My best advice: when communication gets tough, just breathe

By Shari Eberts

Sweating in the hot yoga room, I work to hold the posture. I fall out but try again. And again. It’s a difficult practice so struggle is normal and expected. The teacher reminds us to focus on our breath. We can’t control the heat, or how long she holds the postures, but we can control our response, so we fight to stay calm and focused.

Despite my discomfort, I try to breathe in and out slowly five counts for my inhale and five counts for my exhale. I keep my mouth closed as it’s a signal to the body that all is well, allowing the nervous system to relax and bringing a feeling of calm. I call it my yoga breathing and it helps me deal with stressful situations both on and off my mat including the frustrations of living with hearing loss.

Mindful breathing can also help with hearing loss

Hearing loss is stressful. "Will I be able to enjoy this dinner with friends if they forget to speak one at a time? How will I understand the doctor’s instructions from behind a mask? What if this Zoom meeting doesn’t have captions even though I requested them a week in advance?"

Just to participate in a conversation, especially a challenging one, can be trying. It’s like playing a game of Wheel of Fortune, where some of the letters are filled in, others are missing. We use speechreading and other strategies to help fill in these blanks so we can understand what people are saying. But then of course we aren’t finished, because now we need to reply! It's exhausting and doesn’t always go perfectly, creating stress, frustration, and even anger.

But these negative emotions won’t help us solve our communication problems. In fact, stress can elicit fight or flight, the exact opposite of the calm self-advocacy mindset we need to communicate well. Mindful breathing can help.

Why does mindful breathing help us relax?

The human autonomic nervous system has two main parts. The sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s response to a perceived threat or stressor (fight or flight), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls homeostasis (rest and digest). In fight or flight, breathing becomes shallow and rapid to increase oxygen flow, making our bodies ready for action. In rest and digest, the opposite happens. Breathing deepens and slows, returning the body to calm.

These responses are automatic, but you can trigger them through mindful breathing. Three slow mindful breaths are all it takes to elicit rest and digest, lowering our blood pressure and our heart rate. It’s like a switch telling the body it can relax because all is well. 

When I face a particularly frustrating listening experience, rather than panic or give up, I try to just breathe. With three mindful breaths, I calm my heartrate and switch my body to a more restful state. Then, I can more easily shift my focus from worrying about what I can’t hear to taking the steps I need to communicate better. I use the HEAR checklist.

Gael Hannan and I introduce HEAR in our book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss. The checklist helps you assess a listening situation and evaluate possible solutions. Sometimes you need to repeat the steps if your environment or listening partners change. Possible solutions include asking your communication partners to speak one at a time or using a speech-to-text app on your phone. Or even moving to a different location if that’s what it takes.

But perhaps the real first step is just to breathe.  

Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: BlogFacebookLinkedInTwitter.