Lessons from Jordan: How Deep Breath Can Be Helpful for Mental Health

Lessons from Jordan: How Deep Breath Can Be Helpful for Mental Health

Zaad Al-khair
Life at Za’atri Refugee Camp—my home in Jordan—has changed dramatically due to the coronavirus. Before the pandemic, the dirt roads were filled with children and chatter in every corner; now, there is only silence. The thought of visiting friends or going to the market—that not long ago energized me—is now accompanied by stomach knots, sweaty palms, and heavy breathing. These are signs I first learned to recognize seven years ago. 

In 2013, my parents and I moved to Za’atri because of the war in Syria. At 14 years old, I left behind my childhood home, adult siblings, and friends, which introduced a whirlwind of emotions that I had never before felt, couldn’t name, and didn’t how to process. Why did I feel a constant pressure in my chest? Where did it come from and why didn’t it go away when I was safe? 

I found the answers in science, coming to me in the shape of a book called The Field Guide For Barefoot Psychology. The Field Guide tells the story of two siblings displaced by war, Isra’ and Ahmed, while unveiling how those experiences impact their bodies and minds. In the story, Isra’ was older than me when the war started, but while reading I recognized many of the emotions she felt. To my surprise, the way I felt was not unique to my experience but common to many who had to leave their homes seeking safety. My body was showing me signs. Behind every feeling or behavior, there was a scientific explanation, and an exercise, I could do to help me manage it. 

When experiencing stress, we have the tendency to breathe in and to hang onto the breath because our main breathing muscles tighten in response to the sense of threat. Belly breathing signals to the brain that both our mind and body can come down from an elevated state of tension. I know it seems simplistic, but breath can be our greatest ally when trying to calm the body— and mind. 

Again today, I find myself adapting to a new reality. Jordan has implemented some of the most restrictive lockdown measures; even through Ramadan, the most social month for Muslims, I couldn’t visit with family and friends. I have to work remotely. Loneliness creeps in as the days go by, and I feel that same tightness in my chest that I first experienced when adjusting to life in Za’atri. But every time that happens, I remind myself that it is not unique to my experience while going back to the exercises that, in the past, have helped manage the signs my body is showing me. As we navigate these uncertain times, our bodies can become a source of certainty. Breathe.

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