by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
Holding your breath is a difficult task with or without practice. A human, on average, can hold their breath for about 30 seconds to about 2 minutes. We were made to be in a rhythm, breathing in and out, adjusting for our bodies' needs based on its activities.
With COVID-19 worries still ever-present in our lives, it can feel like we as a collective whole have been holding our breath. The uncertainty of it all lingers in the air when we discuss our hopes and future plans; the question mark of its influence hangs on the end of a trailed off wish for a vacation or a party. How is it that we may maintain steady momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement and going on with our personal and professional lives as well? We are still struggling with our mental health, we are still doing work to speak our truths, and we are still developing our skills for relationships. None of that is devalued, negated, or brushed aside, even though it may feel that way.
I used to sing in choir for many years, and as I was reflecting on the world and its many issues that have come to light, I was reminded of a breath exercise we used to do. This works even with only a few people.
We would all take in a deep breath, then hold a single note. We were practicing endurance as well as attunement. We would listen to each others' vowel sounds (there are so many ways to sing "a") and try to match the sounds of those around us. We would also hold this note for a long time. Our choir director told us to "try to time our breaths opposite from those around us".
We would have to watch each others' faces at first. We would have to listen intently. We would have to listen to our own voice as well, making sure we are in tune with others and with the actual piano note. Sometimes she would change the note, and we would all rise or fall together. And we would time our chance to sneak in a quick, quiet breath before coming back in again.
Attunement is an emotional skill as well. Emotional work is work, as I always say. And if we are to continue to dismantle our systems of oppression, both internally and externally, then we need to rely on our sources of support. And we need rest.
It's unreasonable to expect one person to hold a note the entire time. Yes, some of us have greater lung capacity than others; some have been practicing this work for many years. That does not disqualify anyone from the rest that they need.
What does emotional rest look like?
Many of us go through the (limited) motions of lying down, closing our eyes, and going to sleep. But we don't always feel rested. Being motionless is not the same as rest.
If you think of how it feels carrying a heavy piece of furniture, can you feasibly rest while still holding it in the air? Probably not. We often go to therapy asking the question, "How do I put this down? I can't seem to let it go."
When your hands are gripped tight to the ends of a problem, we look at our emotions. I always, always ask this in nearly every session:
"What do your emotions say about your values?"
What is your guilt trying to tell you about your beliefs around family?
What is your sadness saying about racism?
What is your anger saying about friendship and its expectations?
What is your fear telling you about the importance of this person in your life?
Sometimes we need to ask the question a few times to dig underneath the surface-type answers as well.
We also look to our support systems. Those around us, those who can see us for who we really are, and lean on them for support. We may not be used to it; we may awkwardly stumble into a vulnerable conversation. That is always okay. Many people go through their entire lives avoiding that awkwardness, not realizing that the treasure on the other side is well worth it.
Finally, when we are able to put down our heavy loads, we practice noticing our body and internal sensations. We acknowledge our aches and our tightness. We also acknowledge our small victories, our appreciations for ourselves and others, and we allow today to be what it was. We try again tomorrow. We come back in, holding our note and supporting others along the way.