[2-min read] I spent a lot of time holding my breath during the pandemic. After the study circulated of how we could contract COVID-19 from the respiratory droplets of a person jogging past, I started holding my breath when I passed a runner not wearing a mask. In Minneapolis, most residents didn’t embrace the idea of wearing masks in outdoor spaces; using one hand I could count the number of runners I saw wearing one. I’m not a runner, but I do ride a bike a lot and I didn’t wear a mask, either. I held my breath.
Luckily, the city did a great job of making space for all us outdoor enthusiasts, so only occasionally was I at risk of passing out due to low oxygen. The lakes in Minneapolis have separate paved paths for pedestrians and cyclists. The cycling paths are one-way. The city responded to the need for pandemic distancing by closing the roads around the lakes to vehicle traffic so that people had plenty space to ride their bikes one-way in the opposite direction. It was blissful. What a necessary indulgence during a chaotic time.
Later studies debated the chances of contracting the virus even with mask-wearing. I reasoned that since breathing in another person’s respiratory droplets was the most common transmission of COVID-19, that holding my breath behind my mask provided an additional measure of protection to me and/or the other person. For example, there were times when I crossed paths with a person who wore a mask, as did I, and though we had the best of distancing intentions we would cross less than six feet apart. So I held my breath in the enclosed common spaces of my condo building, like the mailroom and elevator; in narrow aisles of the grocery store; or when someone passed too closely walking out the IN door of a coffee shop.
Shallow breathing over time can manifest a sense of unease. It’s a relationship of mutual causality, so not breathing deeply can be a consequence of stress and anxiety. Common advice for feeling overwhelmed is to exhale long and even audibly when possible. And it’s effective, pandemic or no.
Inhaling deeply is an entirely different phenomenon. In moments when you are hesitant about moving forward, it takes bravery to consciously inhale. It’s a small act of accepting what comes next, trusting you’ll be okay in the moment that follows. Try it when you have a chance – did you sense the courage that arrives with it?
I’m vaccinated now (including the post-second-vax, two-week waiting period). At last, the time has arrived again for carefree breathing. But it doesn’t come naturally yet. It takes practice to remember to not hold my breath in certain situations. When I do remember, I inhale deeply this newer existence.