Recently, a highly accomplished friend was talking about a project that had taken her far out of her comfort zone. The task had challenged her competence in areas she thought she had mastery and made her question some of her long-held beliefs about herself. Panic was setting in.
“I feel like I’m choking,” she tearfully confided.
Used anatomically, the word “choking” refers to the inability to breathe due to a blockage, constriction, or swelling of the airways. A person who is choking will experience the sensation of suffocating. Whether from a difficult professional challenge, a messy divorce, navigating a sick child through the health care system, accident or trauma recovery–real life, in other words–who hasn’t lived through an experience that literally robbed them of breath?
When I heard that word –choking– I flashed back to my first Red Cross First Aid training.
Confronted with someone who appears to be choking, a rescuer first ascertains whether help is needed and wanted. If yes, you must determine whether air is freely passing through their airways. In other words, are they still coughing? If they are, regardless of their obvious state of distress, the best intervention is not to intervene at all. A person who is still coughing may be momentarily terrified, but they are still capable of saving themselves. Until they actually lose the ability to cough or make a noise, your job is simple:
Standing close by their side, loudly ask, “Are you choking?” If they shake their heads in the affirmative–the only communication they’ll likely be able to handle–instruct with gusto, “Keep coughing!”
The first time I received this instruction it seemed insensitive and more than a bit silly. Until the situation is resolved, what choice is there but to keep coughing? Why do they need me to state the obvious? On reflection, though, the whole concept seems elegant and brilliant in its simplicity.
I’m sure no yogic ramifications were considered in coining the term that describes the still-active victim state: Conscious Choking. But the term, the whole process in fact, offers both the one being rescued and the person attempting to help, valuable lessons in self-study, right-relationships, and connecting to source.
In the face of discomfort and uncertainty, the first response is most often to try to diminish or eliminate the discomfort by any means possible. If we are the one with the problem, we might try avoidance tactics such as refraining from difficult conversations, self-medicating, burying ourselves in work, or using food, television or the internet to zone out. As helpers, we offer rewards, strategies, physical support, or even throw money at the problem if we think it will help.
I know in the case of my friend, my first instinct was to start offering my helpful advice and useful strategies. But frankly, knowing nothing of her field, the players, or the depths of her own inner reserve, I was not even remotely qualified to offer that kind of support. The best service I had to offer was to stand at her side, hold space for her struggle, and offer her encouragement. Instead of my non-useful “help,” it would be better for me to ask non-judgmental questions, listen without interrupting, and make tea.
It’s another way of saying, “I bear witness to your struggle. I will step in if you become incapacitated, but you won’t. Just keep going. You’ll find your way to the other side of this.”
As to the person who is “choking” on feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, or fear of the unknown, it may not be obvious at the time, but the very act of coughing means there is fight left in us. As long as we can still draw breath and have the determination to keep moving despite hardships, we’re still in the game. Every bad situation eventually comes to some kind of conclusion. Self-destructive behavior, negative self-talk, catastrophizing, and lashing out at others only weaken us physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Embracing, rather than retreating from, the struggle, watching for triggering events, and observing our reactionary responses and behavior, all offer opportunities to corral our panic, listen to our bodies, and learn to trust our instincts. Sometimes true relief is only gained by hitting the depths of despair and finding the way out, one painful inch at a time. Patience, compassion, self-acceptance and allowance for errors, and a cup of Epsom salt in a warm bath can go a long way toward mitigating a stressful situation.
Are you “choking”? Then you are still alive, awake, and in the fight to survive. You’ve got this.