***Trigger warning: Discussions of claustrophobia and childhood trauma
Ugh. What does that even mean? Do I breathe through my mouth and exhale through my nose? Do I hold my breath at the top for three seconds then blow out with pursed lips? Do I find as many memes as I can, laugh as hard as I can until I roll over and trust there was enough oxygen in…and…out…in…and…out.
Last week, I had to get a root canal. I went through the normal procedures of my exam, checking to see what was covered under my insurance, and understanding recovery time. I missed one small piece of the process. I did not know they would be placing a brace in my mouth to keep my teeth from closing as well as a dental dam that isolates the tooth needing work. I will soon have two sets of hands hovering over my restricted mouth and face where I am only able to breathe through my nose. One small problem: I am claustrophobic. I would have never made the connection to how this could be problematic.
I arrived a few minutes early. With most Colorado mornings I had a dry cough. I drank as much water as I could to sooth my throat and met the hygienist at the chair. We went through all the details, and in came the dentist.
They went right to work. They got me comfortable in the chair, and began with the brace, then the dental dam. I had an awful post-nasal drip (because Colorado), and could not swallow.
About ten minutes into the procedure, I began have pangs of anxiety. Having a dry throat, and not being able to swallow, while your nose starts to get stuffed up is a provoking experience. There were hands at my face and I felt the familiar panic kick in.
As you know, when anxiety comes up, it tends to flood our mind and body where logical thinking is difficult to access. I laid there while my face became more flushed, my heart rate increased, and the other two people in the room remained unaware of what I was experiencing.
I hit my breaking point and through a widened mouth asked “Please sit me up.” I was not sure if I needed to blow my nose, or run home, but as soon as I sat up, I yanked the brace out of my mouth to catch my breath. They replied quickly for me not to touch the dental dam. I felt the shame that comes from feeling like you are too much for what is meant to be a simple situation.
I was able to tell them how anxious I felt, and while I felt their irritation with me sitting forward, I knew I had to lay back down to finish.
I simply said “Give me a moment please. I need to catch my breath.”
When I laid back down I began doing the deep breaths in through the nose and carefully exhaled with my body sounding like a chamber. I noticed a sense of release with the breaths, and knew I needed more.
Again, another breath. Again, another exhale where this chamber feels strong, loud and purposeful. I fell into a flow and with that flow, found moments to reflect.
I coach people on a daily basis how to work through their memories. I teach them how to understand their bodies response so they can feel connected to their pain and know when it is an old trigger, signaling threat.
Without sharing the depths of my childhood that would require too much of an ache today, there is a reason I am claustrophobic. There is a reason I am uncomfortable laying still where someone else has power over my body, my vulnerability.
This was a challenge to use the breath to do the work I teach people everyday. It was a moment to tell that young boy, and my body “What you think is happening, is not happening. Thank you for the signals you sent my way. I am amazed at what you remember, and I want you to experience this breath I am offering you.”
Deep inhale in through the nose. Exhale through this loud and powerful chest that is connecting to old memories.
This process went on for several minutes. There was one moment where some panic started to rise again, and I realized I had stopped breathing. I picked back up, and my body felt cradled by my willingness to listen, keep breathing and address its interpretation of events.
Several minutes into this breathing my body felt like it was floating. I felt light hands, light feet, and I knew they were still working away on my mouth, but I also knew that what my body had previously warned me about was settled. I was grounded and in tune, trusting this professional who has a job to do, and allowing that job to get done while I honor my body and its memories.
I am amazed at how much this can happen in a day. We walk through jobs, friendships, news, social media getting these pangs of anxiety because a part of us is reminding us of what they know and experiencing something in our world in a similar way. This part of us is not trying to create chaos. They are looking for relief and peace.
I am not an expert on which part of the nervous system is activated by breathing, but I am an expert on my history. And on that particular day, the rare combination of common events, felt much bigger than what my body was prepared for.
If we can begin to show more respect to the stories that live inside of us, we can also begin to find relief from them. Many of those stories, are represented through anxiety because of how little help we got when we needed it most.
In whatever way you feel safe and honoring your story, breathe deep into understanding, compassion, care, and respect to the parts of you who often have a hard time adapting.
The harsh self judgment has never worked. The shame has never prompted further growth. The comparing myself to others has not helped me heal. The compassion and curiosity has always been a gift.
I have a new memory now. When I feel cornered, afraid or aware of something that reminds me of those stories from my childhood, I can rely on that day in the dentist’s office, when I turned my anxiety into euphoria and I will tell that young boy it was all for him.