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Breathing and Me: A tale of death, divorce, chronic illness and burnout

This is me drinking wine in the sun. It was May this year. We were in lockdown, I was working with patients who had coronavirus, it was quite a scary time. But I was relaxed, not a care in the world, loving life.


I haven’t always felt this in control!


Without me knowing it, my breathing has been affecting the way I feel for years. Once I figured that out, and once I did something about it, I got my control back.


Let me take you back. Waaaaaay back 27 years to when I was 8 years old.


My first experience of death


My Nan died. I was at her house in Liverpool with my Mum.


I cried a lot. You know those big belly sobs. Little did I know that belly crying is a classic way to spark a breathing pattern disorder!


I don’t remember much else after that. After the funeral and wake we went home, and life went back to ‘normal’.


Looking back, it’s after this that I remember my breathing changing. Was it months or years later? I honestly can’t remember. But I remember noticing that it had changed, and I remember feeling scared about it. Did I have lung cancer like my Nan?! Is that what’s happening to me?


I would feel like I couldn’t take a big breath in. So, I would stack my breaths until my lungs were filled. It felt horrible but I had to do it.


To this day I remember sitting on the footstool (or the pouf as it was called then!) in the living room and I was doing the crazy breathing thing. My mum looked at me and said…….. “if you don’t stop breathing like that, I’m going to take you to the doctors”.


My mum doesn’t remember this, but I do. As clear as day. It’s one of those weird, early childhood memories that stuck. And that was it. I HATED the doctors. There was no way I was going to go to the doctors. So, I tried to stop doing it. And eventually it went away.

As someone who now treats breathing pattern problems, I can see how “stopping it” would have helped me, but it’s clear now that stopping the overt symptoms obviously didn’t “cure” me.


I don’t remember any more issues with my breathing until I was about 25 but looking back now I’m certain my dodgy breathing was involved in a few life events over the years.


Divorce


When I was 13 my parents split up. It was as amicable as a split can be, but it was an understandably unsettling and stressful time.


I’ve always been calm and level-headed, so I cope well with stressful situations, but I remember having debilitating headaches during this time. I even let my mum take me to the dreaded doctors! He gave me some pink ibuprofen and told us it was just stress related to the situation.


He was right I guess, but maybe it was the stress which altered my breathing again. I started breathing using my neck and shoulder muscles, my diaphragm forgotten. And this overuse caused the tension to move up my neck.


It was then I learned that when I’m feeling stressed my shoulders start creeping closer and closer to my ears. Which is a sure-fire way to start breathing from your chest, and is classic breathing dysfunction.


As things returned to normal the headaches went away but I became a ‘headachy’ person after that episode.


To illustrate my point regarding my posture - when I worked as a junior physiotherapist in an NHS hospital I was chatting with a patient who claimed to be some sort of spiritual healer, and he casually said “you hold all your stress in your shoulders and neck” and he drew his shoulders up towards his ears. He was bloody right!!! I’d been in the room with him for 2 minutes, how did he know?! I wasn’t doing it right then was I? Could he see something I couldn’t?


He obviously could because I can see the same thing in others now.


The next 3 events were when the real fun started……


Labyrinthitis


About 8 years ago I got labyrinthitis. I felt dizzy, disconnected from the world, sound and light did my head in and I wanted to run away to a quiet, dark room. I was off work for WEEKS!!


It started at work. I was on a busy ward and BAM out of nowhere I felt like I was going to faint. I took my blood pressure – it was lowish (100/60) but I was young and fit and that was normal for me really.


I just remember thinking “I can’t be here”. And I left. I went to the GP, he said I had labyrinthitis and it’ll sort itself out. Signed me off work for 2 weeks.


It didn’t get better. In fact, it got worse. I started to feel anxious. I have NEVER had feelings of anxiety. I’m Kelly. I’m calm, solid, reliable, relaxed, take everything in my stride. I don’t have problems with my mental health. WTF was happening here. I wasn’t in control. Far from it.


