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How to care for your mental health through centuries-old practice of breath prayer

How to care for your mental health through centuries-old practice of breath prayer

An excerpt from “Breath as Prayer: Calm Your Anxiety, Focus Your Mind, and Renew Your Soul.”

On a late February night last year, I found myself in a hospital room beside my daughter, who had been admitted for what would be nearly three weeks of around-the-clock care as she battled both physical and psychological symptoms of various health conditions. The only sound in the room was the heart monitor that beeped to the rhythm of her struggling heart as I laid down on the vinyl couch beside her bed. Almost immediately I felt the familiar signs of anxiety begin to flood through my body. My chest grew tight and heavy and my hands began to tremble as I struggled to catch my breath. I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember, but that night, as I faced overwhelming feelings of fear and helplessness, the physical symptoms of my anxiety became almost more than I could bear.

But I had a lifeline.

In the middle of the dark, when I couldn’t find any words to say, let alone to pray, I remembered a tool that I had spent some time learning about: breath prayers. Breath prayers combine deep breathing exercises with prayers of meditation on God’s Word to help calm your body while focusing your mind on truth. Made of just a couple of lines from a familiar Bible verse, they’re prayed to the rhythm of the breath.

How to care for your mental health through centuries-old practice of breath prayer

The words of one of the prayers came to my mind that night. So I took a deep breath, and as I inhaled I tried to focus my mind on the first few words, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and as I exhaled slowly I whispered, “I have all that I need.” Then I repeated the rhythm. I inhaled deeply, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and then slowly exhaled, “I have all that I need.” As I did this several times, my anxiety began to ease. The deep breathing helped to calm the physical symptoms of my anxiety, and the simple prayer helped me to recenter my thoughts on Christ and his love for me, and I drifted off to sleep with a renewed peace.

There in that hospital room, breath prayers gave me words to pray when I had no words to pray, when all I had to offer was my trembling breath. They became a lifeline to me throughout that hospital stay, as I walked the halls breathing and praying, praying and breathing through all the hard days. And I’ve continued to practice them in all the long months since, to help calm my body and focus my mind on Christ.

Although I now regularly use breath prayer, along with therapy and medication, to manage my anxiety and depression, I didn’t always manage my mental health very well at all. In fact, for years I ignored or denied the extent of my own anxiety. It hid beneath layers of perfectionism and people-pleasing. I didn’t even really know much about mental health until my daughter, who was 13-years-old at the time, began having panic attacks and was soon after diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In order to help my daughter through her mental health struggles, I had to acknowledge and address my own.

How to care for your mental health through centuries-old practice of breath prayer

It has not been an easy journey, but my perspective toward mental health has completely shifted as we have walked the hard road toward mental health and healing together. I no longer try to ignore or hide my anxiety, but instead I notice it as a signal that I need to slow down and pay attention. It is no longer an emotion that binds me in fear and shame, because I now know that I can choose to respond to it in a different way.

Whether it is Mental Health Awareness Month or not, we all have an opportunity to take some time to really learn about mental health and how to support those in our families and communities whom it impacts.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • 1 in 6 youth experience a mental health condition every year.
  • Half of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
  • 1 in 20 adults in the United States experiences a serious mental illness every year.
  • More than 51 million adults in the US are managing a mental illness every day.

These are no small numbers. Chances are there is someone in your life right now, maybe even someone under your roof, that has a mental health condition. This is too important to ignore.

How to care for your mental health through centuries-old practice of breath prayer

Take some time this month to focus on your mental health. Reach out for help if you are struggling. Find tools that work for you. Breath prayer is just one of so many tools out there that can help you manage anxiety and care for your body, mind, and soul. They aren’t a cure for anxiety, nor are they a replacement for professional medical treatment or therapy, but breath prayers can be a powerful tool to add to your mental health toolkit.

By taking time to learn about mental illness and by making your own mental health a priority, you can help break the stigmas surrounding mental health and become a voice of acceptance and hope to those around you who live with mental health conditions.

Taken from “Breath as Prayer: Calm Your Anxiety, Focus Your Mind, and Renew Your Soul” (Thomas Nelson, 2022) by Jennifer Tucker. Used with permission.


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Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker is the author of Breath as Prayer: Calm Your Anxiety, Focus Your Mind, and Renew Your Soul.” Her work has been featured in publications and books including The Message Canvas Bible and the bestselling coloring book Whatever Is Lovely. She lives in central Georgia with her husband, Mark, and daughters Emma and Lilly. Jennifer is a devoted follower of Jesus and an advocate for mental health. Learn more at breathasprayer.com.