Breathing is part of the language of coping with difficult circumstances. We tell ourselves, and each other,
“Remember to breathe.” (Don’t hold your breath.)
“Breathe though it.” (Tolerate the pain.)
“Breathe into it.” (What we resist, persists.)
“Just breathe.” (Be here now.)
Those are not platitudes. They remind us of the useful tool we always carry. As long as we have breath, we have some power and control over our experience.
This article will introduce you to some very simple but powerful concepts. For maximum impact, try reading it extra slowly.
Anchoring in Calm
You didn’t choose to disconnect from your adult child(ren). That decision has been made for you.
Now you have a choice of what to do with the feelings evoked by estrangement. What do you do if you feel rejected, abandoned, betrayed, unloved, misunderstood, lonely, etc.?
How to respond well to our own emotions is the topic of my first book, Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them.
It may take time and support to work through painful, ongoing feelings. But controlled breathing offers both short- and long-term benefits to support our well-being in challenging times.
Notice your breathing right now. What’s it like?
Is it shallow or deep? Rapid or slow?
Where do you feel your breath — mostly in your nostrils, mostly in your chest, in your throat, or somewhere else?
Can you make your exhale a little longer than your inhale?
As you exhale, can you release a tiny bit of tension from your body?
Try three breaths with a longer exhale, combined with a slight relaxation in your body. Count each breath going in and out: One, one… Two, two… Three, three.
If you do this regularly, practicing longer over time, you may find you can breathe more slowly, taking fewer breaths per minute.
Our lungs, heart and brain work together in a feedback loop that affects how we feel, physically and mentally.
When we breathe in, our hearts beat a little faster and when we breathe out, they slow down. Longer exhales mean longer periods with a slowed heart rate.
Breathing slowly, longer out than in, signals safety because rapid breathing and heart rate are part of our nervous system’s response to danger.
Thus, slow breathing sends a message to the brain that says, “I’m safe.”
When we don’t feel safe, certain things are true.*
- We can’t relax
- We can’t connect with others
- We can’t connect with our higher selves
To the extent that slow breathing helps induce a sense of safety, it opens the way for connection — which is the goal for parents of estranged adult children.
Seeking to reconnect with an estranged adult child in order to feel less fearful about the relationship is understandable, but it places the cart before the horse.
It may seem as though connection will restore a sense of safety. But it’s often the other way around: Safety is needed for emotional connections to be made and maintained.
Connecting to Self and Others
Our breath is the one thing that’s with us from birth to death, without any gaps. Because it’s always there, it’s easy to take for granted.
But sometimes what we need most is right under — or in the case of breathing, inside — our noses.
When you find your mind reaching out toward your estranged adult child(ren) in a state of desperation, anger, or any kind of nervous system activation, come back to yourself and remember your breath.
Slow breathing is not a substitute for safe, predictable relationships with others. But it may be part of a precondition for connection, both with others and ourselves. Thankfully, we have the innate capacity to control our breathing for greater feelings of calm and safety, and from there, connection.
Before you finish reading this, take another very intentional breath in…and out.
You can learn more about slow breathing, and also the amazing impact of breathing through the nose instead of the mouth, in our interview with Nick Heath of the Breath Is Life Learning Center.
Reconnection Club members can sign in and access the interview in our Library.
*Based in part on the polyvagal theory of Stephen Porges, MD, popularized by Deb Dana, LCSW.
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