Breathing exercises are an important part of pulmonary rehabilitation. These exercises help keep the lungs healthy and uphold the integrity of the muscles we use to breathe. Practicing these when you have pulmonary fibrosis helps your pulmonary system remain strong, which keeps your body healthy for longer and sets you up for better outcomes should you get on the transplant list.

Breathing exercises have other benefits, too, such as resetting the autonomic nervous system and reducing stress. In addition to pulmonary rehab exercises, there are breathing patterns and practices specifically to reduce anxiety.

At my pre-op appointment for a big surgery a few years ago, I expressed my absolute terror of being put under anesthesia to the nurse. What she told me has become sort of a mantra that I reflect on in times of fear: “Fear and breath cannot exist in the same space.” Fear causes you to freeze up. In preparation to fight or fly, your breathing becomes tight and shallow or stops altogether.

Breathing exercises are not going to make the scary thing or thought disappear. I wish that were true, but as I hyperventilated in the operating room, I realized that breathing at the pace which my fear dictated was not making the thought of going under less scary to me. I cursed the nurse in my mind, thinking, “I am breathing SO MUCH right now, and I am still afraid!”

It was when I forced myself to count the seconds I spent on inhales and exhales that I realized I could return from the place of terror and face what was happening. Controlling the breath brought me back into control of my thoughts. It was more than a metaphor. Taking possession of the space where my fear was physically manifesting — my hyperventilating lungs — allowed me to gain possession of my mind.

I held on to that revelation and used it often. When my mom, Holly, was readmitted to the hospital with a systemic infection after her lung transplant, her breathing rate was higher and her oxygen saturations were low. We didn’t yet know why her donated lungs, which had been working great for almost a month, were suddenly betraying her.

She was afraid, and her lungs were the source of her fear. I wanted to share my method with her. I pulled up an app that I use to practice meditation. The geometric graphic on the screen swelled and receded. You are supposed to match your breathing rhythm to the motion of the graphic, but my mom could not. The more she tried, the more frustrated and scared she felt.

I felt defeated that I could not bring her peace. Something that was so simple for me to do — breathing slowly — was impossible for her. A week before, she was able to breathe fine, so what had changed? I thought it was her fear taking over. If I could help her with the anxiety, I thought, she would be able to breathe normally again.

It turned out that she had several liters of fluid in her chest cavity. Breathing deep and slow was impossible, no matter what breathing exercises she tried.

Once the fluid had been drained — a process that continued throughout the month-long stay in the hospital while the doctors treated her infection — my mom could take deep breaths again.

Breathing exercises continued to be an important part of her recovery, and mine. As the imperfectly matched parts of my mom’s upgraded body started to work as one, I continued to negotiate the imperfectly matched parts of my mind. In both cases, the pains were lessened by remembering to find the rhythm of the breath.

I know it’s not always graceful, or even entirely possible with pulmonary fibrosis, to breathe rhythmically and deeply. But I know that the effort is valuable, even if it is hard or scary. Even if it’s shallow. Even if you cough every time. Keep trying. Keep breathing, and pursing those lips, and huffing out breath, and filling your belly. Let go of your tensions and fears the best that you can, and exist right here, knowing that breathing at all is enough.


Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.

Christie is a life-long explorer of the Wild West. She now resides in the Hawaiian Islands with her husband, Jonny, and their two four-legged friends. Christie is a full-time freelancer, nature lover, and business owner. She took a break from work in 2019 to care for her mother, Holly, before and after her double-lung transplant. Christie’s column documents the experience of her mother’s IPF progression, months-long hospitalization at UC San Francisco, and life-saving transplant. She hopes that her family’s transplant story can provide a unique perspective for other IPF patients and family members.

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