Today on the show, I’m joined by author Jennifer Tucker. Jennifer talks about her discovery of breath prayer and how it helped her with her own anxiety.
- Jennifer’s experience of anxiety and depression
- How Jen came across breath prayer
- How breath prayer helps calm anxiety
- Examples of breath prayer
- Jennifer’s Book: Breath as Prayer: Calm Your Anxiety, Focus Your Mind, and Renew Your Soul
Links and Resources:
Carrie: Hope for Anxiety and OCD episode 75. Today on the show, I’m very excited to bring an interview with Jennifer Tucker, author of Breath as Prayer. She’s gonna share with us her discovery of this practice of breath prayers and how those helped her get through a very difficult situation in her own life. So here is the interview. Jennifer, talk with us about your story of dealing with anxiety and depression.
Jennifer: Sure. So, my story of dealing with anxiety, and depression is a whole lot of not dealing with my anxiety and depression. I think for a very long time, I wouldn’t even admit to myself that I really struggled as much as I did with anxiety and depression. I grew up really feeling like anxiety was almost like a sin. It’s really bad. If you’re anxious, ’cause the Bible says “be anxious for nothing, do not worry about anything”. So that was crammed in my head so much. And so when I would struggle with feelings of anxiety or feelings of depression. I would really be filled with a lot of shame about that.
I tried to hide it. I tried to mask it for a very long, and I didn’t even realize what I was doing it. I don’t think at the time, especially as a teenager, young adult, I really didn’t know that’s what I was doing with my anxiety. I came out a lot as. It masked as perfectionism, overworking, extreme people pleasing. I felt like I need control every little piece of my life in order to keep those feelings of anxiety at that day. And then when things, of course, wouldn’t go my way or things weren’t quite perfect. Then my anxiety really would flare up and I’d have a really hard time emotionally. I just felt like I was just a really emotional person.
Why do I feel this way? Why do I struggle so much? I’ve always leaned more toward a bit of melancholy, kind of just. More that way. Just my natural tendency is that way. And as far as the depression side of it, I really did not recognize my depression for what it really was, the symptoms. I didn’t want to have it, so I kind of masked, and hit it a lot. It wasn’t until my youngest daughter, when she was 13, she started having very severe panic attacks and that’s what really kind of sent us. Head first into the world of mental health and trying to help her through her severe anxiety disorder that she had and panic disorder. I had to get real honest with myself and my own anxiety and my own struggles with my own mental health.
I’ve learned a ton in the last four years since we’ve been on this journey with her. And a lot of the work has been working on myself and working on addressing my own anxiety and depression. I see a therapist regularly. I take antidepressants. And I love Jesus with all my heart when those things are not contradictory, I’ve come a long way. My whole idea of mental health has totally flipped and shifted since working with my daughter through all of her struggles and identifying and being honest with myself and with God about my own.
Carrie: I think your story is so relatable to many of our listeners who grew up with that church idea of, okay, well, the Bible says “be anxious for nothing, or don’t be anxious”. Don’t be afraid. And we take that the wrong way. We take it kind of like a directive, like a command, like do not almost like it’s next to do not murder, do not murder, do not be anxious, but really it’s more, I see it as comfort as God sharing with us. I have everything in control it’s going to be okay. Right?
I don’t want you to have to worry about that. Just like, I would comfort my daughter if she cries it’s okay. I’d tell her like, everything’s fine. And God does that with us through scripture. It’s just that we don’t have a tone connected to the Bible. And so whatever tone gets laid on it by spiritual leaders and others is the tone we take from it. A lot of times. I like what you said too about masking your anxiety as other things, as perfectionism as the person, that’s the high achiever, the go-getter. That’s always moving, always going, the people pleasing. A lot of times people don’t recognize the symptoms of anxiety in their lives because they are so high functioning.
One of my friends was just talking to me about this today who’s also a counselor and she said, “you know, so many people deal with high functioning anxiety. And they don’t even realize it”. And she said, “people don’t think that I’m anxious, but there are times when I’m anxious because I look so high functioning, I look like I’ve got my ducks in a row and I have things together”. So maybe that’s a cue for some people who are listening right now. Maybe they think they’re listening for somebody else. And they might realize like, Hey, I have some of those things too.
Jennifer: Absolutely. I think for a lot of years I kept myself so busy, so I didn’t have time to pay attention to really, what was really going on. It wasn’t until I had to slow down that I was able to really identify and recognize those symptoms for what they really were when I took away all those masks. I had to quit my job, my full-time job and stay home. Well, then I didn’t have that job to keep me busy and distracted anymore. And so I was left with myself in a lot of ways. And so, that forced me to kind of really pay attention to what was happening. And that’s what breath prayers really that we’ll talk about later have really helped me do too, is to slow down and pay attention. And I think that’s been key for me. Unfortunately, I had to do it. I didn’t choose to do it. We, I had to do it through a circumstances, but I’m so grateful looking back for that.