But I finally got back to work on a phased return. I felt shit, anxious and exhausted, but eventually I returned to being a normal human again.


Do I remember my breathing being weird? No, I don’t, but this was before I knew anything about breathing pattern disorders, so it doesn’t surprise me that it wasn’t on my radar. Just like the majority of people reading this, you probably don’t really consider the impact your breathing can have on your health.


I suppose the real question is, did I actually have labyrinthitis or was I just over breathing??? I guess I’ll never know. But based on how I felt, with those waves of overwhelming anxiety (if you read on you’ll see they pop up again) I’m pretty sure my breathing was playing a massive part.


Inflammatory bowel disease


Imagine it now. You’ve been planning your dream wedding on the Amalfi coast and 6 months before your wedding your bowel decides to betray you.


I was terrified. I was in pain. I was losing blood. I was fuming. I’M GETTING MARRIED IN 6 MONTHS.


I went to the GP straight away. He was fairly sure I had inflammatory bowel disease. Great. Can we just give me some drugs so I can feel better? No. I need to wait for a sigmoidoscopy. Great. Can we get that done like straight away? No. There’s a waiting list.


So, for months I waited. I got thinner and paler and more exhausted by the day. I could only manage half days at work. My brain didn’t work. My mind is usually quick but it was like thinking through treacle. Brain fog was real. I refused to go off sick.


This is when I really noticed my breathing. I was also a respiratory physio by this time so I knew what was going on but I just didn’t have the energy to focus on fixing my breathing. The anxiety was back, and I couldn’t find the motivation to fix my dysfunctional breathing.

Yes, I was exhausted because my body was inflamed and attacking itself, but my blood results didn’t show anaemia. Yet I was short of breath going up the stairs. I blamed it on the blood loss but looking back it wasn’t that. I was stressed, and my breathing had gone to pot.


I finally got my diagnosis in May. Ulcerative colitis. Just in time for my June wedding. I was given Pentasa and within days my symptoms disappeared. But my exhaustion didn’t and neither did those feeling of breathlessness. In fact, they persisted for months.


Now I had a handy get out of jail free card whenever I didn’t feel great….. “it’s my ulcerative colitis”. But that wasn’t the truth. It probably did make me feel like dirt, but my mood because of my poor breathing was the biggest culprit here.


How do I know? Because I feel great now. And I have done since I fixed my breathing. Which I had to do after the next horror event.


Did you know that over breathing can affect your immune system? Inflammatory bowel disease is an autoimmune illness. Did my years of over breathing contribute to me developing symptoms of ulcerative colitis? I’ll never know but I’m highly suspicious that it played a part.


Burnout


I’m ambitious. Horribly so. I hold myself and everyone around me to really high standards. I’m always looking for the next thing. The next accomplishment. The next challenge.


I did well during my career as a physio. Climbed the ladder quickly. Learned fast. I was bloody good at it. But I always had this nagging feeling in the back of my head.


“You’re not meant to do this forever Kelly”, “this isn’t hard enough, you’re bored”, “you need to change direction, you’re running out of time”. Anyone else have a crazy voice like this? Just me?


I’d reached the highest point I could go clinically. What now? I was stuck. I was miserable. Unfulfilled. Then out of the blue a departmental management review and reshuffle happened.


I’ll condense the series of events, but I became a team leader. No more money but more managerial experience. Excellent, that’ll do. And it did for a while. But I still wanted more.


The hospital was offering managers within the trust the opportunity to study for an MBA. A business masters. THAT’S what I need. Once I have that, the world is my oyster, I can jump sectors. Deep down I’d wanted to leave the NHS for years. It wasn’t the organisation for me. I’m too free spirited, I hate being told what to do. Brilliant. Sign me up.


There I was doing a masters and working full time. It was busy but fine. I was enjoying it. I was making my own road. Nothing could stop me.


I’d been doing my MBA for about 6 months when a departmental manager job came up. Cue ambitious Kelly.


