Photo: Pexels Design: Joshua Sopko

Breathing isn’t automatic. True, during a normal state of mind, from sunrise to sunset and even while you sleep, breathing feels automatic. We don’t have to give it a single thought. It just happens. Our hearts beat, our blood pumps, and our chest rises and falls — all without a single conscious thought. But what about those moments of stress and anxiety when you can’t seem to catch your breath. Is it automatic then?

Running felt impossible when I started. Getting through my first mile was pure torture let alone pushing myself further and further. But I’ve been learning a lot about myself and my body while training for my first marathon. The first, and likely most important lesson — breathing.

I used to think breathing just happened. When I ran out of breath, I thought I was simply out of shape. I didn’t feel like I had any control over it. I got frustrated and angry that I had to stop running simply because I couldn’t breathe. But a simple tip from a Navy SEAL changed everything. Breathing isn’t automatic.

This was a brand new concept for me, but it’s one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Last week, I was preparing for a presentation. One that could change the trajectory of my life for the coming months, and possibly coming years. I was pitching an idea to an organization and asking them to sponsor me in a project. This was a big deal. I’ve never attempted anything like this. It wasn’t a small ask, either. I knew I had to nail to the pitch in order to achieve success. Nervous doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.

All day I stressed. Anxiety swept over me. What if it’s no? What if they hate the idea? What if they hate me? What if… What if… My brain was failing me. My emotional and mental state was spiraling…and I couldn’t breathe. I’ve had panic attacks before. For those that have never experienced one, it’s quite unnerving. Your skin gets hot. Your pulse quickens. Your muscles tense and your breathing becomes shallow. This onsets lightheadedness and feelings of nausea. It feels like the world around you is collapsing. In the moment, you feel like you’re going to die. To anyone that has never experienced a panic attack — it’s terrifying. To those that have — I’m sorry. Just don’t forget to breathe.

“If you can’t breathe, you can’t shoot.”

As I sat in the car moments before my appointment, I recognized the symptoms: tense muscles, fast pulse, sweating brow. I had to react fast or this would end before it even started. I closed my eyes and started to breathe. I recalled the short video I watched this summer about a Navy SEAL explaining to a class of recruits that breathing isn’t automatic. When s*** hits the fan and bullets are flying around you, the first thing you forget to do is breathe. “If you can’t breathe, you can’t shoot.” Solid advice, soldier.

Navy SEALs are regarded as the toughest individuals in the world. Breathing is the most basic, yet most important tactic a SEAL learns. It’s part of the reason so much of their training is done in the water. SEALs operate under the most stressful situations imaginable. Their ability to control their breathing is literally life and death.

Breathe in, and exhale. Focus on breathing.

I filled my belly with air. Consciously aware of each and every breath. I began to reflect on my marathon training, especially the early days. I would get side cramps just a few miles into a run that felt crippling. Every breath felt like I was stabbing a long knife into my side. My only choice was to walk until I felt relief and pick back up again. I was chatting with a friend who is an expert in running. He’s an ultra marathon runner and renowned dirt bag runner. Just like the Navy SEALs, he gave me solid advice, “If you can’t breathe, you can’t run.” I can’t remember the technicals, but it boils down to taking deep, big breaths. When you get a side cramp, exhale when the opposite leg strikes the ground. Breathe in, and exhale. Breathe in, and exhale. Focus on the breathing, and everything else will fall into place.

I thought he was crazy, to be honest. Exhale on the opposite leg…sounds too simple. And it was. My next run was transformed. I focused on my breathing the entire run. Breathe in, and exhale. Each breath was intentional. Each breath was timed. Each breath was focused. I ran faster and farther than ever in my life that run. Breathing isn’t automatic.

I could feel my body calming down with each breath. My mind began to return to the task at hand — delivering a flawless pitch. I’ve never been in sales, but I know that when meeting people it’s a sales call first and foremost. I’m selling myself and the only way to be successful in selling oneself is to portray confidence. I have an idea, and I’m the best person on the planet to do it. If you can’t breathe, you can’t be confident.

A few more intentional deep breaths and I was in control once again. I took control of the automated response and focused my breathing. I intentionalized it. I walked in and delivered my pitch flawlessly. I answered their questions perfectly. I sold myself better than I could have imagined. And guess what? They loved it. They loved the idea and they felt I was the right person to this spearhead this project.

But it was still a no. The timing wasn’t right. The money wasn’t there. To be fair, it wasn’t a no. It was more of a not right now. I left the meeting with mixed emotions. I was disheartened by not getting a yes. I was lost as to how to move forward. But mostly, I was damn proud of myself for delivering myself and my idea with such confidence.

I sat down in my car and reflected in silence. Deep breathe in, and exhale. I nailed it. I didn’t forget to breathe.