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 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:
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 will share with us her discovery of this practice of breath prayers and how those helped her get through a challenging situation in her own life. So here is the interview.
Carrie: 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 that I struggled as much as I did with anxiety and depression. I grew up feeling like anxiety was almost like a sin. It isn’t good. 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. I don’t think at the time, especially as a teenager or young adult, I really didn’t know that’s what I was doing with my anxiety. I came out a lot as. It is masked as perfectionism, overworking, and extreme people-pleasing. I felt like I needed to 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 would flare up, and I’d have a tough time emotionally. I just felt like I was just an 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. Regarding the depression side, I did not recognize my depression for what it was: the symptoms. I didn’t want to have it, so I masked and hit it a lot. It wasn’t until my youngest daughter, when she was 13, started having very severe panic attacks, and that’s what sent us. Head first into the world of mental health and trying to help her through her severe anxiety disorder 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. Much of the work has been working on myself and addressing my 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 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 by spiritual leaders and others is the tone we take from it—many times. I like what you said about masking your anxiety as other things, such as perfectionism, as the person who’s the high achiever, the go-getter. That’s always moving, always going, the people pleasing. Often, people don’t recognize anxiety symptoms because they are so high functioning.
One of my friends was 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. Perhaps they think they’re listening for somebody else. And they might realize, ” Hey, I have some of those things too.
Jennifer: Absolutely. I think for many years, I kept myself so busy that I didn’t have time to pay attention to what was happening. It wasn’t until I had to slow down that I could identify and recognize those symptoms for what they 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 pay attention to what was happening. And that’s what breath prayers that we’ll talk about later have helped me, too: to slow down and pay attention. And I think that’s been vital for me. Unfortunately, I had to do it. I didn’t choose to do it. I had to do it through circumstances, but I’m so grateful looking back for that.
Carrie: And I love that you and other people we’ve talked to are 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, it’s okay to reach out for help, whether that’s medical help or professional counseling help. So, I appreciate you sharing that with our audience. You can love Jesus, 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 learned through working with my daughter, too. I mean, this is as much a medical issue as it is. Mental health is physical health. It is your health.
Jennifer: And so treating that there are so many different factors and 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 kidney disease or a specialist; if you have a heart issue, you go to a cardiologist. We need to recognize that the brain is so complicated and there are so many factors. Yes. There are environmental factors and far thought patterns and things that matter, too. Still, it could very much be a physical issue with the brain and those connections there and those, so identifying that and recognizing that and design-stigmatizing that, I think, is critical because it’s not a sin to struggle.
We’re all; we live in a fallen world in broken bodies. They’re going to fail us in one way or another. And that’s just that we all deal with something different. But mental health is, unfortunately, I think, where it intersects with faith. We often 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 my struggles. And God doesn’t want us to live that way. And like you said, 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 my daughter was struggling. She’d come to me, terrified and afraid. I didn’t get mad or yell at her for being scared. 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, turning how I perceived how the Bible talked about anxiety.
Carrie: In this process of getting your daughter some help and then recognizing your 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; 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 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 they started practicing with her to help her manage her anxiety. 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 conspires with her into panic. And so this isn’t something that works for absolutely everybody.
So, she’s had to find other techniques for her, but breathing exercises help me greatly in 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 and prayers in a blog post online that someone I wrote, and I had never heard of before. It’s not common, at least not in my faith tradition. I had not heard about it very much. But it captivated me from the get-go because it incorporates and ties into your breath, which I already knew was significant in helping me manage my anxiety.
But it brought in the other element of connecting to God through prayer and focusing on his word. And so, when I learned about them, I scribbled down a few of them and even wrote a blog post about them. It was so helpful to me, and I just thought they were a great way to pray when you’re anxious because they are so short that it doesn’t require a lot of because when you’re anxious. A lot of it’s really when you’re 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 the thoughts and the overwhelming feeling just of the anxiety.
Breath prayers give you the words to pray when you don’t have those words to pray or when you’re feeling anxious in particular. And so that had helped me 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 that 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 going to be, I didn’t know, would happen because she was very, very sick. And I was terrified, and I lay down on the, she fell asleep. It was like 2:00 a.m. in her hospital room. I laid down on this vinyl couch, and I was just overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, and worry. I was terrified; I didn’t know how the following days would go, let alone the next few months ahead. And I felt like in the last three years before that, I had prayed everything.
I knew to pray for healing, strength, and 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 I need”. And that’s the only thing I could think of when I had 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 I make myself slow down my breathing and focus on just those words. And that’s when I think breath prayer became 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 would 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 going to 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 breathe slowly and pray those, that one breath prayer. I think I just prayed that one mostly repeatedly, but it became my lifeline during those days. It became a prayer. I could pray when I was overwhelmed and 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 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 when we think about it, the Holy Spirit lives inside of us. And I always just wonder about that. Yes. That’s like the Holy Spirit is somehow 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 wonder if in those moments, like when we slow down, and we breathe, and we pray if, that’s a way for us to 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 brought Adam to life and gave him the soul created through God’s breath. And so our breath every day, every breath we take. It 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 minds. And I believe that these are ways he does renew our mind and 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 can create new pathways in our brain.
