Scared Stiff: Breathwork Brings One Person Back into the World

A woman stands in a grassy field and streatches her arms out while taking a deep breath.As David Frawley wrote in Yoga: the Greater Tradition, “Breath and Mind are connected like the two wings of a bird. The breath reflects our thoughts and emotionsfear makes us forget to breathe.”

Emily’s boyfriend dropped her; he told her he wouldn’t ask her out again because she was like a parrot, she always agreed with him. “It’s like you’re not there, Em,” he said. About the same time her favorite teacher told her basically the same thing—she was smart, but didn’t seem to have a mind of her own; the teacher suggested Emily might need help, so Emily decided to see a psychotherapist—me.

Emily told me her story, laughed, said she was silly, and looked half ready to go and half longing to stay. “That’s no reason to see a therapist,” Emily said. She sat rigidly on the edge of her chair, so stiff and straight she looked like she was balancing a book on her head. She made none of the little movements people use to get comfortable. In fact, she didn’t move at all. She often held her breath, and breathed mostly from her chest.

I had the strong feeling that I shouldn’t breathe, either, that any move I might make—even something as subtle as a blink, would hurt Emily somehow. She couldn’t tell me how she felt, but she could show me—she couldn’t speak freely or think for herself, and she wasn’t allowed to move a muscle. She was always scared, and her body showed it; she walked stiffly with short mincing steps, as though treading on egg shells; her face was frozen in an expressionless mask; she rarely spoke, and her voice was very soft when she did speak. She was trying to be invisible, even from herself.

For many months I gently listened to the lists Emily made of her days. Emily was passive, and always agreed with me, just as her boyfriend and her teacher said. She was a chameleon—blending into the background to avoid being noticed.

When she was a little girl Emily often woke up from nightmares in the middle of the night; she pulled the covers over her head, making sure they were completely and tightly tucked in, held her breath, and became invisible. Her parents didn’t protect her, and were even abusive sometimes; when she told me about family life she said it was okay, but she spoke like a robot, and looked scared stiff. Emily often felt cold, and I offered her a blanket, something, she said, her parents would never have done—they would have told her she wasn’t cold, just complaining.

Psychotherapy creates a safe space where mind and body can come together and find peace; the therapist uses mirroring, empathic understanding, metaphors, and stories; the therapist’s reactions may be different than expected, creating kinder pathways. I wanted to help Emily write a new story for herself, and I wanted her to relax.

One day I asked Emily if she would like to begin her therapy sessions with a brief centering experience—belly breathing. I showed her how to breathe deeply, filling up her lungs, hoping this would help her inhabit her body and calm down.

Starting our meetings with a breath centering technique brought us closer together. Emily became more attuned to her body’s hints when she was beginning to feel anxious, and was able to enjoy the feeling of slow complete breaths, the energy of the in-breath, and the deep relaxation of the out-breath.

Emily was feeling safer and could breathe easy. She had found her original, primordial breathing rhythm, and experienced peacefulness in a safe place with another person, allowing the deep self to emerge and feel accepted. She was in tune with herself and others, the beginning of mindfulness. Her relief from stress and anxiety, and her growing ability to catch herself tightening up and soothe herself before the anxiety took over, had a profound effect on her experience of being in the world. She felt stronger and more collected, no longer a victim.

Her talk in therapy changed too, now less a recitation of events and more a consideration of their meaning, and why they were significant to her and to others. In short, she was able to reflect on her experience, and hold firm in the face of powerful emotions; as her sense of self became more coherent, she developed qualities of mindfulness. She was less reactive and more spontaneous, and began to see herself as worthwhile and good. Her friends told her she was different, more alive.

© Copyright 2010 by By Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • chloe milner

    chloe milner

    January 20th, 2010 at 3:02 PM

    This speaks of how low the person is on self confidence… without self confidence we cannot make decisions of our own and just do as others want us to…this can have a really bad effect on an individual’s life as there are a lot of situation in each one’s life when he/she has to decide individually. Such individuals will have a tough time in such situations…

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 20th, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    Hi Chloe,
    You are so right. without self confidence you can’t know your own mind and decide what you like and don’t like, or what you want to do. Your life isn’t your own.
    Take care,

  • Robyn


    January 21st, 2010 at 5:46 AM

    So happy when I see how beneficial therapy has been for others- it has been a lifesaver as well as a life changer for me too and I want to do what I can to spread the word!

