(Photo by Selma Komisky)
Just Keep Breathing; Ride the Wave
By Jehn Kubiak
“Just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’/ And oh I gotta keep, keep on breathin’….”
These are some simple words that a beloved R&B singer, Ariana Grande, wrote to articulate her struggles anxiety, and I can definitely relate after enduring a battle with PTSD for almost two years. I’ve come quite a long way and now describe myself at “98% normal,” but those “2% days” can be rough. Generally, I can get through them, but I had a day last week that was quite the struggle. A series of stressful life events flooded my world for four days––all involving major mess-ups on my part––which triggered my PTSD and tested my self-patience because I was so frustrated and angry with “being a ditz.”
Those of you who don’t know my story are probably wondering what being a ditz has to do with anything, especially PTSD. Here’s some context.
I faced verbal bullying at a job I had two years ago––one that I initially enjoyed and ended up loathing just six weeks later. This was a period of time where I stepped into a place of self-confidence, and I believe that shook some of the leadership because they started picking on the littlest of things I did wrong––things that my 14 other teammates didn’t receive any comments on. Later, this turned into me getting pulled aside almost every day and hearing about every single mistake I made.
After the second week of this, I stumbled into a place of self-hatred and emotional exhaustion. No longer did I enjoy going to work. Instead, I was literally so afraid of making mistakes that I started having fits of nausea, many sleepless nights, and made even more mistakes. Eventually, I cried in front of a supervisor two different times because I was so terrified of that person. But instead of encouraging me, they told me that my tears were “not necessary” and that I had to “get over this fear of disappointing other people.”
I eventually switched departments, but as you can imagine, transitioning into different jobs after I finished out this seasonal position was rough. I’ll admit, a lot of things didn’t go well over the next eight months because I became an obsessive perfectionist, but I became a much better person for the entire next year after that. Much of this was thanks to what I learned in my intermediate-advanced counseling courses for my MA in Christian Counseling. In these classes, we learned a lot about self-care techniques, including breathing.
Since I’m stubborn, I was very reluctant to try something so “mindless.” You mean all these icky feelings can just go away by doing something completely normal? The funny thing is that I’d tell my counselees during supervision sessions to do exactly that. For some reason, I felt like I was an exception; my feelings were too complex for something so simple. But eventually, I realized the simplicity of it is what actually worked. Why?
Focusing on your breathing literally can shut down any chaos in your mind due to what happens physiologically. Breathing increases the flow of oxygen to the brain and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate. Ergo, it literally reverses that flight-or-fight response and helps take the focus off negative thought spirals.
The problem is getting there.
If you’re so focused on things going wrong all the time and can’t calm down enough to just breathe, then the cycle repeats. This is the trap that I found myself in often during my initial onset of PTSD. However, I escaped this by remembering a concept called “ride the wave” that one of my professors introduced––a metaphor that helps people understand how to navigate heavy emotions.
Just like how a tall ocean wave can send someone tumbling, a hefty emotional wave can send a person spiraling until they can’t find the light of day. In both the literal and figurative sense, the wave eventually settles, and a person can find their way to shore. All that said, sometimes the emotions will linger a bit, and I have to remind myself of this when I stop and breathe. Otherwise, I stay in a state of frenzy.
Back to the present. When I had an episode not too long ago, I got to a place where I couldn’t calm down. I did my usual stress-relieving things, but I still felt a heavy surge of adrenaline that just wouldn’t go away. I kept wondering if I’d ever be “smart enough” to stop making “dumb mistakes.”
The lightbulb moment happened the next morning. I couldn’t calm down because I kept punishing myself for feeling all these things that I thought I was over with: inadequacy, ditziness, incompetence, and the like. And although none of these mistakes happened in a work environment this time, those same feelings came back due to the “string of mistakes.” But I went to work the next morning and realized something: so many people have said “thank you” to me lately for the ways I help out; my excellent work ethic; my ability to encourage my coworkers, and much more.
I decided then to just breathe and not expect to make even more mistakes for the rest of that week. Most people like breathing in-and-out on counts (much like I do as a musician), but I like replacing numbers with affirmations: “You’re (in)––strong (out),” or “You’re(in)––confident(out).” That way, I can calm myself down both physically and psychologically.
Perhaps you’re enduring a tough time––and who isn’t with all this Coronavirus chaos? Things seem dire at the moment, and you may have had a moment like mine where it seems like there isn’t any hope on the horizon. Even so, I encourage you to slow down and breathe. Of course, getting to that point is tough. If you need a reminder, throw on Ariana Grande’s song. Things may not get better right away, but breathing can at least help you make it through the day.
To find out more about Jehn and to pick up her newest book release visit the direct link here.