One night when I was constructing This Is Hard But You Can Do It, I printed out every page and laid them all out on my living room floor. I needed to decide the order that each page should be in. As I moved the papers around, I knew, “Take a DEEP breath. Calm your mind and be STILL,” needed to be the first phrase that Mom said to Mac.
In the hard moments when you feel things getting scary, when overwhelmed starts to be the dominant emotion, taking a deep breath is your opportunity to take back control. I’ll tell you the story in a little bit, but for now, let’s just say: You control your breath, you control your life. Something as simple as a few deep breaths can change everything. In fact, learning to take calming breaths has been an absolutely foundational brick of teaching Mac how to do hard things.
We started with this when Mac was just three years old. He had already endured so much fighting AML as a baby, and now he found himself back in the hospital fighting a new cancer. When people would come into the room , he would yell and say, “No!” and, “Don’t touch me!” Helping him focus on his breathing kept his mind on something that HE could control. This was key when, after his three brain surgeries, he had to relearn to walk. Not only was this very physically challenging, it was very obvious that to Mac, the thought of taking those first steps was completely overwhelming. When you can focus on something as simple as the breath going in and out of your lungs, it takes you to such a different headspace. I was taking a video when Mac took those first steps and as he began to panic I said, “You can do it. You can do it. Breathe, breathe, you can do it,” and then he took those first steps.
Three years later, we had another powerful experience with breathing. Mac was 6 and trying to do his MRIs without anesthesia. In an MRI with anesthesia, they place the IV once you are sedated so you can’t feel it. So, part of doing the imaging without anesthesia is them placing the IV while you are awake. Nurses have struggled to place IVs on Mac for years. So there we were, running very behind for the MRI, on the third nurse that was going to attempt this. There was so much tension in the room. Jeremy and I were having to hold Mac down and he was understandably hysterical. He had already been poked numerous times with no success, so they sent for a PICU nurse with a portable ultrasound machine. That’s when nurse Annie arrived. She spent the next 10+ minutes talking Mac out of his panic. She got right on his level and told him, “This is happening to you and YOU get to choose how this affects you.” Wow. She talked about how she had been practicing “yoga breathing” and invited him to try. Everyone in the room was taking these breaths and exhaling with audible sound. She explained to him that shallow breathing tells your body to run away. That’s when she said, “You control your breath, you control your life.” Tears were just streaming down my face and I knew I would never forget that day and what she taught us.
Deep breaths connect that mind-body experience. YOU have power to calm your mind and bring stillness into your body. We can help to tell our bodies that it’s ok. Teaching kids to breathe and create stillness is so powerful. Numerous times when we’ve been on family hikes, I’ll hear my little two year old start taking deep breaths. He’s learned it as a coping mechanism. When you calm your mind, you open yourself up to being safer and making better decisions.
One time Jeremy and I had to make a really big decision for Mac and we were both in a rushed, frantic state of mind. We had said a prayer and still didn’t know the right thing to do. Time was ticking on, only bringing more unease. I remember telling Jeremy, “We need to eat dinner and take a 30 minute break to get a grip.” We each took our own time and met back up 30 minutes later. What a difference that made. We had both come to the same conclusion on our own and we were ready to move forward. We needed time to create stillness so that we could make a sound decision.
So this is where we start: “Take a DEEP breath. Calm your mind and be STILL.”