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Five Breaths



Today’s blog is brought to you by the number 2, and the letters S, L, G, B, T, Q, I and A. Oh, and a few other letters and numbers that we know too well, the ones in COVID-19.
We are all tired of the letters and numbers in COVID-19, so let’s talk about them last.
Mark Tewksbury, Olympian and 2SLGBTQA+ advocate, has a great explanation of the initials in this acronym. Listen to why he puts 2S at the beginning. Hint: as well as Pride Month, it is also Indigenous History Month. Please check it out:
Back over to a topic related to our least favourite combination of letters and numbers. We all know that the COVID virus affects respiration, so I want to talk about breathing—just maybe not in the way we generally think that the two go together.
Most of us take breathing for granted. It just happens while we are busy doing other things, and we hope to keep on breathing as long as possible.
But life is stressful, and effective breathing can be one of the best life hacks around when we start feeling stress.
I was reminded of this during our Mindfulness session on Tuesday. Our leader used “five breaths”, in and out, as a theme through our fifteen-minute session. All we had to do was breathe in and out deeply five times, and then we moved to a different activity. Then our leader would say “five breaths” again, and we would return to our five deep breaths, in and out. By the end of the session, I felt calm, and grounded.
We wouldn’t need breathing exercises, and mindfulness, if practicing law was easy or stress-free. But practicing law isn’t easy, and stress is rampant, so let’s breathe. In and out. In and out. In and out. In and out. And in and out. Five times.
When we focus on our breathing, we connect to our core being, and we displace the thoughts that are running through our heads. Some of those thoughts are frantic—we are thinking about all of the things we have to do—and some are anxious—we are worried about all of the things that may go wrong. Deep breathing doesn’t simplify our To Do lists and it doesn’t fix the imperfections in our work that we are worrying about. But it does help us to step back from our emotional reactions and to then approach what we have to do more objectively and calmly.
Breathe in and out.
When I was a child, my grandparents had a collection of Readers’ Digest books, which included compilations of humour sections like “Life’s Like That” and “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” I spent many hours with those books, being too young to be interested in adult conversation.
One of the stories that stuck with me was about a kindergarten teacher who had to help all of the children get their winter gear on at the end of the day. As she finished tugging boots on to the last five year old, the child looked at her and said, “these aren’t my boots.” She took a deep breath—in and out at least once if not five times—and removed the boots from his feet. He then said, “They’re my sister’s, but my mom says I have to wear them because mine don’t fit anymore”
I don’t know why the image of that tired and frustrated teacher resonated with me but it must have, since I remember that story so vividly. Perhaps I thought it was funny that the teacher had assumed something entirely different from what the child was saying. But I distinctly remember the teacher in the story pausing to take a deep breath before taking the boot off, and I often think of it when I am about to do something unpleasant and exhausting.
Breathe in and out.
As a parent, you learn the power of taking time to breathe. I had one child who was prone to getting angry with his (younger) brother. His preschooler way of dealing with this anger was to hit his brother—not unusual in my experience. I taught him a variation on five breaths. It was called counting to ten. When his brother did something that bothered him, he learned to stop and count to ten out loud. And about half the time he would get to ten and say, “I still want to hit him”, and I would tell him to count to ten again.
I don’t think he ever had to count to ten more than three or four times and eventually he either stopped counting out loud, or he stopped wanting to hit his brother. They are great friends now.
Breathe in and out.
According to research, jobs with low decision-latitude (control) and high job demands are the most stressful. Traditionally, the workers associated with this phenomena were nurses and secretaries, but junior lawyers have been added to this list ( It is difficult to moderate your stress when you have little control over how you do your work when negative outcomes can be serious
And people who hold jobs with low decision latitude and high demands often experience health conditions, including depression, exhaustion and cardiovascular illness.
I suspect that being a kindergarten teacher is probably up there as well.
Mindfulness and breathing exercises are not going to increase your decision latitude or reduce the stress in your job, but they can mitigate how you respond, whether you remain in the stressor-apprehension fight or flight response or whether you can readily to return to your pre-stressor heart rate and blood pressure.
Breathe in and out.
Is anyone else dreading their COVID vaccine? I wasn’t worried at all about my first dose. I get a flu shot every year, and I got a tetanus shot in February (long story, of course, that resulted in my learning that I hadn’t had a tetanus booster since 1991) and, while I have been known to faint when blood is being drawn, I am not really freaked out by injections. I mean, not really.
But it wasn’t the injection that had me fretting. It was the side effects. The so-called first “jab” wasn’t too bad, and the first 24 hours were fine, but then chills and aches set in. I took Tylenol, turned on a heating pad and went to bed at 8 pm. I was a lot better the next day, just tired. But I was filled with anxiety and foreboding, knowing what was likely coming, and that I was participating in doing this to myself.
My vaccination was booked for yesterday afternoon, so the clock was ticking down. I know I am not the only one who feels this way—I have had friends confide that they are afraid of the side effects. So, if you are experiencing this same sense of dread, or even fear, you are not alone. Doing something that is going to make you sick is hard.
So here is the brilliance of five breaths. When I started thinking about the vaccine and how awful I may feel in its aftermath, I did five breaths: in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out, and in and out.
I am happy to report today that so far, my worry was for not and I am doing just fine but the five breaths were effective.
I also like square breathing: breathe in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four. You have to concentrate a bit more to keep track of where you are. I visualize a square and start at the upper left corner, just like reading a book. I visualize my count of four across to the upper right corner, the count of four to the lower right corner, back to the lower left corner, and back up to the upper left. I find this helpful for banishing anxious thoughts. There isn’t a magic number of squares that you need to do—you can tell when you feel calmer.
You can also get a variety of free apps that have visual and auditory cues that help you regulate your breathing. I have one called “Breathing Ball” where you match the speed of your breaths with a ball that expands and contracts—it is free at the App Store.
We all have things that we dread in our lives. Do you remember being younger and thinking that being an adult would be great and that your life would be perfect? Please let me know when that happens. I am still waiting.
Breathe in and out.
What are you doing next Tuesday at noon?
We meet for a fifteen-minute mindfulness break each week. One of our lawyer-certified yoga instructors will lead us through visualizations and breathing exercises. You don’t have to have ever done mindfulness before; the only pre-requisite is that you are breathing and are willing to try.
If you are encountering stress in your life, consider investing fifteen minutes to refresh yourself each week and learn a new strategy.
Email Eileen for the link
Stay well and keep breathing.