I listened intently as my co-therapist, Diane, advised the woman at The Marriage Recovery Center to “remember to breathe and think.” What did she mean by that, I wondered.
“We often get so caught up in our story,” Diane said, “that we forget to breathe and think. We escalate into our Protective Self, forgetting that we’re feeling defensive, which covers other more vulnerable feelings.”
These were wise words. She continued teaching.
“We get anxious and tense up,” she said. “We want to defend ourselves, we stop listening and are ready to protect ourselves. It’s no fun to feel vulnerable and threatened. We must keep breathing and thinking.”
I momentarily mulled over the last argument I had with my wife. Knowing all I know about managing my emotions, listening to the kernel of truth and being aware of the shift that subtly takes us from connected to disconnected, I had forgotten the power and importance of the short phrase—‘breathe and think.’
Oh, but it’s so easy to shift into feelings. Feeling threatened, we respond defensively. Feeling frightened, we often respond defensively. Feeling anxious, we often respond defensively. All of this takes place quite naturally in the ‘flight or fight’ syndrome, overriding a more healthy response of ‘flow.’ But, it takes breathing and thinking to get to that healthier place.
Breathe and think. This is very simple advice with profound repercussions. If we breathe, we keep oxygen going to vital parts of our body, including our brains. If we think, we keep ourselves processing events. We’re able to attend to what is happening while we simultaneously consider what is happening within us.
Lest I make this sound simple, it is not. When all systems are on alert, as in a time of tension and conflict, it is very tricky to stay tuned into what we are feeling and attend to our mate. This is very challenging, but necessary. Not only is it critical to stay focused on the interaction with our mate, but we must attend to what is happening with us. Our attention will be easier if we remember to slow things down, breathe and think.
Let’s remember these simple but profound tools to use, especially during times of tension and conflict.
1. Conflict is normal, with a tendency to ‘fight or flight’.
Our bodies are going to naturally feel threatened, and that threat can come from any number of places. It can come from old wounds getting tweaked, current attacks on our character, feelings of vulnerability and fear.
2. In moments of stress, we tend to freeze—failing to breathe or think.
Knowing this, we must rehearse ‘breathing and thinking,’ especially during less stressful times when it will be easier to practice. Watch your breathing. Listen to what is happening inside of you, even as you listen to your mate or others. Practice breathing and thinking.
3. Practice healthy thinking.
It is tempting, especially in times of stress, to shift into black or white thinking, victim stance or catastrophizing. We must challenge these faulty thinking errors with truth. Scripture teaches us to grow up in our thinking: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (I Corinthians 13:11)
4. Replace faulty thinking with healthy, mature thinking.
This will take effort and won’t necessarily come naturally. Some old patterns of thinking will be particularly hard to eliminate. Place old faulty thinking patterns down on paper with the truth right next to it. Practice healthy thinking.
5. Celebrate growth.
We all need encouragement. Even when you slip and fall down, get back up again. Acknowledge the errors you’ve made, but move forward into healthy thinking. And, keep breathing.
Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.