There is more to breathing than meets the eye. While it’s an unconscious function, and something we don’t “have” to think about, there is a lot of benefit to bringing focused attention to our breath.
Soon after leaving our home in 2009 we were advised by psychologist Dr. Robert Crago to learn how to breathe. Dr. Crago, a co-author of the paper “Psychological, Neuropsychological, and Electrocortical Effects of Mixed Mold Exposure,” has worked with dozens of adults and children exposed to mold and was one of the first professionals to validate for us that indeed our exposure was adversely impacting our brains.
There were eleven of us trying to recover from our toxic mold exposure, and the best thing we could do, Dr. Crago assured us, was to focus on breathing.
While we practiced some breathing through the HeartMath Institute, I remained skeptical that breathing could do much in terms of detoxing, mood disorders, rashes, and the myriad of inflammatory symptoms we were experiencing.
I focused instead on diet, outdoor time, detox, and letting go. All of these proved helpful, but I wish I had stayed with the breath. As I progressed over the years and was no longer “consumed” by mold, I still struggled with anxiety and depression, as I had for many years well before the mold exposure.
In 2016 I committed myself to the practice of breathing.
I became curious about mindfulness training along with breathing, so I purchased the book The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-Week Program to Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress. After downloading the accompanying CDs I began the arduous task of learning to sit still and breathe.
Why I Learned to Breathe
Learning the science behind breathing helped keep me motivated during the weeks and months of practice. Given the complexity of the human body, I focused on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which consists of two primary components:
- The sympathetic branch, which is stimulated in the fight-or-flight mode where the heart rate rises, blood flow to the digestive system shuts down, and much more.
- The parasympathetic system, which acts as a brake helping the body to calm down after the threat has passed.
The problem for those who become sensitive to chemicals and mold is that the body is constantly in fight-or-flight mode. Everything around us is a threat, either consciously or unconsciously. It makes sense to focus on building the parasympathetic system.
One of the key players of the parasympathetic system is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from the brain, through the face and thorax, to the abdomen. It controls unconscious body functions such as food digestion, sweating, heart rate, and breathing.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (emphasis mine):
When stressed, most people show a decrease in vagal tone, meaning the nerve is less activated, and that decrease is related to greater threat reactivity. Having a higher vagal tone is associated with greater calm and resilience, as well as recovering from stress more rapidly, greater social engagement, and positive emotions. Interestingly enough, just bringing awareness to your breathing and allowing it to slow down on its own, particularly the out breaths, increases vagal tone.
What’s more, since many of the conditions associated with mold exposure are inflammatory, increasing vagal tone has been shown to decrease inflammation. (See the Psychology Today article “Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dramatically Reduces Inflammation.”)
Unfortunately, sitting still and breathing can be hardest for those who have survived the trauma of a toxic mold exposure. The mind is constantly racing, there is a constant fear of re-exposure, and the body can feel unwell and fatigued much of the time. The good news is there is no “getting it right” and simply thinking about your breath helps. Even better, breathing is free and no doctor’s office visit is required. In other words, it can’t hurt to try.
How I Learned to Breathe
I learned quickly that trying to breathe by myself didn’t work. I lasted five minutes. Listening to a calming voice tell me what to do opened up a whole new world.
One of the beginning exercises in The Mindful Way Workbook noted above is a 40-minute body scan. Forty minutes can be daunting at first, but it’s critical to remind yourself that it is not about “attaining” or “succeeding.” It’s just the opposite. It’s about “showing up” for the practice. There is an excellent shortened version of the body scan on YouTube. (Find it here.) I love the body scan as a place to start, simply because the posture is lying down, which is especially helpful for those who are fatigued.
What’s more, the body scan can actually help with detoxification of the body—a huge benefit for those who are experiencing toxic overload. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living (noted above), likens the body scan to zone purification, an industrial technique for purifying certain metals. Heat melts the metal in specific zones. Impurities stay in the liquid metal as it moves along the zones and once the metal resolidifies, the end region that contains the impurities is cut off and thrown away. According to Kabat-Zinn:
The body scan can be thought of in one way as an active purification of the body. The moving zone of your attention harvests tension and pain as it passes through various regions and carries them to the top of your head, where, with the aid of your breathing, you allow them to discharge out of your body, leaving it lighter and more transparent.
Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that as with all mindfulness/breathing practices, it’s not about achieving anything.
We let any purification that might occur take care of itself. We just persevere in the practice on a daily basis for its own sake . . . the experience of wholeness transcending your problems comes naturally out of regular practice of the body scan.
Once I practiced the body scan for a few weeks, I expanded my practice to include sitting meditation and mindful movement (yoga). I have done yoga in the past but inevitably found myself trying to “achieve” something. The simple mindful movement practice offered on the CD noted above helped free me of that pressure.
There are lots of mindful movement practices offered on YouTube. This Guided Mindfulness Yoga by Jon Kabat-Zinn is similar to one I have used. (I have found most guided meditations to be spiritually neutral, but this is very individual.)
Gradually I expanded my practice and created a space that would help motivate me daily. I purchased a meditation cushion and yoga props, and added mirrors.
It has been more than two years since I added this practice to my health regimen. I can’t say enough about the power of the breath when it comes to health and wellness.
- Learning to breathe did not fix me any more than the right diet or exercise program has fixed me. It has helped, though, and is one of my first go-tos when I feel “off.”
- Environment still counts. We remain vigilant about water leaks in our home. I minimize my exposure to chemicals. Education and awareness are invaluable.
- I have a long way to go. I haven’t mastered the art of breathing. But it’s one of the best tools I’ve found for coping with the twists and turns life throws at us.
The Meditation Podcast with Jesse and Jeane Stern
Brain Retraining Programs (specifically designed for those who are chronically ill):
This list only scratches the surface. Rewiring the brain and nervous system through focused breath and mindfulness offers great hope for those struggling with chronic conditions like CIRS (Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome), stress, and anxiety. Why not heed thousands of years of precedent and give focused breathing a try?