Carrie: And I love that you and other people that we’ve talked to are really trying to de-stigmatize going to therapy and taking medication as a Christian, like it’s okay. For you to struggle with some of these things and it’s okay to reach out for help, whether that’s medical help or professional counseling help. So, I appreciate you sharing that also with our audience. You can love Jesus and have a therapist and take medication.
Jennifer: Absolutely. Because I mean, a lot of this is tied to our brain and how we function and your brain is an organ, just like any other organ in your body. And that’s one thing I’ve really learned through working with my daughter, too. I mean, this is as much a medical issue as it is. In mental health is physical health. It is your health.
Jennifer: And so treating that there’s so many different factors and so many different things. And so one of those could be needing professional medical health, professional, psychiatric help. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just like going to a specialist for a kidney disease or going to a specialist for, if you have a heart issue, you go to a cardiologist. We need to really recognize that the brain is so complicated and there’s so much, so many factors. Yes. There’s environmental factors and there’s far thought patterns and things, those matter too, but it could very much, physical issue with the brain and those connections there and those, and so identifying that and recognizing that, and design-stigmatizing that I think is really key because it’s not a sin to struggle necessarily.
I mean, we’re all, we live in a fallen world in broken bodies. They’re gonna fail us in one way or another. And that’s just, we all deal with something different. But, mental health is unfortunately, I think, where it intersects with faith. A lot of times we feel very isolated and alone, and we don’t know how to talk about it in relation to our faith. And I think a lot of times it’s not talked about enough and it’s not. And there’s that’s where, like the shame and that’s what I lived with for years, I had so much shame piled on me because of the struggles that I had. And God doesn’t want us to live that way. And like you were saying, when he says, “do not fear, or don’t be anxious”, it’s not a command.
I saw it as a command for so long. But it wasn’t until really my daughter was struggling. She’d come to me, terrified and afraid. I didn’t get mad at her or yell at her for being afraid. I wrapped her in my arms and I reminded her. You don’t have to be afraid. I’m here. You’re not alone. You’re safe. And that’s what God’s doing in the Bible. He’s telling us you’re not alone. I’m here with you. You’re safe. You don’t have to be afraid. And that’s the thing that’s shifted everything for me is realizing that difference there, shifting how I perceived, how the Bible talked about anxiety.
Carrie: In this process of getting your daughter some help and then recognizing your own anxiety working through that physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you came across breath prayers, right? So, tell us a little bit about that.
Jennifer: Sure. Yes, this was in the middle of, it was probably two years ago or so. One of the very first things, my daughter’s psychiatrist and her therapist worked with her on, and me incidentally, the first thing her psychiatrist told her was breathing is the bridge between the brain and the body.
And so the breathing exercises were one of the first things that they started practicing with her to help her manage her anxiety. And I had never realized that before now, different breathing exercises don’t necessarily work for everyone, for my daughter in particular, when she focuses on her breathing, it makes her more anxious and conspire with her into panic. And so this isn’t something that works for absolutely everybody.
So for her, she’s had to find other techniques, but breathing exercises help very much for me in my process of researching. What are different things that can help her? What are strategies that both she and I can use? How can we learn to manage this anxiety? I did. I completely stumbled upon breath, prayers in a blog post online that someone I wrote and I had never heard of them, before. It’s not something that’s common. At least not in my faith tradition. I had not really heard about it very much. But it really captivated me from the get go because it incorporates, it ties into your breath, which I already knew was very significant in helping me manage my anxiety.
But it brought in the other element of then connecting also to God, through prayer and through focusing on his word. And so at the time when I learned about ’em, I scribbled down a few of ’em and I even wrote a blog post about it. I was like, it was just so helpful to me and I just thought they were just a great way to pray when you’re anxious, because they are so short that it doesn’t require a whole lot of ’cause when you’re anxious. A lot of it’s really when you’re really anxious. I know for me, it’s hard to think and it’s hard to process because you get so lost in the worries and in the thoughts and in the overwhelming feeling just of the anxiety.
