I never really thought about how breathing works. We breathe in. We breathe out. Not complicated.
Then I started having panic attacks.
Consistent with many people’s description of panic attacks, the experience felt like what I imagine a heart attack feels like. One is overcome with fun sensations like fear, trembling, dizziness, accelerated heartbeat, palpitations, shortness of breath… Good times.
My first panic attack happened in late November of 2021, two weeks after my booster shot (and my birthday). I figured it was an isolated incident. When it happened again almost three months later, it was worse. That’s when I got my doctor involved. Extensive blood tests, x-rays, exhaustive stress tests and a visit to the emergency room one anxious night showed no discernible heart problems, which left me even more confused and depressed.
After lamenting about all of this with my friend Paul Chamberlain, he sent me a book: “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” by James Nestor (2021, Riverhead Books). I thought, “Great, another reading assignment.” Then I started reading it.
Nestor breaks down the physiology of breathing, how it works and how we, humans, are the worst breathers because so many of us breathe through our mouths, which can cause us a litany of avoidable issues.
Through exhaustive interviews with experts and doctors, as well as his own experiences participating in studies on breathing, Nestor provides invaluable, detailed insight into the benefits of breathing correctly, which, for the record, means breathing through our noses. By simply breathing through our noses, we can change so many things for the better.
My multi-pronged approach to my panic attacks and heart issues, all of which appear to be post-COVID symptoms affecting my nervous and cardiovascular systems, includes a list of things. Along with an anti-anxiety medication, my daily to-do list includes exercise, meditation, cold water therapy and a practice that balances my nervous system.
Added to this regimen are many things I’ve learned in Nestor’s book, which includes an appendix of breathing methods that have proven extremely helpful. Some are regular breathing tricks I can use daily, and others are techniques I can use when I need to calm down or get ready for sleep. In fact, if I had known last month some of the breathing techniques I know now, I might have been able to calm my way out of that emergency room visit. (Though I can only speculate.)
Along with the original hard cover of “Breath” that my friend Paul sent me, I also bought the audiobook – read by the author – so I could listen to it when I’m walking or riding my bike. I find my self referring back to it often, especially when I want to try one of the breathing methods in the appendix.
It drives me nuts when people foist things onto me, like a podcast, a show, a movie or a book. They mean well with their benevolent mandate, only wanting to help by sharing something they found valuable. In this instance, I’m so grateful that Paul sent me “Breath.” I was in enough pain that I was willing to try just about anything to turn things around. As I sit here now and type this, I’m feeling so much better, almost back to my old self, but an improved, non-smoking version of me. And I believe that what I’ve learned from this book and the new breathing methods I now practice have played a big role in my improvement.
That said, I’m going to do what I hate by telling you how much I think you should get this book. It has really helped me, and I suspect could help a lot of other people. So… get the book. And spread the word.
Listen to a fantastic interview with James Nestor on NPR’s Fresh Air last year…
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