“Until I know you better, I will tell you how to breathe!”
It’s my first day at the pediatric orthopedic hand specialty clinic on my pediatric ortho rotation in my third year of residency.
I have just been barked at by the professor emeritus, a retired Army colonel, who runs the service.
He didn’t tell me how to breathe, but he affected it.
Prior to this, my upper-level resident told me that I have to familiarize myself with the patient charts ahead of time, which I have, and the colonel will be a kitten.
My experience more closely resembles an encounter with a rottweiler disturbed by an unexpected and unwanted visitor. Perhaps the older resident doesn’t remember his first meeting.
Or, more likely, it went differently, as the resident is at least a foot taller than said colonel and built like a traditional cartoon superhero.
I take in the slap down, but then I think, I’m 27, I may not know peds ortho hand, but obviously, I know how to breathe, having done it, albeit unconsciously, all my life.
My mental defense mechanism pushes back on what I experience as ridiculous criticism, and it shields up for the rest of the day (and the rest of my interactions with him, if I’m honest).
But many years later, however, it turns out that I did have something to master about breathing.
When I started paying attention to what was happening in my body instead of in my head, I realized that every time I checked in on my breathing, it was shallow. Like I’m under duress. Because I am and have been. For a long time.
When I checked in on my breathing, I also learned to take three long, slow belly breaths to change my nervous system from stressed to relaxed. From fight or flight to rest and digest.
Deep breaths tell your nervous system that you are, at this moment, not under threat.
Shallow breathing is indicative of stress. It results from perceived external stress and contributes to internal stress on your system.
I took these breaths as my hand was on the next clinic door handle. A reset between patients. At green lights on my way to work. Before I answered a page to the ER. Before I answered a tough patient question. Before I spoke up at peer review.
And it worked. I felt calmer. My shoulders relaxed from where they’d been hanging out below my ears. And I’m ready to tackle the next task.
How can you remind yourself to check and adjust your breathing during the day?
Victoria Silas is an orthopedic surgeon and physician coach. She can be reached at Medical Minds Consulting.