In the fall of my junior year, I found my legs dangling from the exam table of a doctor’s office explaining symptoms of nausea that wouldn’t go away. Stress and anxiety had caused my appetite to disappear: I’d sit down for a meal and not be able to eat. I wasn’t hungry for my favorite hamburger and milkshake combo I’d enjoyed weekly for years.
Looking for something, anything, which would make it better, the doctor offered the following suggestion:
Have you tried breathing more?
This was not the diagnosis I wanted. In fact, this felt like the least helpful suggestion I’d ever heard.
But his white coat and stethoscope meant business. For me to start feeling back to normal, I needed to focus on breathing, through mindfulness and meditation. I needed to let go of stress in order for the nausea to subside.
This proved to be no easy task. In college, there is no shortage of moments which make it hard to breathe. I’m sure you’ve felt it, too: when the exam booklet gets passed to you from the end of the row, when your crush gets on the C1 and you wait for them to look up and lock eyes with you, the seconds before the final buzzer in Cameron when it’s tied and the other team is about to shoot a free throw.
These anxieties make your heart rate zig and zag and momentarily you can’t breathe out of fear that the next inhale will hurt more than the sinking pit in your stomach.
Feeling like you can’t breathe—from stress, or anxiety, or illness—is isolating and terrifying, all at once. The feeling is so prevalent among college students that we are trained in techniques to make it go away: Koru mindfulness classes, guided meditations, and yoga are just some of the resources offered to Duke students at the Student Wellness Center.
Let’s practice together, my doctor said. A deep breath in for four counts, and then hold it in as you count to seven. As I closed my eyes, my mind drifted away from the work of breathing and instead to the moments of college that have taken my breath away.
One. Unlocking the door to my freshman dorm room for the first time, crossing through the entrance to all of the possibilities that were in store.
Two. Walking down the center aisle of Duke Chapel as the sun hit the stained glass windows in just the right way, illuminating the pews with red and blue pockets of light.
Three. Kissing someone who made it feel like we were sinking, as though we were underwater but somehow didn’t need air.
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Four. All the times I’ve paused during my walk to class or through the gardens to take in the marvel of stone and tulips and what e.e. cummings called a “blue true dream of sky.”
Five. Beating Carolina and sprinting to the bonfire, my lungs out of breath with excitement and sheer joy.
Six. The night I opened the door to shouts of Surprise! and friends popping out of every corner of the apartment with hugs and decorations.
Seven. I think back to when my breath was taken away for the first time: “Congratulations, You have been offered a spot in the Class of 2019 at Duke University…”. I didn’t inhale again for a long time after reading those words.
Maybe we are only allowed a finite number of moments that take our breath away. William Faulkner put it this way: “There were three things and no more: breathing, pleasure, darkness.” The rhythm of our breath is the rhythm of our life: in and out, in and out, in and out.
I’ve come to learn that people often ask “Have you taken a deep breath?” when they mean to say “I love you”.
But I’ve also learned that when everything feels like it is falling apart, a few deep breaths can’t put your life back together. The road to me feeling better was paved with mindfulness exercises, but it also took the work of changing some habits, meeting with a nutritionist and counselor, and unwavering love from friends and family.
Senior year, I’m trying to keep things very simple: inhale, exhale, right foot, left foot.
Graduation looms around the corner and the cliff that the Class of 2019 stands on easily makes breathing feel impossible.
But as we stand up in unison to toss our caps into the air, perhaps I’ll experience that feeling of awe that will take my breath away. The opposite of anxiety and fear and loneliness, and instead one collective exhale. Except this is one I’ve held in for four years, and then, finally,
Janie Booth is a Trinity senior who, like everyone else, is just trying to take it one breath at a time. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.