You’ve just found out that you’re sick. You’re uncertain, you’re scared, and you’re sad. When anyone asks, and you tell them of your feelings, they shrug their shoulders and tell you to “take a deep breath.”
Easily enough said, but the cause of your anxiety is pulmonary hypertension. The prospect of not being able to take a deep breath is making you uncertain, scared, and sad. What to do? Maybe you should just focus on breathing.
Your body has two distinct “voices”. Both of them generally talk to you all of the time, and you respond to both. Like the devil on your shoulder, they’re constantly in your ear. The good news is that you can turn one of them off. It is, unfortunately, not the right one. The trick is to teach your two voices to speak to one another.
Your first voice is internal. This is the one that says, “Feed me. I’m hungry.” The second is the one that says, “Ohhhhhh, pretty.” This one is external and you can turn it off. The problem arises when your internal voice is reacting to stimulus, like illness, and the pretty flower isn’t doing it for you. “I know it’s pretty but I feel awful. Leave me alone!”
Norman Farb of the University of Toronto suggests that we have an ability to make the two voices talk to each other and calm ourselves down. He points to “interoceptive awareness”, or coordinating the competing arguments of our stimuli. Being more aware of the physiological condition of the body might help with controlling, or at least dealing with, subjective and emotional feelings. Instead of rationalizing (I’m cranky because I’m sick) or reaching for a glass of wine, focus on your breathing and try to understand what your body is telling you.
In the vicious circle of health and illness, the stress of being sick can raise one’s anxiety, which can reduce the body’s immune system, which can promote the development and progression of disease, which leads to stress, which makes you…
You get the picture.
When your body experiences stress it produces cortisol. This is a hormone that increases blood sugars and causes inflammation. It also suppresses the immune system. A study at Carnegie Mellon University showed that the inflammation and immune issues related to stress and cortisol aggravated things like the common cold, asthma, and cardiovascular diseases.
Sound familiar, PH people? This study is talking to you. Perhaps you’ve fallen for the all-or-nothing trap? You used to be able to do it all. You used to be healthy all of the time. You used to have complete control.
When you’re a baby you can drink and breathe at the same time, like a human-snorkel. When you’re about three months old, you lose the ability as your larynx travels south in your throat and you start to develop your speech muscles. Perhaps growing up robs us of more than the ability to slurp like a giraffe?
When you were a child, you laughed, a lot. You never tired of the Peek-a-Boo game, and simple things made you spit milk from your nose (not related to the snorkel-trait). We played more, and expected less. We frequently broke out in song (with no discernable reason or sense of key), and didn’t worry.
The key to “taking a deep breath” may be in looking back to our childhood. A great exercise for controlling breathing is to hum, chant, or even sing a song. You might be able to get things back in rhythm. You might be able to harmonize your voices that are competing for attention. You might forget whatever it was that got you worked up in the first place. The right song selection may induce healthy laughter, in yourself or those around you.
If that doesn’t work, try making a mud pie.