Red Lights and Deep Breaths

On a Friday afternoon, I picked up my son D from school. We drove toward his brother’s school across town, chatting about his day and our plans for the weekend. After waiting at an intersection, the light turned red and I began my left turn. Just then, I saw one last vehicle barreling through the solid line; a truck coming toward the passenger side of my Honda Civic. The same side where 5 year old D was sitting. I yanked the wheel back, pointing myself straight at the truck. The next thing I knew, my little car had spun, facing the opposite direction, horn blaring, my airbag deployed.

Miraculously, the other driver, D and I, each walked away unscathed. There seemed to be no lasting physical effects. It was a traumatic experience, but we were fine.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later it sunk in, D no longer chatted happily after pick up. I anxiously held my breath while waiting to turn left. My shoulders were tight and lifted. At times I avoided the entire intersection, adding 5 minutes to the drive, and found I was on the verge of tears at all times in a car.

We had trauma, and it was stuck in our bodies.

Have you felt that too? Trauma, cemented in your bones? The day I realized what was happening, I decided to try something I had done as a scared kid, in a dark hallway, while feeling around for the light switch. I talked myself through it, not just for myself but for my 5 year old.

“D? Will you try something with me? Let’s take some long, deep breaths when we come to this stop light. Traffic lights remind us to breathe. Especially stop lights. We are going to breathe in through our noses while I count to four, we’ll hold for four, and then we’ll breathe out for four counts through our mouths. Okay? I’m going to remind us both, that we are strong. Would you like that?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised at D’s excitement for this game. Kids love to be reminded of their ability to cope, and as it turns out, so do adults. As we breathed through the light, things felt a little easier, less scary.

It’s been six months since our accident, and we still breathe at stop lights. Breath was the beginning of a healing journey. D is back to happy chatter in the back, and I am actually finding empowerment moving through that traffic light, while breathing fully. It’s a victory twice a day, and I am stronger for it.

Talking to myself out loud, helped me focus on conscious, deep breathing during times I would normally tense up. This not only improves my clarity of mind (literally, oxygen in the brain) in difficult moments, but also allows more space between stimulus and reaction. I find empowerment in having time to choose a calm and healthy response through the breath.

So, what are your red lights? What are your possible triggers that can be reframed, to actually be signs, just like traffic lights, reminding you to breathe? Try jotting down a couple moments that you consistently feel stress or anxiety. Next time you experience that moment, try talking yourself through a breathing exercise. Allowing ourselves compassion, and a soothing voice, just as we would give a small child, helps us remember we deserve gentleness as we learn new patterns and gain new strengths.

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