Don’t Forget to Breath: Self-Compassion through Biofeedback Breathing


Some years ago, I would see several patients a day in a largely chaotic environment with children who had either spent a lot of time or were at great risk to be sent to the hospital or kiddie prison.  I saw 6-8 patients a day, and consulted with medical personnel, educational professionals, parents, and organizations geared towards housing or helping kids every day.  People sought me with crises (their own and the kids’) as soon as I arrived, and in between every single child I saw.

Some days I would start at 7am and finish about 8 or 9pm with a parent.  I was driving 20 hours a week, taking 5 doctoral classes, and working on a dissertation.  I was also foolish enough to think that I could fit dating into this time.  I never had time to eat, so in a few minutes here or there I would cram something down my gullet like a chocolate Vitamuffin or a banana and almond butter sandwich.  I was going non-stop and my body had enough, it sent me to the hospital too many times to count and with a litany of procedures and probes going to places where no one has ever wanted them.  After many terrifying diagnoses, I found a mentor who could help.

Her name was Dr. Inna Khazan. She was an expert in two fields I knew nothing about: Health Psychology and Biofeedback Breathing.  I would later find out in our meetings that she had honed extensive Mindfulness and Self-Compassion skills.  She looked a lot like a curly-headed Dalai Lama in those meetings. Her face soft and relaxed while listening, and tense and engaged with emotional sincerity during her responses.  She was very warm and supportive, but direct and focused.

She thought about my current predicament, and came up with an assessment.  I was logging all of my time and energy into my clients, work, family, and friends, and doing a pretty poor job of finding time to take care of myself.  In one of those candid conversations, I said something to the effect of who has time for that?  She responded that I would if I wanted to continue to take care of all of these people I valued so much.  She has this annoying habit of being right nearly all the time.

One of the most important lessons I have ever learned in both my mindfulness and self-compassion-practices is that when you are overly stressed and unable to sort out your own challenges, you have to acknowledge that you are compromised.  Your objectivity is compromised, and thus to find a solution you require the objectivity of a trusted support.  If you have read these entries, you have likely heard me mention my mother, Dr. Christopher Germer, and Narayan Liebenson as such supports.  In this case, I knew my health had been compromised, and Inna had become amongst my most trusted supporters.  Fortunately for me, when it comes to generating effective plans, Inna has few peers.

Inna’s plan went like this.  My most apparent value and skill is compassion (mostly compassion for others).  If I wanted to keep on doling out the compassion for others, I was required to invest some time and energy in self-compassion.  Given the fact that I was unwilling to take days off or miss any client meetings, she suggested a compromise.  I would agree to do 5 minutes of biofeedback breathing (breathing that syncs up your heart rate and breathing patterns) prior to meeting with clients and 2 minutes in between clients.

The following week, I began this work, and like most well-meaning people I followed it about half the time initially, and eventually gave myself permission to do it daily.  After all, Inna invested in the plan, the least I could do was follow it.  What was my other choice go back to the hospital?  Nah.  I am not really a fan of hospital clothes for strarters.  My butt gets cold easily.  I also do not enjoy having long conversations about the inside of my body with close up pictures.  I found that to be the most awkward reunion ever.  Remember your small colon?  Well to be fair, I knew he existed, but we have not met per say, at least not face to face.  Is that rude?  I mean he works pretty hard for my body, but how well do you know your colon?  I was freaked out when I learned my bologna had a first name.

Hoping to see no new pictures of my colon, I set out on this biofeedback adventure.  It was tough.  I initially struggled to budget that time for myself, worrying that I would have to take some time or focus away from any one of these individuals that I valued so much.  After doing half of my required plan and getting some results, this worry about withholding arose, and I remembered something Inna had said, “Much like when there is an emergency on the plane.  You can’t help anyone until you put your own oxygen mask on first.”  I knew she was right and began to follow this practice to the letter, even finding time at the very end of the day before bed or when I could not sleep to practice mindfulness and self-compassion. I would use the meditations Dr. Germer had on his website to make sure that I was making the best use of my supports.

Slowly, but surely my body began to respond, and the more effort I made to take care of it, the easier it was to be reasonable about my needs when they emerged.  I also noticed that I had been holding my breath and been tense a lot because my body and mind were always in a state of work.  From a biofeedback perspective, this means that less oxygen is getting to my body, so I was spending more time in a stressed or autonomic nervous system state.  Those of you who know about the body are probably already saying out loud, “Of course you were having somatic problems.  Your body remained in a stressed state and was never able to settle into a homeostatic one, which is a requirement for healthy digestion, sleep, and muscle relaxation.”  Homeostasis is when the body is at rest or at ease.  At ease sounds better, so that you know I don’t mean when you are dead!

I also learned some things that I was not even trying to understand.  For example, if you eat immediately following a workout, you won’t be able to properly digest the food (your body is still in a stressed state, albeit a good one) and you may take on symptoms that look like IBS.  So keep working out.  That kind of stress is good for your body, but give your body time to return to a relaxed state before you eat.  I also learned that having clothes or perhaps a belt that is too tight restricts oxygen, and with looser clothing or a looser belt, you will breath and feel better. 

I won’t keep you in suspense.  I got better.  No more hospitals.  I was actually able to give more to my clients, those with whom I consulted, my friends, and family.  The next year I even found love.  I have also used biofeedback breathing and Inna’s advice to help a multitude of people- from the adults coming into urgent care actively having panic attacks, heart palpitations, or difficulty breathing to middle school children saddened and embarrassed by so many days with an upset stomach.

So take some time to breath.  There are great apps for this on your phone, but you can do it simply by taking a normal 6 count in breath, and a slow 6 count outbreath (like you are breathing through a straw).  I recommend 10 minutes to get its full effect. 

Notice if you are holding your breath and let it out (with a deep sigh when you can).  Do biofeedback before a meal, especially if you are feeling tense and your stomach hurts.  Most importantly be kind to yourself, and put on your oxygen mask first.  You deserve to be free from suffering, healthy, and full of self-compassion and well being.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion. Day 39.  In the Books.