Breath prayers give you the words to pray when you don’t really have those words to pray or when you’re feeling really anxious in particular. And so that had helped me just to give me words to pray when I was like, I don’t know, I don’t even know what to say. What do I say? But it wasn’t until last year when my daughter was hospitalized, she was admitted to the hospital last February. That night, I was just such a hard night because we were facing a new battle and it was gonna be, I didn’t know, would happen. Because she was very, very sick. And I was really scared and I laid down on the, she fell asleep. It was like 2:00 AM in her hospital room. And I laid down on this vinyl couch and I was just overwhelmed with anxiety, with fear, with worry with, I didn’t know how the next days would go let alone the next few months ahead, I was terrified.And I felt like in the last three years before that I had prayed everything.
I knew to pray for healing, for strength, for all these things that didn’t happen. And I was like, I’ve said all the words I know to say, God, I don’t have any more words to pray. And at that moment, a breath prayer came to my mind that I had written down months before and was from Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd. I have all that I need”. And that’s the only thing I could think of at the time I was having trouble catching my breath. I was crying. I was just so overwhelmed. But I remember those breath prayers and I started just inhaling slowly. The Lord is my shepherd and then exhaling. I have all that I need and then making myself slow down my breathing and just focusing on just those words. And that’s when I think breath prayer became really significant to me because at that moment, as I focused on where, I mean, I was in this hospital room. My daughter was so sick. I didn’t know what’s gonna happen, but I’m focusing on, the Lord is my shepherd and I’m a sheep and he loves me and he’s here. He’s present with me and I have all that I need.
I have him. It doesn’t matter what’s to come. I have God, I have Christ. I have all that I need. It’s gonna be okay. And I can’t explain the piece that I had at that moment. As I slowed my breathing, my anxiety eased, and I was able to fall asleep. That’s not to say my anxiety went away. Because the next day I was anxious again, the doctors came in and different things happened, but I found myself in those next few weeks as we were in the hospital, I’d walk the halls and I would breathe slowly and pray those, that one breath prayer. I think I just prayed that one mostly over and over again, but it became a lifeline to me during those days. It became a prayer. I could pray when I was just overwhelmed and I didn’t have words. And ever since then, it has been a part of my regular prayer life. It’s not the only prayers I pray, but it’s become a significant way for me to slow down and be very intentional about trusting God and really leaning into him when I’m anxious.
Carrie: Wow! That’s really powerful. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this and I hate to go too deep here, but really when we think about like the Holy Spirit lives inside of us. And I always just wonder about that. Yes. That’s like somehow the Holy Spirit is connected with our spirit as a person that we’re spiritual beings. And I always wonder about the Holy Spirit’s interaction with our body. Because it says that we’re a temple of the Holy Spirit. So, I’m just curious if like breath is almost a way for us to connect. I don’t know if it is or not. This is not coming from scripture. It’s just coming from Carrie’s musings. But I just wonder if in those moments, like when we slow down and we breathe and we pray, if that’s a way for us to really just tap into the Holy Spirit that’s already inside of us and we forget. That God’s that close. You know what I’m saying?
Carrie: God’s already here.
Jennifer: He’s as close as our breath. I mean, man, he created man. That’s what created life. His breath is what brought Adam to life and gave him the soul was created through God’s breath. And so our breath every day, every breath we take. Is a gift from him. He is giving us life. And he’s the one who sustains our life. And I agree. The holy Spirit’s in us, working in us, the Bible says he’s transforming us through the renewing of our mind. And I believe that these are ways that he does renew our mind, our brain. And there’s science to back this up, science and faith are not contradictory. No, no. We act like they are like, no science, but no, the science is only proving what God’s already said. And he has made our body and created our body in such a complex way. And our brain, literally we can create new pathways in our brain.
As we retrain our brain to, for example, breath prayer is one way I have changed how I respond to my anxiety. So, I, instead of immediately spiraling into panic, I can immediately turn to Christ. Breathe in deep. Remind myself of a truth from his word. And if I do that over and over and over again, if I repeat it, it’s just like with any habit or any rhythm we create in our life, you’re literally rewiring your brain. God’s literally transforming us by renewing our mind by shifting how we think and shifting how we respond to things. But it takes intentional work and that’s breath prayers aren’t hard. They’re super easy, but it does take intentionality to slow down. Stop. And do it just for a few minutes. It doesn’t take long, but it can have a significant impact on how we think and how we process our anxiety, because we’re literally rewiring our brain. It’s fascinating.
I’m not a scientist, I’m not a doctor. And I don’t claim to be an expert in any way, but I have researched and it is just it more and more just fascinates me how God has created our bodies and even the act of breathing. It’s the one body process that we have control of it. We can control whether we’re breathing rapidly and fast, or we can slow our breathing. But we have the ability to do that. And by slowing our breathing, we literally connect to our parasympathetic nervous system, which tells our brain like the whole process of how our body handles anxiety. It’s how God created us. And it’s okay. It’s not a bad thing, especially, like if you’re for a hike and you, a bear comes in your path, you’re gonna be thankful. You have anxiety.
