'Take a deep breath': Here's why, for some people, this is terrible advice.

The field of trauma treatment is rapidly growing, which means that, as a trauma-informed strength coach, I spend a lot of time studying different clinical approaches. And as I do, I witness countless yoga teachers, therapists, somatic therapists, massage therapists, and physical therapists telling the stressed out to take a nice deep breath to get grounded.

To this I say: STOP!  Please stop telling folks to "take a deep breath."

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense to tell people to take a deep breath. We commonly think of deep breathing as a way to slow down time, our breath, and ultimately our autonomic nervous system.


But guess what ? Lots of people with chronic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder will find this act at best, damn near impossible, and at worst, triggering.

If you live with chronic stress or trauma, there is a good chance that you experience constriction in your primary breathing muscle  (the diaphragm).

The diaphragm is a muscle beneath your ribcage that contracts and flattens out to fill your lungs with air. As you exhale, it relaxes and expands upward. When we are breathing at rest, it should handle most of the work.

Working in conjunction with the diaphragm is a whole set of secondary breathing muscles  —  your intercostals, scalenes, sternocleidomastoids, pecs minor, and abs.

Muscles of respiration. Image via Physiopedia.

These muscles are of your neck, chest, and belly. And theoretically, when you are at rest, they are too. Even when you are working hard in a sympathetic state, they are only handling some of the load.

But if you live with chronic stress or trauma, these muscles are often overused, and your diaphragm does almost none of the work.

Imagine you are hiking and you see a bear or some other predator you find threatening. Sense into your body. What does it feel like? What are your muscles doing? It is likely your whole trunk is constricted. This is a life-or-death situation, and your limbic system has taken the reins and is going to do its damnedest to save you with some defensive mobilization or immobilization.

Now imagine that you are running late for a very important meeting, and you are stuck in traffic or on a stopped subway train without cell service. You are going to miss something very important and have no way to let the others know. Sense into your body. What is your breathing like, and where are you breathing from? Is any air making it into your belly? Probably not. Your whole trunk is constricted even though this is not a life-and-death situation  —  it is just very stressful.

In both cases  —  actual life or death and perceived life or death  —  you braced.

And even when the bear runs off and the train starts to move again, your diaphragm will probably still be constricted with the lingering stress. Many of us don’t realize that we have not relaxed our diaphragms and that we are always bracing our primary breathing muscle to some extent.

I work as a beginning strength coach with the general population in New York City, and I can tell you that for the most part, New Yorkers are a bunch of chest-breathers hustling and living in a very stimulating environment. It is common for people living with trauma, or simply with a lot of stress, to be stuck in a defensive state  —  fight or flight. Their trunks are always bracing just a little, and that diaphragm rarely gets the chance to move.

What happens to muscles that have not been moved? That’s right  —  they get stiff and eventually weak. It does not feel good when you become keenly aware that your muscles are stiff and weak.

Telling a constricted (stressed) person to take a deep breath invites them to realize just how tight everything is inside.

For some people that may be okay, but for others  (like me!)  it can feel terrifying. It can feel claustrophobic, suffocating, and absolutely triggering. Deep breaths are a goal for folks like us  —  not the starting place.

The good news is that there are countless alternatives to get grounded, present, and mindful of the body that don't involve the breath. Here are a few to get you started:

1. Focus on a part of the body that feels neutral.

Put your attention there. Neutrality is often found in places like the hands or the seat. People might feel funny about the fact that it's their butt that feels good, but it often does. Get grounded by feeling into a part of your body that feels supported and easy, rather than going straight for the center.

When I began to incorporate mindfulness meditation into my own treatment, I realized that the only place that felt safe to focus on was my hands. So that's where I started.

2. Name five things.

For some folks, turning inward at all is dysregulating. Suddenly becoming aware of your state can be quite jarring at times. For clients who cannot ground by looking inward, I ask them to become situated and present by looking around and naming five blue things, five red things, and five yellow things. It gets people to closely look at their environment and keeps their prefrontal cortex turned on as opposed to triggering an emotionally reactive limbic response.

3. Listen to sounds near and far.

If I am encouraging someone to turn inward, I will ask the person to first listen for sounds far away  —  people talking outside, wind, cars  —  and then closer sounds like water running through the pipes or cooking sounds in the kitchen, and then even sounds from inside of that person’s own body. If I am trying to bring someone’s awareness back outside of the body, I encourage the same process but in reverse  —  starting nearby and opening up to sounds far away.

4. Follow the breath rather than trying to control it.

If breath is the main driver of your practice, like in yoga or certain mindfulness meditation practices, you can follow the breath without manipulation. By being behind the breath (following it), the constriction can feel less stifling than being on top of it (focusing on it). But please keep in mind that for some people, following or focusing on the breath is a goal to be worked toward, not a tool to be employed right in that moment.

Yes, after years of diaphragmatic breathing, I can take a deep breath without panicking. But it took work.

On behalf of the constricted breathers who panic when they notice their constriction, I am going to ask you to not start with the breath when working with trauma. Get creative or use the tools I listed above, but start somewhere safer, possibly outside of the body completely.

This story is excerpted from an article that originally appeared on Medium and is reprinted here with permission.

True

When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."

Canva

Dr. David McPhee offers advice for talking to someone living in a different time in their head.

Few things are more difficult than watching a loved one's grip on reality slipping away. Dementia can be brutal for families and caregivers, and knowing how to handle the various stages can be tricky to figure out.

The Alzheimer's Association offers tips for communicating in the early, middle and late stages of the disease, as dementia manifests differently as the disease progresses. The Family Caregiver Alliance also offers advice for talking to someone with various forms and phases of dementia. Some communication tips deal with confusion, agitation and other challenging behaviors that can come along with losing one's memory, and those tips are incredibly important. But what about when the person is seemingly living in a different time, immersed in their memories of the past, unaware of what has happened since then?

Psychologist David McPhee shared some advice with a person on Quora who asked, "How do I answer my dad with dementia when he talks about his mom and dad being alive? Do I go along with it or tell him they have passed away?"

McPhee wrote:

Keep Reading Show less
True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!