It’s easy to overlook your own bias, especially if you never see anything that seems to contradict it. Ever since I was a teenager, I had a kind of stigma associated with people who used breathing exercises as a way of managing stress. I’d never actually tried it myself. If I had, I think my opinion would be different; because breathing exercises actually work really well at reducing stress, especially the panic-attack kind.
This prejudice of mine went unexamined for years (as prejudice often does). And thinking back, I think it comes from how I was introduced to the whole idea. In fact, I don’t think I could have had a worse introduction.
The Story of Kevin: When Pranks Go Bad.
When I was thirteen I went to a summer camp for boys with my cousin. Most of my time there was spent throwing sticks at things and seeing what would catch on fire. Two boys thought it would be funny to tip over a port-o-potty while someone was inside. I don’t remember the victim’s name (I’ve always been bad at remembering names). So I’ll call him “Kevin” in this story.
Kevin managed to kick open the door of the tipped over port-o-potty while some the boys laughed. Kevin was furious. He pulled out his fishing knife and started waving it around in the air at no one in particular. The boys continued to laugh.
“You think this is funny?”, Kevin yelled out. “I’m gonna kill everyone in the whole ****ing camp!”
This got everyone’s attention. Kevin yelled out again, threw his knife on the ground, dropped to his knees, and covered his face. He started to cry.
“I hate all of you! I hate all of you!”, he yelled out repeatedly through his tears.
Everyone was quiet. I didn’t know how to respond to this situation so I just walked away.
To say I was immature would have been an understatement. At thirteen, I barely understood why he was upset, let alone how to help or what to do. It seemed like this whole unfortunate situation was no one’s fault, and there was really nothing to be learned from it; sometimes people just throw their knives on the ground and start crying.
I was told by an adult later that day that Kevin was “known to have anger problems”. The other boys and I were told to try and not provoke him and that he would be picked up by his grandma in the morning. This wasn’t a satisfactory explanation for me. Kevin didn’t have anger problems, he had knife-throwing and crying problems.
That night I set out to get some answers. I wanted to connect the dots between the port-o-potty tipping over and him breaking down in tears. I found him by himself in a tent near the edge of our camping area. He was counting to ten, then counting backward from ten – very slowly, in the dark.
This just kept getting more and more weird.
Kevin stopped counting as he noticed me and quickly turned on a flashlight which he shined in my direction. I wanted to ask him about what happened earlier that day and how he was feeling now, but what came out was, “So you gonna kill everybody?”
That wasn’t what I wanted to say, but it was close enough. Kevin didn’t reply. He just looked at me. I couldn’t see him well since it was dark and he was shining a flashlight right into my face.
“So what are you doing?”, I asked. I got no reply. After a long silence I invited him to come to the campfire with everyone else, and he did.
When the other boys noticed who I was with they stopped talking and looked at each other. Eventually Kevin started counting and holding his breath again but quieter this time. Nobody knew what to say, so we just say in silence, listening to Kevin count to ten, forwards and backward, over and over.
The next morning, Kevin was gone before I woke up. Presumably picked up by his grandma.
And that was my introduction to breathing exercises. Kevin didn’t have the words to articulate what he was doing and he probably didn’t understand it fully. But I think he knew it worked. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be doing it when there were no parents around to check up on him. Thirteen-year-old me didn’t pick up on any of that though. All I saw was a kid with a serious lack of chill who creeped everyone out.
And from then on, whenever I would hear about reducing stress using breathing exercises, my mind would go back to that awkward night with Kevin at summer camp.
One Decade Later
Looking back on the situation, I totally relate to Kevin now. People tip over my port-o-potty all the time. And when they do, I try to remember to breathe. As corny as it might sound, it totally works. Just breathe.
And don’t worry about what people think, it’s not that weird.