I can’t breathe … just breathe

Breath is a common denominator of the major crises we are facing globally – the COVID pandemic, racial injustice, and climate change.

People who have contracted COVID often report great difficulty breathing, with some needing to be put on a ventilator and many claiming they feel like their lungs are on fire. George Floyd said ‘I can’t breathe’ 16 times before he died under the knee of white police officer. The people in the streets protesting racial inequity and injustice have trouble breathing when they are tear-gassed by police. 

The Amazon Rainforest, the world’s largest, is often referred to as “the lungs of the planet’ as it produces 20% of the oxygen in our earth’s atmosphere.The Amazon is continually on fire, a situation that is exacerbated by climate change as well as contributing to it. The wildfires in the U.S. and bushfires in Australia have been getting worse every year and now the tundra in Siberia is burning. In addition to the far reaching environmental impacts, this is creating individual and collective health challenges.

Messages from our lungs

Because my lungs are the primary site of my cancer diagnosis, I have explored the emotions attributed to our lungs. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, they are sadness and grief. I have worked on unresolved grief in my own life and my family as part of my healing process. Now we are collectively being called upon to witness and address the grief of people losing loved ones to COVID, the intergenerational trauma grief of indigenous and people of color and climate change grief, especially for young people concerned about their future. And I imagine Mother Earth is grieving her losses as well.

Healthy energy in our lungs is associated with clear thinking, openness to new ideas and good communication, all essential to moving through these crises. Creating healthy lung energy can come from intentional breathing. I used to get annoyed when anyone would suggest ‘just breathe’ when I was really upset, as if that was going to solve the reason for my upset. I now realize that the point of focusing on one’s breath is to calm the nervous system from hyper-arousal and bring you back to the present so that you can think more clearly and possibly find a solution to your issue.

Breath connects us to one another and the natural world. It is how we take in what we need and release what we don’t. Paying attention to our breath can connect us back to ourselves.


just breathe! card by Jane Norton

“right now when it seems so hard just to breathe

right now just breathe”

Dzung X. Vo

The Poem “I can’t Breathe … just breathe”  powerfully paints a collage of the varied situations in which breath is being significantly affected. It was written by Dzung X. Vo, an adolescent pediatrician in British Columbia and author of The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time. You can read the full poem here.

  • Are there losses you are grieving due to the COVID pandemic, racial injustice and/or climate change?
  • What has helped you honor and move through these emotions?
  • What is your best practice for calming yourself in the face of multiple challenges?

Heart-focused breathing is about directing your attention to the heart area and breathing a little more deeply than normal. As you breathe in and out, imagine you are doing so through your heart. Placing your hand over your heart as you breathe can help you in directing your focus to your heart. Be sure your breathing is smooth, unforced and comfortable and pay attention to the pauses in between. 


Heartmath is a system of effective, scientifically based tools and technologies to bridge the intuitive connection between heart and mind and deepen our connection with the hearts of others. It empowers people to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors to reduce stress, increase resilience, and unlock their natural intuitive guidance for making more effective choices.