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Breathing and stress; a story of survival

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Slowly,inexorably, long-term stress was breaking down my health. The solution was more simple than I could imagne

Photo by Pablo Orcaray on Unsplash

Can even something as simple as breathing can either empower you to live and perform at your best, even during times of stress, or cause you chronic illness? This past year has illuminated the differences for me.

Indeed, strengths and weakness are related. In my case, my own natural determination has turned out to be both a strength and a weakness. If my parents were still alive, they would tell you that even as a child I had a purposeful attitude. They would just grin and shake their heads if anyone dared to suggest to me “you can’t do that.”

“Can’t” is a word that annoys me to no end! That word is a saboteur! Life is about the adventure. Your personal quest toward a great life requires a “can do” approach, however you choose to define it. We are all in pursuit of fulfillment and happiness.  

As far back as I can remember, I had a profound, almost magnetic, interest in public safety and caring about the lives of those in need. This formed an important part of my purpose. “Part” being the operative word here. I would later learn the importance of that word!

As a teenager growing up in small-town Ontario, my summers were full: working at the beach and our local restaurant or convenience store, white-water canoeing, and playing baseball with my friends. In winter, I volunteered with the Canadian Ski Patrol. Blending my interest in sports and service to others was a reward in itself.   

Finishing school in my 20’s, I pursued my interest in policing programs by joining the RCMP. My parents encouraged me, despite knowing I was taking on a predominantly male-oriented occupation and organization. On the personal side, my husband Jim and I skied in western Canada with family, and took wilderness whitewater canoe trips in Northern Ontario and Quebec.

In my early 30s, our two boys arrived. My community volunteering now involved programs supporting their learning and development. We continued to enjoy outdoor recreational activities including picnics in the fall with my parents and pond hockey in the winter at my father’s hunting camp.

I managed to balance the increasing responsibilities of my career, educational goals, family and friends, community activities and my own personal training. My “can do” fitness goals included training for a triathlon.  

As I approached my 40’s, I took on more commitments. While still enjoying community sports with my children, I became the Chair of our Community Policing Committee, worked with the Ontario Provincial Police and took part in a national pilot with the RCMP under the inspired direction of Deputy Commissioner Cleve Cooper.

Each project was rewarding in itself, but I was taking on too much. I remember rushing between commitments. While I was physically present, my mind was often in 100 other places. My natural ability to manage my own time could no longer keep up.

Tending to my own health needs was taking a back seat. In retrospect, this was the stage of my life when my passion for helping others began to overshadow my sense of balance.   

While participating in the “Pink Broom” workplace curling bonspiel, I slipped on the ice and tore my ACL. I remember crawling off the ice, torn between laughing and crying because I knew I had no time for rehab!

By the time I entered my 50s, I could no longer deny I was neglecting my own health. I had throttled back my community involvement to make more time for the demands at work. Meager attempts to become more active again became reminders I needed more rehab, which I barely took the time for. While I convinced others — and myself — that I was fine, silently and privately, I was terrified.  

Fast forward to January 2019, my retirement from the role as Director of the Information and Communication Technology Security Program. The work was extremely rewarding, but it was time to take my own health seriously. The relentless nature of the crisis management business of policing programs, combined with my tendency to always put work ahead of my own health, had taken its toll.  

A sedentary existence had aggravated old injuries and contributed to new ones. No longer active, I had gained 100lbs and was experiencing limitations with routine mobility. Brain fog and intense fatigue were escalating. I would wake up at night with my breathing out of control and my thoughts racing. I survived on caffeinated beverages by day.

Anaphylactic reactions to antibiotics were red flags that my immune system was struggling. I suffered from frequent nose bleeds and airway infections. I was on three blood pressure medications and becoming irritable and detached from family, friends and community interests. My family physician was ready to prescribe anxiety and insomnia medications.  

Ironically, perhaps, I knew the key to my recovery would be my own “can do” attitude — along with the right guidance and the right team. This became my health mantra. Supported by my family physician, I began to assemble the team needed to shift my health back toward the life I always intended to live. Getting help to start moving again seemed the logical starting point.

So began my journey working with the Arnprior Chiropractic Health Centre under the guidance of Dr. Paul Sly, a chiropractic doctor specializing in a variety of treatment modalities to help his clients achieve optimal health.

Dr. Sly began treating my physical injuries, with a focus on increased mobility and pain management. As my physical health slowly improved, I continued to struggle to adjust my pace mentally to less than “warp speed.” Clearly, I was naive to think the anxiety I was feeling would stop once I committed to slowing down. It had only shifted to a different outlet! Once back in the gym, I couldn’t stop. I would push myself to collapse, knowing I was adding insult to injury as I cycled back through injury treatments. 

Dr. Sly began to introduce the topic of breathing and provided some initial readings on the subject. I was surprised to learn that several of the health challenges I was facing were due in part to poor breathing habits. High blood pressure, sleep issues, anxiety, a compromised immune system, and more, were all scientifically linked to dysfunctional breathing patterns. There it was in print, in a text book! I can remember an immediate sense of relief. If this is a common problem, then there has to be a solution. I needed to learn more.  

A simple evaluation confirmed my breathing patterns had become chronically maladapted. It was profound to discover blood flow to the brain can be restricted by as much as 50% when trapped in a dysfunctional breathing pattern. 

Dr. Sly began to introduce breathing techniques taught under a program called Oxygen Advantage, founded by Patrick McKeown. A certified Oxygen Advantage trainer, Dr. Sly recently founded BreatheXchange here in Canada, with a focus on providing education and training to counter dysfunctional breathing.  

These breathing techniques, which I continue to practice, have changed my life. For the first time in 10 years, I am sleeping an average of seven hours per night. I am back into a daily fitness routine and my weight is returning to a healthy range. As my fitness “can do” goals evolve, Dr. Sly directs and adapts the breathing lessons to guide my improved health.

With the exception of one small dose, I am off all blood pressure medications. My mental focus, resilience and strength have returned. I am present and living an intentional, active, balanced and healthy life with my family again.  

As a volunteer fulfilling my purposeful life, I have become an advocate for breathing programs. I am drawn toward the potential these types of practices bring to health and wellness programs in the workplace.

The healthy lifestyle of my earlier decades has returned. Once again, I enjoy photography and painting for community charity events. Kayaking, swimming, yoga, strength training and leisurely walks in the bush with my family are essentials in my week.

When I step back I see how the volatile nature of current events is giving rise to an accelerating number of people suffering from anxiety and depression. As these numbers increase across industries and professions, organizations have an opportunity to work with professionals such as Dr. Sly to integrate breathing disciplines into their workplace programs.

The return on investment is a more resilience workforce, ready to confront the stress and performance demands of modern living. This has the potential to become the catalyst to help achieve the necessary balance between our basic human needs and our economic imperatives.  

In our stressed-out and sedentary society, it’s no surprise we can slip into dysfunctional breathing, which limits our sense of purpose and fulfillment. The proper professional can check for dysfunctional breathing or a breathing pattern disorder.

Based on your health status and performance goals, they can guide you through a program to correct and enhance your breathing. This is an investment in time and effort that everyone can afford. Take the time and choose to live your best life. As for me, my “can do” goals continue.  

More Inspiration: Check out this cool article on the Japanese word “Kokoro” and what it can do to help your life.

Author: Brenda Deugo-Mills is the former civilian Director of the Information and Communication Technology Security Program in the RCMP. She works for a Canadian corporation supporting the development of security program strategies and acts as an advocate for the adoption of breathing disciplines in health programs across industries.


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