I am standing in the kitchen, in front of the toaster and the kettle, waiting for the toast to pop, when I realise I’m barely breathing. It’s a cold morning, and I can feel the cool floorboards through my thin socks and the colder-still granite bench top under my restless finger pads. My breath is shallow and quick and maybe even a little bit painful.
I start to count to four as I inhale, and again to four as I exhale — a familiar exercise and one I run yoga students through at the beginning of every class I teach. It helps, slowly. My breath begins to slow down, to feel calmer, even though I’m still aware of the tightness in the muscles between my ribs and in my belly.
This is a very distinct memory, although I’m sure it’s actually cobbled together from a number of different occasions where I’ve been dealing with some sort of anxiety and noticed it in my breathing. I know it’s happened often, because I remember so many different sets of small details. I remember exactly this situation, but with bare feet on a tiled floor, for example, and with shod feet wandering through a park. I breathe this way, and have to struggle to calm my breath, when I have deadlines looming or angsty life events.
To me, how someone breathes is one of the most intimate things you can know about a person. There are three reasons I think this: you have to be quite close to someone to notice how they’re breathing; breathing is quite literally the first and most enduring way in which we draw the outside world into ourselves; and I know enough about the anatomy, physiology and psychology of breathing to see how it’s useful as an indicator of how well someone is coping with their emotions.
I struggle, really struggle, at times, to deal with writing. For me, writing is first and foremost a way of processing the world, and this is certainly not always a fun and joyous experience.
For example, I once spent about two hours crying because of some research I was doing for a piece of fiction I was writing. I was reading news stories about people I had once known a little in real life because one of the most desperate events of their lives had made the news and it was similar to events in the lives of some of my fictional characters. I hadn’t cried that hard and long in years. It was awful, exhausting.
I’ve also begun many a piece of writing because of something I’ve been angry about and barely been able to hold a pen, let alone write words on a page, because I’m so fuming.
It’s at times like these that I also have trouble sleeping. Or breathing.
And then when I step beyond that point of processing or understanding for myself, to attempting to share that understanding with someone, or many someones, there are all sorts of other emotional hurdles that need to be faced. I know I’m not the only writer who faces these. This post by Angela Meyer details so wonderfully (or is it horribly?) exactly the kind of obstacles I mean. For me, and I imagine for others, these things are really just the one, in different guises: Am I any good at this? No, no, I’m not, and this other person is going to tell me that.
These are, of course, the very same troubles that all human beings deal with, in one way or another. How do I make sense of the world? And do other people take me seriously? But that they are the problems of life do not make them any less a problem for writers. After all, as this post kindly reminds me, how I spend my days is how I spend my life; if you spend your days (or spare ones, anyway) writing, then the boundary between writing and life is awfully blurry.
“Writing isn’t like breathing,” writes Kate Holden in this Southerly blog post. “Writing is a choice and every choice is work.”
I agree with her for the most part, in that writing doesn’t just happen. One has to work at it. Holden is talking about exactly the kind of ‘dealing with writing’ that I struggle with. It’s also not entirely necessary to life, in the way that breathing is. Holden also quite rightly points out that being able to write is a privilege.
But the thing is that breathing doesn’t always just happen either — at least not in the most ideal way. There’s lots that can go awry with breathing. It’s an extraordinarily complex process, for something that’s so intrinsic to life, and the emotional stuff of life (and writing) can change any part of that process, temporarily or longer-term. Taking breathing for granted is something I think we do to our own detriment — as people, not just writers — because it is hugely powerful as both an indicator of distress and a balm for that distress.
The basic anatomical and physiological breathing process is, ideally, this:
On the inhale, the diaphragm, which is a large muscle that sits just under the lungs toward the bottom of the rib cage, contracts and flattens, drawing down into the stomach and pushing the internal organs out of the way (which is why the belly should expand when you inhale). At the same time, the muscles between the ribs (the intercostals) draw the ribs out, expanding the internal chest area inside the lungs. This essentially creates a vacuum, which draws air in through the nose or mouth. The air makes its way into the lungs and into the alveoli, which are tiny sacs that connect the lungs to the bloodstream. There, oxygenated air from outside the body meets with blood that is low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide, and the two gasses are exchanged.
On the exhale, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax, which collapses the lungs, forcing the now high-in-carbon-dioxide air back out of the body. The oxygenated blood is carried to the heart, which then pumps it out to the rest of the body.
This is, of course, massively over-simplifying the process. The way we breathe, and the rate at which we do it, is influenced by (and in turn influences) a vast array of things, including carbon dioxide levels in the blood, motor control, posture, and physiological and psychological state.
Anxiety, of the kind that seems to both initiate and interrupt my writing, is one of the potential causes of dysfunctional breathing. But feeling anxious can also come about because of dysfunctional breath, even if it wasn’t anxiety that created the unhelpful breathing pattern in the first place.