Jennifer: Because your body is gonna be the gear. That sympathetic nervous system kicks in, your amygdala takes over and you’re gonna act and respond due to that threat. That fear that’ll help you hopefully keep you safe, ’cause you’ll be able to respond to that. But a lot of times, because of the fall, our brains aren’t always connected the way that God originally intended and our bodies don’t always process stimulus the way that we’re supposed to. And sometimes we have the sympathetic nervous system will get riled up over something that really isn’t a threat to us and we’ll get so anxious and worried. And so one way we can calm that amygdala down and calm that sympathetic nervous system down is by, through deep breathing because our breath literally connects to the vagus nerve, which connects to all of our organs, our major organs in our body. And so by slowing our breath, we’re telling our brain we’re okay, we’re not in danger here. And then the brain can send signals to the heart, slows down as our breathing slows down. And you really, you do feel calmer.
It’s a physiological thing that happens in our bodies and it’s the way God made us. And through the breath, we can do that. And when we connect, that’s the physical side of it. But then when we connect prayer to that and we’re at the same time, turning our thoughts to Christ, to his truth, to replace. Whatever those worries are, whatever those fears are with some truth from his word, then we really are connecting our mind, our body and our soul all at once to Christ. And to me, that’s what makes the breath prayer so powerful. Cause there’s lots of breath work. There’s lots of different breath breathing exercises you can do. And they are very helpful and there’s tons of scientific studies around that. But I also believe there’s just a significant power in prayer. Combining the two. To me, breath prayer is such powerful tool to manage my own anxiety.
Carrie: I love that. I thought it would be cool if you could actually wrote a book, a breath is prayer. Do you actually put several of these prayers into a book? Breath is prayer, calm your anxiety, focus your mind and renew your soul. And I thought it would be cool to just give people a little taste of one of those that you put in there and maybe lead us through life, like one of those exercises.
Jennifer: Sure I’ll do my best. Breath prayers are basically just two lines long. Usually I, there are.
Jennifer: Few breath prayers in my book that are four lines where you inhale and exhale twice to get through it. But most of them are just two lines. You inhale on the first line, inhale slowly as you pray the first line of the prayer and you exhale slowly as you pray. The second line of the prayer. All of my breath prayers I put in my book are rooted in scripture. They’re all coming from the word of God I’ve taken verses and made them into prayers, just short little prayers.
So that way we’re focused on is truth. And it’s from the word of God. Although you can pray any prayers that you want is breath prayers. But one that I particularly like. It comes from Psalm 55: 22, which says, “give your burdens to the Lord and he will take care of you”. And so the breath prayer I wrote with that one says, “I give my burdens to you”. Cause I’m talking to God. I give my burdens to you. You will take care of me”. When you pray a breath prayer, the idea is just breathe in slowly and exhale slowly. And one, we typically breathe in through our nose and breathe out through your mouth. And I like to remember that by smell the flowers and blow out the candles. It’s a common phrase that’s used with breathwork.
So you pretend that you’re smelling the flowers really slowly and then blowing out all the candles on that cake really slowly as you exhale fully. There’s lots of different patterns and rhythms to breathing that you can do. But my favorite is just to inhale, five seconds and then exhale, five seconds. I’ll try to lead you in that by just saying inhale. ‘Cause I can’t talk as I inhale. So I’ll say inhale and then I’ll read the first line.
Jennifer: And then I’ll say exhale and read the second line as you slowly exhale. And then we’ll repeat that just a couple of times.
Carrie: That sounds good.
Jennifer: And that’ll be it. Okay. Inhale slowly. I give my burdens to you. And exhale, you will take care of me. Inhale again. I give my burdens to you. Exhale. You will take care of me and we’ll do it one more time. Inhale slowly. I give my burdens to you. And exhale, you will take care of me and that’s as simple as it is. And you can repeat it as many times as you want. Typically, I like to try to pray them for at least three to five minutes. But you can start out with just one minute, just repeat it just a few times. And you’ll find just as you prayer aligns with the rhythm of your breath and you’re slowing down and then really focusing your mind on these words, it really does help to calm your feelings of anxiety.
Carrie: I like this because it’s really short and you could use it anywhere you can use it in the grocery store. If you start to feel anxious, you can use it in the car. If you’re driving home and you don’t even have to close your eyes. You can just breathe.
Carrie: Breathe in and out. You can use this before going into an important meeting, say that you have for work or school. There’s so many applications I think. And I think you could even use this, maybe at the beginning or end of a longer prayer time where you’re giving your burdens to the Lord. And then all of a sudden it brings up like, okay, well, these are some things that are on my mind that I’m thinking about that I wanna talk to God about more in depth or more fully.
