Keep Breathing

BreathingWelcome to my blog!  I’m David Prybock, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh.  My intention with this blog is to share with you my thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding therapy and psychological issues with the hope of assisting you in your journey.

I will admit, this is my first foray into blogging, or engaging in any social media for that matter.  I don’t Facebook or Twitter, I never have.  I’m not even really sure what Pinterest is.  But despite being a novice, I get excited at the prospect of blogging:  “This will be fun,” I tell myself.  “I will have a venue in which I can more fully share my thoughts and feelings!”  But then other thoughts start to swirl in my head: “Will I do this right?  Will my entries have their intended effect?”  I suddenly find myself moving from an infectious, positive energy to feeling a pit in my stomach.  And then I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Gestalt psychologist, Fritz Perls:

Fear is excitement without the breath.

I check in with myself.  My chest feels tight and constricted.  My breath is shallow.  Sure enough, I’m not breathing.  And with that, I feel a bit anxious.

Physiologically speaking, what you experience when you are excited and when you are afraid are almost identical.  You may have an increased heart rate, perhaps some jitteriness, you may start to sweat.  One major difference stands out, however, when you experience fear, just as Perls points out in his pithy but profound quote: you stop breathing.  And when you stop breathing, a lot can happen.  For starters, you are in a state of physical deprivation when not breathing, leading you to experience increased unpleasant physiological arousal.  You may get irritable or fatigued, you may even panic.  You likely feel fear.

Try this mini-experiment.  Hold your breath for 15-20 seconds.  What do you notice?  My guess is you may feel tension in your body, some tightness in your chest, perhaps some prickly sensations.  Feels a lot like anxiety, right?  Now breathe and see what you notice.  You may notice a sense of relief, the feeling of sensation returning to your body, and a loosening throughout your core.  You may even feel some energy and excitement.

When I think of the difference between fear and excitement, I think of riding a roller coaster at Kennywood.  I imagine the clicking of the train on the track as the coaster is pulled up the first incline, an excruciatingly slow ride into the stratosphere, your head pushed back against the seat and you only being able to see sky in front of you.  You hold your breath in silent anticipation.  And then there’s that moment…the clicking stops and you know that you’ve arrived at the apex.  Your palms sweat, you may even hear your heartbeat.  You’re not breathing at all now.  You have a moment of fear.  And as the train begins its descent, what do you do?  You scream!  Or, another way of looking at it, you resume breathing.  And that’s when the fun begins.  The fear turns into excitement as you experience the adrenaline rush of plummeting 80 miles per hour towards the ground.  Unless, of course, you continue to hold your breath, in which case you may have a much different experience of that descent.

Breathing makes a big difference in our experience of ourselves, others, and the world.

In addition to the physical changes you experience, another phenomenon often happens when you stop breathing.  You often lose awareness of yourself and your body.  And without awareness, all bets are off.  Losing awareness is a fast track to reverting to those old, familiar patterns and habits that you often work so mindfully to break, because without awareness, you can’t be mindful and choiceful to do something different.  When we are unaware, that is when we fall off our diet and eat all the potato chips without realizing it until we feel the bottom of the bag.  It’s when we stop managing our anger and fly off the handle, snapping at our loved ones.  And it’s when we start to tell ourselves those old, negative messages that are so detrimental to our mental health and well-being.

Breathing is essential, because without it, we lose awareness, and without awareness, we cannot choose to do something different.

So as I write my first blog entry, I check in.  I am breathing.  And I become more aware of myself.  With each inhale and exhale, my anxiety begins to dissipate, I get out of my head and away from the self-doubt that is there, and I begin to feel excited.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Keep breathing.

David Prybock PhotoDavid Prybock, Ph.D. is a therapist in Pittsburgh.  He conducts individual therapy with adults, providing treatment for anxiety, depression, trauma-related issues, eating issues, and addiction, among other issues.