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  • Sara Braas

Word of the Month - Hyperventilate - May 2022

Word of Month

May 2022


It’s amazing how words hold power over you. Some are rooted deeply in emotion. Hyperventilate is one of those words for me. In college, and shortly after I had powerful panic attacks which caused me to hyperventilate. The first time it happened was in an evening journalism class. I truly thought I was having an asthma attack and couldn’t understand why after checking me into the ER, (vitals and everything) they left me sitting in the waiting room for what felt like an eternity.

“You’re just having a panic attack” is such a downplay of what feels like an explosion. Not just anything. When someone says “take deep breaths,” my diaphragm convulses with fear because it was those deep breaths that caused me to hyperventilate in the first place!

The second time I hyperventilated was on an airplane to a job interview. Needless to say after college I put a ton of pressure on myself to find a job. I don’t know where that pressure came from, because it certainly wasn’t my family pushing me. As my body erupted in confusing heaves of breath, I grabbed the paper bag from the seatback and wondered whether you were really supposed to breath into it like they do on TV. What did that do?

I wasn’t ready to start in the real world, but I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself either. I felt the expectation to go out and achieve in a visceral way, so that’s what I tried to do. Ignoring my body’s clear warning signs that something didn’t feel right.

When I lived in LA, sometimes panic would strike while driving my car in six lanes of stop-n-go traffic. Those were painful trips, where I tried desperately to make space and learn to sit with anxiety, an uncomfortable co-pilot.

Since then, I’ve learned to listen to my body and my heart about what I want. It’s helped me to get comfortable with my anxiety and learn to listen to it and make space for it. It’s not perfect and I’ve found anxiety creeping back into my life in different ways over the years. I try (with varying degrees of success) to welcome it like an old friend.

Since then I’ve learned how to cope “There you are, anxiety. It’s been a while since we’ve talked, but I know you are there. What are you trying to tell me this time?”

Sometimes it’s ‘get more sleep’ or ‘drink less caffeine’ or ‘are you eating healthy?’ ‘exercising?’ Now, I try to listen and make adjustments.

Yoga and meditation breathing helped a lot too, but I always have to fight through the fear that all this breathing is going to bring on more panic. So far, it never has. In fact, those deep relaxing breaths have helped me find peace in my body.

The word ‘hyperventilate’ still holds power for me. To this day even seeing it written or saying it aloud makes my stomach clench and my breath contract. Bracing for an attack. I remember how it felt to be a small girl facing enormous decisions. Being forced to build a life in a vast world where anything is possible and there is no map or guidebook. Because ‘anything is possible’ sounds great until you’ve faced with, ‘if anything is possible, then what do you do?’

If I ever start to doubt the power of language or the importance of a story, I think of words like ‘hyperventilate.’

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