As we retrain our brain to, for example, breathe, prayer is one way I have changed how I respond to my anxiety. So, 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 rewiring your brain. God’s transforming us by renewing our minds 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 significantly impact how we think and process our anxiety because we’re rewiring our brains. It’s fascinating.
I’m not a scientist; I’m not a doctor. I don’t claim to be an expert in any way, but I have researched, and it is more and more fascinating how God has created our bodies and even the act of breathing. It’s the one body process that we have control of. We can control whether we’re breathing rapidly and fast, or we can slow our breathing. But we can do that. By slowing our breathing, we connect to our parasympathetic nervous system, which tells our brain the whole process of how our body handles anxiety. It’s how God created us. And it’s okay. It’s not bad, especially if you’re going for a hike and you, a bear, come in your path; you’ll be thankful you have anxiety.
Jennifer: Because your body is going to be the gear. That sympathetic nervous system kicks in, your amygdala takes over, and you will act and respond to that threat. That fear that’ll help you hopefully keep you safe because you’ll be able to respond to that. But many times, because of the fall, our brains aren’t always connected the way God originally intended, and our bodies don’t always process stimuli as we’re supposed to. Sometimes, the sympathetic nervous system will get riled up over something that isn’t a threat to us, and we’ll get anxious and worried. And so one way we can calm the amygdala down and calm the sympathetic nervous system down is through deep breathing because our breath 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. Then, the brain can send signals to the heart, which 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 how 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, 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 are connecting our mind, body, and soul all at once to Christ. And to me, that’s what makes the breath prayer so powerful. Cause there’s lots of breathwork. There are lots of different breath-breathing exercises you can do. And they are very helpful, and there are 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 a powerful tool to manage my anxiety.
Carrie: I love that. I thought it would be cool if you could write a book. Do you put several of these prayers into a book? Breathe as prayer, calm your anxiety, focus your mind, and renew your soul. And I thought it would be cool to give people a little taste of one of those 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 just two lines long. Usually, I, there are.
Jennifer: There are a few breath prayers in my book in 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, and exhale slowly as you pray. The second line of the prayer. All my breath prayers 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 the truth. And it’s from the word of God. Although you can pray, any prayers that you want are 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 to breathe in slowly and exhale slowly. And one, we typically breathe in through our nose and out through our mouth. And I like to remember that by smelling the flowers and blowing out the candles. It’s a common phrase that’s used with breathwork.
So you pretend that you’re smelling the flowers slowly and then slowly blowing out all the candles on that cake as you exhale fully. There are lots of different patterns and rhythms to breathing that you can do. But my favorite is to inhale for five seconds and then exhale for five seconds. I’ll try to lead you in that by just saying inhale because I can’t talk as I inhale. So I’ll say inhale and then read the first line.
Jennifer: 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 again. 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. I typically try to pray them for at least three to five minutes. But you can start with just one minute; repeat it a few times. And you’ll find that just as your prayer aligns with the rhythm of your breath and you’re slowing down and focusing your mind on these words; it does help to calm your feelings of anxiety.
Carrie: I like this because it’s short and you could use it anywhere you can use it in the grocery store. You can use it in the car if you start to feel anxious. If you’re driving home, you don’t even have to close your eyes. You can 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 are so many applications, I think. And I think you could even use this 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 want to 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 believe it has to be a specific format or structure. That somehow God will be unhappy with us if we say something the wrong way, but God is longing for that connection with us. He wants us to honor him in our prayers and be respectful, but he also wants us to tell us exactly how we feel and what’s on our minds, etc. This is a great way to do that. And it’s simple; it’s a good strategy to integrate with, like you said, deep breathing, which is, this activity 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. Usually, more times than not, I’ll start out praying a breath prayer, but it leads right into a more profound prayer with God in a longer prayer with more specifics; it just helps set the tone. It helps me slow down and be intentional. It opens that door to prayer for me and really kind of centers my mind more on Christ, gets me out of my worries, in the middle underneath all of my anxieties, and points me more toward Christ. And that allows me to pray more honestly with God and be, you know, it 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 begin with.
Carrie: It’s very mindful, too, in the sense that it connects us back to the present moment because we’ve talked about mindfulness on the podcast 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 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. Even if you don’t struggle with 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 an important distinction, but if you have anxiety. It’s okay. God is not mad at you. He loves you. And he’s 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 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 becomes something. In some ways, I’m grateful I have it because it makes me turn to God and reminds me of how good he is and his presence in my life. It’s okay. I sometimes feel anxious, but God knows that I will. That’s why he says, you know, that he’s with us not to be afraid. What’s more, you don’t have to be afraid. He has to remind us a lot because we forget a lot, but I
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 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 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 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 trust God. And you don’t have to have control over all things because he does. And you’re okay. Relax a little bit. I would tell her that 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 we can combine our physical, spiritual, and emotional health into a practice. And knowing that you’re increasing health in those different areas at the same time, we’d love for you to 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, a 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.