This post was originally posted under the wrong author name and has been reposted and corrected!
The energy in the room felt combustible. Between Margaret’s intractable pain and her daughter’s emotional turmoil, I felt in over my head and beyond my pay grade. It was my first year as a hospice social worker and it wouldn’t be the last time I silently wished I had an RN license. Instinctively, trying to stay calm and think clearly, I took a few deep breaths. And without saying a word, her daughter looked at me and did the same. Almost immediately, something shifted in the room. We took another deep breath together and then another. Eventually, Margaret’s rapid breathing slowed down too, and she seemed just slightly more comfortable as we waited for the nurse to arrive. It was in that moment that I first realized the transformative power of a few deep breaths.
Years later, as an emergency room social worker, my slow, steady breaths and calm voice were often the only tools I had to keep volatile situations from escalating into six o’clock news stories. Like the young, agitated psychiatric patient who needed an x-ray or the woman whose dislocated shoulder had to be manually reduced without pain meds, we would count our breaths together and get through one moment at a time, until the worst of it had passed. When I worked with sandwich-generation dementia caregivers, they laughed at the notion of fitting self-care into their 36-hour day—sometimes, all I could ask them to do was to just try and breathe deeply more often. Studies show that by practicing mindful breathing techniques for even ten minutes a day, our body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol decreases enough to show measurable benefits to both physical and emotional well-being.
Even as I watched these strategies bring powerful results for my clients, it would be many years before I took my first yoga class and even longer before I started integrating mindfulness into my own daily life. After all, I was much too busy working and taking care of everyone else. But from that first hospice patient to now, I am confident that I benefit as much as my clients do from each deep breath we take together. But after many months of unexplainable joint pain, coupled with insomnia and some pretty significant mood struggles, I finally had no choice but to follow my own strict advice. “The number one rule of caregiving is: Take Care of Yourself First.” Forget about my clients! I needed to get my own cortisol levels under control.
A year later, I am healthier and happier than I have ever been—and the sacred time I spend at One Tree Yoga or at home practicing mindful breathing continues to be the most important and transformative aspect of all my self-care strategies. Mindfulness gave me the presence of mind and strength of spirit to consistently take care of myself for the first time in (almost) 40 years. And these habits are changing my life in ways I could never have imagined. In fact, I’ve started leaving the last line blank whenever I list out all the benefits of mindfulness, stress management and deep breathing for my clients and students. Why? Because beyond improved cognition, decreased depression, boosted immunity and numerous other measurable health benefits, I am convinced we have no idea what is possible—until we learn to prioritize self-care, be present in our own lives and harness the power of our own breath.
Ready to get started? The first breathing technique I often share with clients is called Tactical Breathing (see image below). It was given this name because they use it in military training to help soldiers think clearly and make good decisions in stressful situations. So if it can help soldiers at war, chances are it can get me through my evening homework and dinner routine with three kids, right? What time of day could you use a mini-session of radical self-care?