Learning to Breathe

Commentary By Xyna Bell, Ph.D.

The breath is the most basic human requirement. At birth, the first question asked, “Is the baby breathing”? Our culture is replete with examples of the importance of breathing. Some of you will remember “Waiting to Exhale”, by Terry McMillan, or Toni Braxton’s, “Breath Again”; What about the movie “Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, where people were controlled by cutting off their oxygen? I better change the subject, I’m dating myself.

The image of the knee of oppression pushing into Mr. George Floyd’s neck as he cried “please I can’t breathe, mama mama” evoked a primal fear response for a number of us. For AfricanAmericans it reinforced the knowledge, there is no safety for us. Our world view shifts, we learn that, “those that are to keep us safe”, are to be feared. The African-American experience is one of trauma and abuse at times overt, often covert. From a psychological standpoint, the fear response is over stimulated. Where can I breathe? Where is safety?

The fear response is wired into peoples’ nervous systems. The inability to breathe sends a signal to our brain that we are in danger. Our autonomic nervous system is activated. Its automatic, one has limited conscious control over just one system, breathing. Deep diaphragm breathing can be used to counter the fear response, it is learned and practiced. Breathing techniques are evidenced based fear management tools. In general, there are 3 types of meditation techniques: “1) Concentrative meditation is a focused awareness of a sound/thought/object/image for example prayer or focused breathing. 2) Mindfulness is an awareness of your breathing, thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise. 3) Expressive meditation is active techniques such as chanting, whirling, exercise and dancing.” (Center for Mind Body Medicine)

I am an active member at Houston’s historic S.H.A.P.E. Community Center. While participating in the breathing skill that he learned at S.H.A.P.E. If you have a neighborhood community center or are active in organizations consider offering evidence-based stress management classes. The skills are useful for times of trauma and also times of distress, before a job interview or sitting in traffic. Pastor Juanita Rasmus of St. John’s Downtown’s radio station KMAZ 102.5fm radio station had a “breathing commercial”.

The African-American community grapples with the stigma of therapy. To see teeshirts that say Black Mental Health Matters or Jesus+Therapy, is a sign that we are aware of the need for mental wellness. The beauty of sharing information, resources, and experiences strengthens our connections which further enhances or mental wellness. Ownership of “safe spaces” will help to decrease the fear response and improve our ability to use our critical thinking skills, even more powerful when it is a collective.

If reimagined mental health wellness means that we speak to power to obtain the resources and programs that support the growth and well-being of African-American communities, than protest we must.

Xyna Bell, Ph.D.— is, among other things, a licensed psychologist with a clinic invested in community vitalization via membership in the Coalition of Urban Resource Experts (C.U.R.E.). Her practice provides outpatient mental health services. She is the 2019 recipient of the Association of Black Social Workers Community Service Award.

Xyna Bell, Ph.D.
2225 Hermann Drive
Houston, TX 77004
713 522 3015 (o) 713 522 3016 (f)

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