I think we make prayer so much more complicated really than it has to be. Right? We think it has to be a certain format or structure. That somehow God’s gonna be unhappy with us if we say something the wrong way, but really God is longing for that connection with us. He wants us to honor him in our prayers and to be respectful, but he also wants us to tell us exactly how we feel and what’s on our mind and so forth. This is a great way to do that. And it’s a simple, it’s a good strategy to integrate with, like you said, deep breathing, which is, this activity really is a mind, body, spirit practice.
Jennifer: And I found just what you said, the breath prayers. They’re not the only prayers I pray. And usually more times than not, I’ll start out praying a breath prayer, but it leads right into a deeper prayer with God in a longer prayer with more specifics, it just, this helps set the tone. It helps me slow down and be really intentional. And it kind of opens that door to prayer for me and really kind of centers my mind more on Christ and gets me put out of my worries and in the middle underneath all of my anxieties and points me more toward Christ. And that allows me then to pray more honestly with God and be, you know, it really does. It has helped a lot. And so for those who don’t pray a lot, or don’t know what to pray, this is a great way to start. It’s a great thing to start with.
Carrie: It’s very mindful too, in the sense that it connects us back to the present moment, ’cause we’ve talked about mindfulness on the podcast as well and how that can be helpful for anxiety. Just to bring us into the present moment with God.
Carrie: That’s great. So, your book is coming out August 16th. I’m not entirely sure when this episode airs, but I know people will listen at all different times too. So if it’s before August 16th, there are presales. And if you pre-buy the book, you get extra goodies and things like that. And if you catch this after August 16th, it’ll be out and they can find it. I’m sure. Wherever they buy books.
Carrie: Is there anything else you wanted to say about the book?
Jennifer: I hope it’ll be an encouragement to people. I think even if you don’t struggle with a lot of anxiety, you know, somebody who does.
Jennifer: I mean, I think we all have struggled with some form of anxiety and I do make the distinction in the book, the difference between anxiety, like your normal anxiety and anxiety disorders, those are very different things. And I think that’s a really important distinction to make, but if you have anxiety. It’s okay. God is not mad at you. He loves you. And he’s really just inviting you to turn to him. And for me, anxiety has become, instead of an enemy that I felt like I had to fight or hide from, it’s become more of just a reminder to me. I just need to turn to Christ.
It’s become more of a trigger to turn to him rather than a trigger to spiral into worry and panic really becomes something that. In some ways I’m grateful I have it, because it makes me turn to God and it’s reminded me of how good he is and his presence in my life. It’s okay. That I feel anxious sometimes. God knows that, Hey, I will. That’s why he says, you know, that he’s with us to not be afraid. It’s more, you don’t have to be afraid. And he has to remind us a lot, ’cause we forget a lot, but I just hope that this book will be an encouragement. Even if it helps just one person. I’ll be grateful. I’m just thankful that you let me talk about it a little bit.
Carrie: At the end of every episode, I like to ask people a question and when it’s a personal story, I like to go into, like, if you could go back in time, what encouragement or hope would you provide to your younger self?
Jennifer: I always get a little tender. When I think about my younger self, she was full of so much, so much shame and so much fear and denial about it all. And I would just, I think I’d go back and tell her that God’s not mad at you or disappointed in you because you have struggles. It’s okay. And you don’t have to try so hard to be so perfect. My younger self was so determined to be that perfect. Good little Christian girl. You know, I was raised in church and I, I knew all the right things and I wanted to do all the right things. And that caused me to live in so much shame when I didn’t meet my expectations or what I thought God’s expectations were for me.
But I think I would just tell her that, you know what God loves you and you’re okay. And you don’t have to be so hard on yourself and you can trust him. You can really trust God. And you don’t have to have the control over all things ’cause he does. And you’re okay. Relax a little bit. I think I would tell her she’s, I’m very tender toward my younger self. Bless her heart too.
Carrie: That’s awesome. Well, thank you for sharing with us today.
Jennifer: Thank you so so much. I really appreciate it.
Carrie: I like any time that we can combine our physical health, spiritual health, emotional health into a practice. And knowing that you’re increasing health for those different areas at the same time, we’d love for you to come interact with us on Facebook or Instagram. And we will put those links in the show notes for you.
Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By the Well Counseling. Our show is hosted by me, Carrie Bock, licensed professional counselor in Tennessee, opinions given by our guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the use of myself or By The Well Counseling. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum. Until next time may you be comforted by God’s great love for you.