In the last few years, breathing has become for me a much more conscious act, at least some of the time. Every morning, I roll reluctantly out of bed and stand in the middle of my bedroom floor, just to breathe. Sometimes I’ll find a nice rhythm and move through some yoga poses, sometimes I’ll just stand there. Or lie on the floor instead. Some days I’ve left myself enough time before my day starts for half an hour or more of this, other days just five minutes. There are days when my breath is easy and calm, but many more where it’s either laboured in some way, or gets stuck in the consistently tight muscles between and just below my shoulder blades, or somewhere in my belly. Often, as I breathe, my spine will creak and crack as the vertebrae are forced to move, hopefully back into the right place, by my expanding lungs. I count to four as I inhale, and then again to four as I exhale. I breathe exclusively through my nose, if I can, which helps to slow the breath down. How easily my breath follows that rhythm, and how easy it is for me to avoid mouth breathing, tells me an awful lot about my state of mind at that moment, although it doesn’t necessarily answer the eternal question: why?
When I remember, I repeat this exercise multiple times a day. Especially when I’m writing.
The influence of the breath on the psychological state, and the reverse is, as you would probably expect, complicated. But there’s little doubt that there’s a dialogue between the two. Hyperventilation, or ‘over breathing’ (which is what typically happens with chronic mouth breathing, and when we breath too deeply) messes with the body’s biochemical balance. Usually, this leads to a lack of carbon dioxide in the body, which puts it into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It’s also a response to the ‘fight or flight mode’. (Cause and effect switch places a lot in bodily functions.)
Stress, anxiety, anger — all these ‘high energy’ emotional states are part of and signs of that defensive operating mode in the body. Which is fine in small doses. Helpful, even.
But it can become a vicious cycle. Always operating in this mode — that is, being chronically stressed or anxious — is definitely not helpful, and can have some fairly serious consequences for both physical and mental wellbeing.
The body and brain need to operate, for the most part, in a more restful state because it is in this state that very basic functions like digestion and tissue regeneration occur. Rest, in fact, uses just as much energy (mental and physical) as activity — it just uses it for different things. To be chronically anxious or stressed means that all the background work needed to keep the body healthy and functioning doesn’t happen. Our brains need this time too, to process our experiences, to reflect and recognise patterns. We need rest to make sense of the world, in other words.
Happily, in the same way that hyperventilating can push the body into ‘fight or flight’ mode, breathing slowly and steadily can encourage it to move back into its resting state, alleviating anxiety and stress at the same time. Count to four as you inhale, and again to four as you exhale.
Let me return for a moment to those two life/writing questions: How do I make sense of the world? And do other people take me seriously?
For me, those two questions and the emotional landscape of writing are really about self-respect and empathy, and the interplay between the two. Anxiety surrounding writing is almost always for me an indication that my ability to empathise or my self-respect (or both) is faltering in some way or needs some attention; and breathing, more than anything else, is an indicator of my anxiety levels.
This is where things become really difficult for me in writing this piece. This is almost too close for me, too intimate, this attempt to write in clear terms about the buttons that are pressed for me when I write about other things. In fact, I’d probably be more comfortable having someone put their hands on my ribs to feel me breathe. To write about empathy and self-respect seems both overly earnest and lacking humility, but perhaps that feeling is just me wanting to avoid something that’s uncomfortable and makes me feel vulnerable.
Mel Hunt, a yoga teacher from Durham, wrote recently about a hypothesis she has come up with — that “there is no self-worth without being present”. When she is able to be present in a moment, or moments, she says she is no longer evaluating herself, only experiencing. “Worth is innate in these moments,” she writes, “but also irrelevant.” And this, perhaps, is what learning how to breathe — namely, how to slow my breath down — has helped me with. In those morning moments, when I’m standing in the lamplight in my bedroom, still in my pyjamas, just watching my breath, I am, for the most part, able to step back from identifying with the emotional landscape of my life. It works too for dealing with the emotions that come with writing. Watching my breath makes everything an observation exercise. It’s not that I don’t feel things when I manage to step back like this, it’s just that I have more perspective. And this, more than anything else, is what helps me eventually do something with and move beyond the distress of the detail.
I recently rediscovered this (PDF) wonderful essay by Joan Didion on self-respect, and it perfectly captures for me the importance of finding that kind of perspective.
“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough,” Didion writes. Self-respect is learned, developed, she says. And, importantly, self-respect is required for genuine empathy. “To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference,” Didion writes. “If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notions of us.”
A faltering self-respect and anxiety, for me, are inextricably linked. And without self-respect, it’s hard to empathise with others.
Importantly though, I don’t believe that anxiety is inherently a bad thing — and I don’t want to rid myself of it completely. Anxiety, like anger, is something that motivates me to do things. It indicates to me that there’s something going on that I probably need to address. There’s a balance there, of course, because anxiety and all the other ‘negative’ emotions can also be debilitating in ways that are unhelpful for my writing but also more generally in life.
For me, this is where watching my breathing on a regular basis comes in. Often I notice anxiety in particular in my body before I’m aware mentally that I’m feeling it. The breathing, perhaps more than anything else I do to my body, is a way of checking in with myself. If my breath is catching somewhere, there’s some kind of stress there. Whether it comes from anxiety or something else (and remembering that dysfunctional breathing can have other environmental and physical causes, and can actually create anxiety where there is no other reason for it to be there), this is often an early warning sign for me. If I’m lucky, I can use the slowing of my breathing to head it off, to address it before it holds me back.
Sophie writes essays — usually about food, environment, health and wellbeing — and occasionally short fiction. She’s also a yoga teacher. Sophie’s been published in a variety of literary journals, including the EWF’s annual publication, The Emerging Writer, and she blogs at sophielangley.com. She’s currently working on a collection of essays about food culture.