Breath can answer many important questions about one’s health. If we are friends with our breath, we are likely in better health mentally and physically than someone who is not. What do I mean by friends with our breath? We are aware of it. We pay attention to it. We use it to calm ourselves and generally to understand ourselves. We study our breath and in doing so, our breath brings us peace.
Understanding my breath patterns at age fifty helped me realize that I had been suffering from Post-traumatic Stress, or PTS, since my surgery at one-month-old for pyloric stenosis, a stomach obstruction. In my class at MIBE, Middendorf Institute for Breathexperience, I received the necessary support to overcome my fears and begin learning from my breath.
A little background is important here. From breath classes, I learned that there are basically three types of breath: the willed breath as in ‘take a deep breath’; the unconscious or autonomic breath—that which we do automatically without thinking; and the conscious or aware breath: the automatic breath of which you become aware. To my mind, this third type of breath most aids us in healing.
Initially in classes, I discovered that my breathing was quite shallow, but the safer I felt, the more I allowed myself to experience just how compromised it was. Why was I stopping short from allowing deeper, more full breaths? Why just below my ribcage was my breath caught? I learned that I was trying to protect my abdomen, the place where I’d been operated on over fifty years ago at twenty-six-days old.
As a baby needing surgery in 1952, I hadn’t received adequate anesthesia or pain control afterward. Babies didn’t feel pain, the medical profession believed. Doctors were also afraid anesthesia and painkillers would damage infants’ brains and nervous systems. So there I was at twenty-six days old, dealing with excruciating pain on my own.
Through manipulating my breath, I learned to reduce the pain. In the process though, my natural breath suffered. It broke, if you will. I unconsciously adopted this pattern of breathing in my day-to-day life, a shallow, terrified, incomplete, and protective breath.
If we allow ourselves to understand where our breath is blocked, we have taken a strong step on the road to healing. And when we begin to allow our breath to occupy our body more completely, we discover more freedom and better health. As we learn about and embrace our breath, we befriend it. We become more whole.
Thank you for sharing again what you have learnt about our breathing, Wendy. Three kinds of breath! And you offer us your readers your guidance and experience in interpreting our breath and gaining greater self-understanding and inner healing. You have done a lot of work, not only with Middendorf Breathwork, to understand and manage the trauma you suffered as a tiny fragile infant. It is so good that you (and I in my own way) are able to unlock this information for the benefit of anyone who needs it. As you mention, we get the occasional feedback to our blogging, confirming how necessary and valued our blogging are!
So true, dear Fred. I feel honored to share what I have learned, to experience the satisfaction of others reading my blog posts, poems and stories, and to learn of their thoughts about trauma and healing. Here’s to the power of “unlock”ing! How lucky we are that we are able to provide some service in the world, given our early trauma and consequent inner and outer explorations. Let’s keep this world turning. Breathe knowing that breath is here to support us and help us grow and heal.
Thank you, Wendy, for these two revealing posts about the impact of infant surgery trauma on one’s ability to breath throughout life. This is a connection to my infant surgery experiences I never considered to make until recently yet the connection is so physically vivid. I think I mentioned this in a previous comment, but a well meaning therapist suggested I try relaxation deep breathing exercises to combat against anxiety yet neither he nor I anticipated the potent trauma flashback this would trigger. I went into a physical state of panic when trying to relax in this way. My body literally fought me to keep from taking an intentional deep breath. I have subsequently learned in trauma therapy that this is a symptom of my failed attempts as an infant to fight off the loss of control when being prepped for surgeries and the impact of pain associated with breathing post-operatively when the pain of the incisions on my scalp were irritated every time I moved. As a self-defense strategy I tried to shallow breath so as to keep my body from moving and therefore agitating my wounds.
Forty years later when my symptoms returned the same defensive shallow, cautious breathing returned and a sense of panic confronting a conscious fear of taking a deep breath took over. Yet it never occurred to me that the interim time period was marked by a more subtle, yet insidious, inability to let my guard down enough to confidently breath.
I also know now that this is why I feared out of control, full body laughing as the breathing changes of this normal behavior triggered a flashback. Singing does the same thing.
And I know now why my father’s normal roughhousing play that included wrestling when I was little triggered panic attacks when the energy of the physical play left me out of breath. I know now that I was reliving being pinned to a surgery table and a mask placed over my face and being unable to catch my breath or prevent or stop the experience.
Thanks to your sharing here and my connection with trauma therapy informed about infant surgery trauma, I can now realize the degree to which I am unable to take confident deep breaths and I am grateful to understand the root cause and to know that I am not alone.
Hello again, Wendy. I am responding to earlier posts to this thread and to your most recent one to comment on various topics I have not seen though they have been here for quite a while. I hope there is an emerging audience here and elsewhere for this important topic and I am glad to add my two cents.
Breathing is one of the more profound discoveries of my more insidious symptoms of post traumatic stress. I have moved away from the therapist who kept promoting breathing exercises as a means to deal with anxiety because the irony was lost on him. He never understood what I came to discover: anxiety is a symptom of breathing fear! So using breathing to control anxiety is contraindicated in a way he cannot understand. The thought of breathing in the form he advocates to control anxiety instead produces super-high anxiety.
I did not develop the fear of breathing the way you did because my surgery was neither absent of anesthesia nor abdominally based at first. But I suspect being preverbal in pain with brain swelling, pressure, pain, nausea, vomiting and post surgery suture pain, along with being held down against my will, caused a certain fear that manifests as shallow breathing. Insertion of breathing tubes and the like probably contribute as well. Then, later, I had incisions in my abdomen starting at age 5 which were painful enough to create a fear of deep breathing. Lastly, deep breathing and physical straining can trigger symptoms of low intracranial pressure thus creating more of a fear of breathing. So I know why I shallow breath now and why relaxation methods do not work. This is liberating because at least I can accurately respond to the contradiction therapists do not understand without fear now. Breathing represents a more global lack of physical safety so I am learning how to feel safe enough to relax enough to no longer associate deep breathing with physical harm. It is no simple or easy task. Just writing about it I can feel the tension that stops me from breathing properly and confidently. It is an effort to let go enough because, as van der Kolk wrote about, the body does indeed keep the score. I know I am physically safe but my body does not believe me! – Bill