  • nancy


    January 21st, 2010 at 5:57 AM

    I frequently observe the same lack of confidence from the special needs children I work with. I visualized Emily as a young scared child as I read your story. It is amazing how quickly conscious breathing connects each of us more closely to our loving and lifts us out of fear.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 21st, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    Good for you, Robyn, therapy can be a life changer and even a life saver!

  • Serena J.

    Serena J.

    January 21st, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    I have encountered a few people with this kind of behavior in school.they do not mingle with people and tend to keep to themselves.they try to be invisible,just as you have pointed out.they try and evade any group discussion or even if they are present they don’t speak a word.I just think this really hampers the growth of a person as an individual and such people,if not treated,will have a tough time in their professional life.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 21st, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    Hi Serena,
    You’re right, this kind of behavior is a real problem, personally and professionally–and one that is often overlooked. The problem can be just as invisible as the person living in hiding.
    Take care,

  • Tabitha


    January 22nd, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    Super article, Lynn. I’m glad that Emily had found her way to you. That’s a shame about her boyfriend although in the end he did her a favor since she sought out therapy.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    To Nancy- Somehow we’re out of synch letter wise, but we’re sure in synch otherwise. I worked with special needs children for several years, and I hoped I help them become less fearful.
    I saw Emily’s scared young kid side in her eyes almost right away when she walked in to my office.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    Hi Tabitha,
    I’m glad you like the article. You’re right, even though the relationship didn’t work out, Emily’s boyfriend was caring enough to tell her why- and she was able to hear it and use what he said to get her life in order. As you said, he did her a favor, and she was wise enough to accept it and run with it.

  • Francis W.

    Francis W.

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:47 PM

    I’ve worked with a similar girl and tried to be friendly and chatty. She didn’t meet me halfway. I got the impression she thought I had a hidden agenda, which couldn’t have been further from the truth! My intentions were good. All I wanted to do was help this girl. I’m sure she was lonely as well.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 22nd, 2010 at 9:47 PM

    Hi Francis,
    Sorry she couldn’t accept your good help. Do you think she was too scared? I’m sure she was lonely, as you say.
    Take care,

  • Francis W.

    Francis W.

    January 23rd, 2010 at 8:37 PM

    Hi Lynn. Yes, I believe so. I could understand perhaps if it had been a man approaching her. She was such a nervous little thing. She had the “sinking into the background” perfected the way she agreed with everything she was asked. I often wonder what became of her. Thanks for responding!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 23rd, 2010 at 9:35 PM

    She may have been afraid of women and men both, Francis, it does sound like that. You were very lovely to try to help her. It can be frustrating to offer help and be rejected. Sometimes the best thing is to be generous, as you are, and then let go of what happens next. Like sending butterflies or bubbles out into the atmosphere.
    take care,

  • Belle


    January 23rd, 2010 at 10:16 PM

    Belly breathing is excellent! You don’t appreciate how poorly you breathe until you become conscious of your breathing. I’m a shallow breather myself and need to remind myself to do that. Thanks Lynn for reminding me.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 24th, 2010 at 5:56 AM

    Hi Belle,
    Amazing how the simplest things are hard to remember- even though they give big results. Glad you’re taking deep breaths!
    Take care,

  • Sylvia


    January 26th, 2010 at 5:29 PM

    It makes me sad to think of people living that kind of half life, blending in with the wallpaper wherever they go. Lynn, is there anything an ordinary non-professional can do to help bring them out of their shells more, without crowding them?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 26th, 2010 at 6:09 PM

    Sylvia, that’s a really good question- how to help someone who is scared without crowding them or frightening them away. It’s a delicate balance.
    I don’t know if you’ve ever made friends with a scared kitten or puppy- you have to offer them nourishment and friendship, and keep your distance at the same time, let them come to you when they’re ready.
    People aren’t so different. Let the “scaredy cat” call the shots- how near and how far and how fast or slow to proceed when making friends.
    And I don’t think you’re so ordinary, Sylvia, because your question is extraordinary and gets at the heart of the problem.

  • Sylvia


    January 26th, 2010 at 7:25 PM

    Why thank you Lynn! :)I’ll take your words to heart in both respects.

  • Jacquie


    January 26th, 2010 at 9:45 PM

    That’s so wonderful that she came so far! Emily is an inspiration. Fantastic.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 27th, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    Yes, Jacquie, Emily did go far- little by little she became less afraid and was able to open to her true self and blossom. People can do amazing things.

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