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Breathing and Emotions

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. - C. S. Lewis

Fear, grief, anger, and even exhilaration are emotional states that produce physical changes in the body. These changes increase overall body tension and restrict breathing. Any excess tension will upset the balance and interfere with normal breathing.

Marjorie experienced an asthmatic attack when she noticed the flowers on her doctor's desk. She panicked. Her mind issued a red alert" to her body, and she responded by sweating and gasping for air. The flowers, she later learned, were artificial. But the pain she felt was real. Whether the danger is real or imaginary makes little difference. Fear will create tension, and tension will affect the ability to breathe. What we perceive, believe, trust, and fear in our minds will spill over into the body and manifest in some way. There is simply no place where the mind stops and the body starts and vice versa.

Recall a recent fearful event in your own life and reflect how your breathing was affected by it. Perhaps you have had a near accident in your car. No impact or injury, but upsetting nonetheless. Suppose you narrowly miss hitting a child who has run into the street. A few moments later you pull over - because something has knocked the wind out of you. That something is fear. You take some slow, deep breaths, and pinch yourself in relief that you are still in one piece. Your fast-beating heart begins to slow to its normal rhythm, and you proceed on your way. Retelling the incident, or waking from a dream about it, you experience the same breathlessness that accompanied the event itself. Once again, you pause to get your breath to complete your story, or to fall back to sleep again.

The inability to breathe fully is also one of the most common reactions to grief. People experiencing great sadness at the loss of a loved one often describe a feeling of steel bands binding the chest. The heart has been wounded or broken in the figurative sense, but the physiological reaction is literal. The muscles associated with respiration tighten in an attempt to protect this vulnerable region from further injury. Shallow breathing serves the self-protective function of cutting off feeling, and this is often temporarily necessary. Holding, stroking, and massaging the grieving person may give the feeling of security again. This contact, and the acceptance it symbolizes, can encourage the crying and deep sighing necessary in working through a loss experience. Releasing grief breaks the vise-like grip around the rib cage and allows breathing to happen normally again.

Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
- James Baldwin

Holding in emotions such as fear, grief, or anger restricts breathing; the conscious use of breath can be an invaluable tool in learning to express emotions appropriately.

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