they send me into a full-blown panic attack. I’ve tried a few different methods to control my triggers and lately I’ve found some success with breathing.
Breathing exercises were not very effective for me in the early days of trauma. At times I came close to hyper-ventilating as I tried to breathe through my panic. I thought the simple act of breathing was supposed to make some miraculous change in my emotions, but that never happened. I was also a bit confused about how breathing, something I do every minute of every day, was supposed to be helpful with triggers. When I got the advice to “just breathe” I was confused. I was already breathing! Duh! Otherwise, I would be passed out!
I didn’t give much value to breathing exercises until I witnessed my 11 year-old grandson successfully use breathing to calm down. He was very upset over the possibility of missing an application deadline for honor choir. It was difficult to help him figure out solutions because he was so focused on the challenges that could prevent him from making the nearing deadline. He became visibly agitated and impatient with his mother who was trying to explain some of his options.
One of my breathing exercises suddenly came to my mind, and I calmly asked my grandson to sit with me for a moment and try something. He agreed. Together we did the 4-7-8 method of breathing. For 4 seconds, we slowly inhaled. Then we held our breath for 7 seconds before slowly exhaling for 8 seconds. We repeated our breathing one more time.
“How are you feeling, now?” I asked my grandson.
“Better!” he replied. Though his concerns didn’t disappear, he was more calm and able to listen to his mom’s suggestions.
I realize the actual breathing was only one factor in my grandson’s shift to calm. The real magic was in distracting his thinking as he concentrated on counting the seconds of inhaling, holding, then exhaling his breath. He was able to focus his mind on something else just long enough to stop the downward spiral of his thinking. Counting his breath helped him to clear his mind from the muddle of his panic.
It was the very next day that I felt the panic of reliving my trauma from betrayal as my friend shared with me. As soon as I felt the panic begin to overtake me, I began my 4-7-8 breathing. I repeated my breathing four times. It was slow and subtle, but eventually I could feel a sense of peace.
There are scientific reasons to explain why breathing through triggers can work. I think the science is interesting, but I really just need something that I can use easily and instantly. There are other breathing techniques that I may use in the future, but for now, 4-7-8 is working for me.