Can learning to breathe properly cure your anxiety?
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I did promise this newsletter wouldn’t be about cancer. Who wants to read about cancer all the time? Not me, and I’m cancer’s target audience.
But I wanted to explain why I’ve been feeling so anxious lately, and why I’ve veered from manifesting and mushrooms to anti-anxiety tips.
Do you like stats? I do usually, but here are some I didn’t love to hear.
If you’ve had successful treatment for triple negative breast cancer, there’s a 40% chance it’ll be back within 2-5 years. The doctor said, because mine was grade 3 (the fastest-growing type), and there were two separate tumours, and it had spread to the lymph nodes and, even after 20 weeks of chemo, the post-surgery pathology report showed evidence of cancer in my breast and lymph nodes… sheesh. Those odds have gone from 40/60 to probably about 60/40 in cancer’s favour.
I had eight cycles of Capecitabine as adjuvant chemotherapy, which has been shown to reduce the risk of recurrence. Maybe that brings it back down to the original 40/60? Which seems less bad now. As Seth Rogan says in the movie 50/50, “If you were a casino game, you got the best odds.”
I know there is every chance the cancer won’t come back, so I have to try and forget about it and get on with my life. But try telling that to my 4am brain, which is convinced that every random ache and pain in my body is a sign of recurrence.
Last week I wrote about how regulating your breath can soothe your nervous system, and breathwork is also said to improve cellular renewal and lymphatic flow. But - and I can’t be alone in this so please tell me if you feel the same - any time I focus on my breath, I seem to totally forget how to breathe and become actually quite breathless.
‘That is very normal,’ assures Stuart Sandeman, host of BBC Radio 1’s Decompression Session and author of Breathe In, Breathe Out. ‘Often when I ask people to close their eyes and be aware of their breath, not trying to change it in any way, they panic, like: argh, how am I breathing right now?!’
Why does this happen? ‘Because you've brought awareness to it, which brings us to a space that we don't often connect to with a busy mind. It can feel almost claustrophobic.’ Yes! Claustrophobic is exactly how I feel. Slowing your breathing can trigger an anxious brain to panic that you’re not breathing enough. So, as I’m trying to do a relaxing slow out-breath, my brain is screaming: take a freakin’ breath in!
‘Take baby steps,’ advises Stuart. ‘Go into it slowly, reminding yourself that you can take a breath at any point. That should override that feeling.’
Your brain is not being a dick. It’s simply doing its job of trying to keep us alive. ‘If it senses any threat, either externally in our environment or internally through our thoughts, it will trigger faster breathing and shorter, shallow breaths into our chest,’ says Stuart. The trouble is, we can get stuck in this fast breathing pattern, which in turn rings the alarm bell to the brain, like a loop of stress. So it’s about persevering with slow, deep breaths, while reminding your brain that - here and now - you are safe.
Stuart’s advice for that spiralling 4am anxiety, or the general sense of overwhelm with which we’re all familiar, is a technique called Recognise, Breathe, Reframe. ‘Try to objectively look at a situation, with a bird's eye view, and acknowledge how you're feeling,’ he says. ‘It’s really important not to sweep it under the carpet because we just end up trapping it and holding on to it.’
So think about how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way, then breathe in deeply to your belly and make a humming sound for as long as you can while breathing out. Do that for 90 seconds, then reframe your thoughts. In my case, that would mean reminding myself there is a greater chance that the cancer won’t come back, and I’m doing all I can to reduce my risk. After taking the time to breathe it out, other ideas might come to you. In my case it might be: I need to find more ways to relax my body, which calms my mind, maybe I’ll go to yoga tomorrow.
‘If you can navigate through it in a way that doesn’t create tension,’ he says, ‘then the dark times actually made the lighter times shine brighter.’
So, from now on, I’ll be sticking to Stuart’s motto: ‘If in doubt, breathe it out.’
This week I’m…
On a comedown from the dreamiest glamping weekend at Featherdown Farm, during which I had zero 4am panic (is being outdoors the answer??)
Buying Stuart Sandeman’s book, Breathe In, Breathe Out
Excited to see Jordan Peele’s under-wraps new film, Nope
Encouraging my kids to learn about their bodies with Kay's Marvellous Medicine: A Gross and Gruesome History of the Human Body