Courtesy Cheyenne Buckingham
I was 20 years old, studying abroad in Spain in the midst of my junior year of college, when I almost died. No one could figure out why I couldn’t breathe—I was on my own. I realized it was up to me to survive.
A couple of weeks earlier, my only feelings were excitement and joy that I was going on a 29-day trip to Spain. Then, on Christmas Day in Seville, I left my host family’s home to go for a 30-minute walk along a beautiful bike path. It wasn’t too hot, yet I felt winded and my face was on fire. By the time I got back to my host family’s house, I was completely out of breath and my heart was racing. After ascending the several flights of stairs to my room, I collapsed on the hardwood floor, grasping at my throat and chest in an attempt to remove what felt like a hand squeezing my airway shut. I couldn’t tell whether it was anxiety or something physically wrong that was robbing me of air. I didn’t even have enough air to call for help.
I started chanting a mantra as I pressed my cheek to the cold floor, hoping that a trace of oxygen would slip through the strawlike opening in my throat. I began repeating to myself, “You are strong and you are calm,” over and over again until I started to get more air into my lungs. Realizing that fear and helplessness were taking over, I used the mantra to establish control. I pledged that anxiety would not win this battle. I began taking small breaths: inhaling, 1, 2; exhaling, 1, 2 (something I’ve learned from yoga).
An hour later, I regained somewhat of a normal breathing rhythm, enough to call my translator and ask for help. After a steroid shot in the butt, an overdose from an inhaler, and a chest X-ray, all the doctor could tell me was, “Tienes bronquitis” (“You have bronchitis”). All I could think was that there’s no way bronchitis prompts that kind of reaction.
I wouldn’t learn until nearly three months later, back in the United States, that I had experienced a severe asthma attack. My mother remembered that I had it as an infant; a doctor confirmed that the asthma had returned.
Looking back on that day, I have no idea how I was able to stay calm, but my reaction saved my life. Giving in to anxiety would have further tightened my airways; by integrating my yoga breathing exercises, I got through. It’s a lesson I carry with me through life: Relax, don’t give in to fear, and just breathe.
You can use these 11 tips for managing anxiety and panic disorders, to help manage your breathing if you’re ever in a similar situation.