A recent conversation with a friend led me to describe a technique Kathryn and I use regularly when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It is especially helpful when I experience the kind of panic that leads to racing thoughts and quick shallow breathing.
Often this feeling will race out of my body in frantic movements. I might rush from room to room with no purpose, fling pillows and blankets around on the bed, squeeze my eyes and fists and chest as tight as I can, hold my breath until I am desperate for air and start hyperventilating, or flail about in other unpredictable ways. Sometimes I’ve even acted in destructive or intimidating ways because of the rushing surge of panic that flows through me, and of course, this leads to greater problems in the long run.
This is, quite logically, distressing for Kathryn to witness. One time when feeling this way, I stood out on the balcony of our old apartment during a massive storm and let the wind and rain and thunder swirl and panic with me. The image of the wind blowing through the open door behind me and swirling around Kathryn too helped me understand just how this chaos spreads from me to her.
The chaos flows through us both.
She gets overwhelmed by a rushing desire to help me calm down, to ‘fix’ what I’m feeling. And so she offers solutions – try ice, cold water, let’s go for a drive, just sit for a second, put lotion on your skin, play piano – on and on. She lists mindfulness skills that often help but seem useless to me in these moments. All she wants is to help us both settle, to prevent further escalation, and to begin the process of problem solving the source of the emotion. The real trouble, though, is that in these most frantic moments I seem to lack the ability to grab hold of a coping skill and stay focused. And her hurried attempts to help me calm only heighten my sense of anxiety. As I watch her begin to feel the chaos, guilt only increases my panic further.
And then about six months ago, she came up with a new idea seemingly out of nowhere. “Blow up a balloon.” That’s all she said and then she started doing it herself, imitating the kind of inhale and exhale one would use to inflate a large balloon. She has told me to take deep breaths many times before with little improvement to the sense of panic or my breathing, but somehow this clicked.
Just blow up balloons.
I don’t have to solve the current problem that is leading to the panic. I don’t have to convince myself to feel differently. I don’t have to focus on relaxing muscles or consciously slowing my breath. I just have to blow up balloons. I just have to imagine a balloon in my hand, and try to blow it up. My initial attempts are usually meagre at best, hurried little puffs that would do little to inflate a balloon. But then I take a deeper breath in, and blow again… and then again… and again.
And if I start to turn back to the panic, we just say it again. “Blow up a balloon.” I tell Kathryn the colour. I imagine the shape and how it would feel against my fingers, my lips. I get to the point that my inhaled breath is massive, deep into my belly, and my exhale is long, slow and forced through pursed lips. I feel my chest rising and falling with my breath, and as if by magic, my body and mind begin to calm too.
As these balloons get bigger, I relax my breath – the sense of hurry leaves, and I find I am now casually blowing up balloons, no longer as if in a race. The tension in my muscles reduces, my movements slow down, the storm in my mind begins to clear and usually at this point I become much more able to focus on those coping skills and problem solving skills that will actually help whatever situation is causing the sense of panic.
As I told my friend Rob all of this, I realized why the skill works so well. Blowing up balloons is such a simple concept – it’s so easy to connect to it, regardless of a person’s emotional state of mind. And it’s a visual activity, our minds can picture it even when we are just pretending. It doesn’t take patience or a great deal of focus (which is lacking in these moments of panic), and anyone who is being triggered by someone else’s panic can model it, helping themselves stay calm in the process.
Anyone can use it as a skill.
About a week later, Rob, who is a nurse, told me that he pulled over at the scene of a car accident and one of the drivers was in a state of shock and panic. He took charge of the scene, pointed at her and said “Blow up balloons with me!” and demonstrated what he meant. They did this together for several minutes as he assessed her injuries and they waited for the ambulance to arrive on the scene. And somehow, incredibly, it helped.
There is magic in our breath. Grab ahold of yours in a moment of panic. Just blow up balloons.