I applied for and got the job. I started in the November. By December I’d realised my mistake. This job is not for me. Too many rules, too much red tape, too much being told what to do. My soul hurt. I withdrew. How do I get out of this?


The MBA pressure was also mounting by this time. I spent a week away on a workplace placement. It was the worst week of my life. And to make it more fun my husband and I bought our first house and we were moving.


I knew something was wrong when my 65-year-old mother was working harder than me on the house move and I had to go and take a nap. I was exhausted. Frazzled. Hanging by a thread.


Then it happened. I stood there, in my new living room, it was the late May bank holiday. I’ll never forget it. I leaned against the sofa, waves of anxiety crashing over me, and I burst into tears. I couldn’t stop.


I will always remember that feeling. Total loss of control. I’d lost who I was. I didn’t even recognise myself anymore. I was frightened and I didn’t know which way to turn. On top of that I had all these physical symptoms. I was taking massive breaths in. I felt breathless. My chest hurt. My cranky breathing was driving this shit show of feelings and emotions. As if I’d let myself get like this. A breathing physio!!!


I went to the GP. I needed a note to get a deadline extension for one of my MBA assignments. I walked in and sat down. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Oh, FFS. I burst into tears, sniffling that I just need a note for a deadline extension. He looked at me and calmly said “oh, no, no, no. You need to stop. You’re burnt out”.


I have never felt so relieved in my life. It had a name. I wasn’t mad! I just needed to look after me again. I’d stopped taking care of myself. Eating rubbish and unable to exercise, because I felt so exhausted – which was caused by long term over breathing.


I went to see a life coach and I made the decision that I wasn’t going to go back to the job which was in part responsible for breaking me. I also took a break from studying. I took a one-year fixed term contract in a clinical role. I had a year of breathing space (pun intended!) to decide what I was going to do with my life. Perfect.


And here I am 15 months later. I learned to shut off the stress driving (sympathetic) side of my nervous system. I had been living in constant fight or flight. I learned that my breathing was the answer to relaxation, by switching on the parasympathetic nervous system. When you shut off the sympathetic side you can think again. Things don’t seem as bad. You get the space you need.


I spent a lot of time working on my breathing before I went back to work. I went from an 8 second breath hold (not good) to 35 seconds (good). I’m exercising again. I’m not tired anymore. I do not have feelings of anxiety. Ever. I’m not headachey anymore. My shoulders and neck aren’t rock solid anymore.


(Quick subject change based on my shoulders and neck – during our honeymoon in Thailand I had a massage and the masseuse said “your back and shoulders are horrendous, you must come back before you leave. I’ve barely been able to release them after one session”. That’s how badly I was breathing from my upper chest.)


Now, my brain is back. I’m back. I am no longer a dysfunctional breather and I FEEL AMAZING!


I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that I was meant to have all those experiences. I believe that I’m meant to have a close relationship with breathing dysfunction. I’m meant to be sat here writing this story, even if I only help one person get well again. That’s enough for me. Obviously, I hope I help a lot more people………I mean I’m still ambitious!!!!

Final thoughts……..life will be tough at times but we don’t need to make it tougher. Stress has become a normal part of this busy, crazy world. But managing how we breathe during these periods of stress is key. I honestly believe it’s a game changer.


We can learn to take control of our parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down. We can turn that noisy sympathetic nervous system off, but we need to be taught how. Imagine feeling in greater control during the difficult times. It is possible.


Our feelings and our breathing are intertwined and the sooner we realise this the better we’ll all feel.


I’m on a mission to get the word out there. Talk about it with your friends. Look out for those people who sigh and yawn a lot. If you’re stressed or anxious think about how you’re breathing.


Relax your shoulders and jaw. Breathe through your nose. Breathe from your diaphragm. Let your body and mind rest. Let yourself feel well again.


If any of this resonated with you and you think you would benefit from sorting your dodgy breathing then please get in contact! https://www.thebreathingpt.co.uk/contact-me


Breathe well,

Kelly

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