Why "Just Breathe" Just Doesn't Work
Have you been to a yoga class before? If so, you know that there is a heavy emphasis on the breath. You’ll probably hear phrases like “move with your breath” or “just breathe”. As a student and teacher of yoga, these phrases have never bothered me. In fact, I commonly use these phrases myself while I am teaching. Before dating someone with asthma, I put less thought into my language and choice of words around others.
The issue with saying "just breathe"
When I began to learn about my partner's asthma, I began to consider the issue with saying "just breathe". It didn’t occur to me that saying that phrase could actually be offensive to some. Taking a deep inhale and exhale may come easily to me, but I have no idea what is going on in someone else’s body. For myself to say “just breathe”, I am not taking into account my privilege of breathing easily.
My partner says that being told to “just breathe” is a very frustrating phrase to hear. Those who are unaware of his asthma have said this phrase to him while he was actually having an asthma attack. Of course, being told to “just breathe” is not a solution to an asthma attack. Being told to “relax” is also not helpful. Simply asking the question “How can I be of help?” would be a much more effective phrase to offer.
Using the word “just” can invalidate how much of a challenge it can be to take a breath. It makes the assumption that taking an inhale and exhale is simple. It does not take into account how airways can easily constrict when exposed to triggers such as animals, smoke, and fragrance. This word, "just", can invalidate having the chronic condition of asthma.
Asthma is an invisible illness
Asthma is considered an invisible illness. It is nearly impossible to tell if someone has asthma unless they are flared up or having an asthma attack. Invisible illnesses are frequently overlooked because symptoms are either hidden or not present all the time. Other invisible illnesses include diabetes, arthritis, Crohn's disease, bipolar disease, and many more.
For someone with asthma, it can be difficult to explain why you can’t do certain activities or be around certain triggers. Furthermore, it can be confusing to others if you can do an activity one day, but are unable to do the same thing on another day. Everyone's asthma is different, but someone might make assumptions on your condition based on stereotypes or someone else's asthma. This is why those who cannot see your asthma may use language like "just relax" or "just breathe"; they don't understand what could be going on in your body.
Making assumptions about others' health
As humans, we assume many things about other people on a daily basis. We frequently make the assumption that all bodies are the same. It is generally assumed that walking, eating, breathing comes naturally and easily. Being able to walk, eat, and breathe easily is the “norm”, but this is definitely not the case for everyone. Our society is established on the basis that everyone can get out of bed every day, attend school 5 days a week, and work a 9-5 job.
We cannot know what is going on in everyone’s body, but we can do our best to not make assumptions. I have learned that using phrases like “just breathe” and “just relax” can invalidate what someone is struggling with. There is a balance between “tiptoeing” around someone’s chronic condition or illness and being blunt. Show empathy and kindness, and don't make assumptions.
Always remember that a chronic condition or illness does not define someone. When speaking about someone's chronic condition, try to avoid saying something like "asthmatic person". Try instead to say, "person with asthma". You want to remember to put "the person first", and not their chronic condition before them. Remember that asking questions is always better than making assumptions! Even if you make a mistake with your word choice or phrasing, use it as a learning experience.
Have you had a learning experience with the language you use? Have you had a negative or positive experience with people talking about your asthma?
Have you developed a new food allergy in the last 5 years?