Priscilla Warner has had a great life: a supportive husband, a flourishing marriage, two loving sons, and a bestselling book, The Faith Club. Despite all her good fortune and success, she suffers from anxiety and panic attacks so debilitating that they leave her unable to breathe. She’s tried self-medicating—in high school, with a hidden flask of vodka—and later, with prescription medications—daily doses of Klonopin with a dark chocolate chaser. After forty years of hyperventilating, and an overwhelming panic attack that’s the ultimate wake-up call, Warner’s mantra becomes “Neurotic, Heal Thyself.” A spirited New Yorker, she sets out to find her inner Tibetan monk by meditating every day, aiming to rewire her brain and her body and mend her frayed nerves. On this winding path from panic to peace, with its hairpin emotional curves and breathtaking drops, she also delves into a wide range of spiritual and alternative health practices, some serious, and some . . . not so much.
Written with lively wit and humor, Learning to Breathe is a serious attempt to heal from a painful condition. It’s also a life raft of compassion and hope for people similarly adrift or secretly fearful, as well as an entertaining and inspiring guidebook for anyone facing daily challenges large and small, anyone who is also longing for a sense of peace, self-acceptance, and understanding.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Slumped in my airplane seat, I could barely see enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to say goodbye to it in the early morning darkness. The plane took off and I was headed home to New York on the last leg of an intense three-year lecture tour. I opened a magazine . . . and there were the monks—yet again.
Dressed in crimson robes, their heads shaved, serene Tibetan men stared out at me from a photograph. These same men had been inadvertently haunting me for years, because they had found an inner peace that had eluded me for so long. While I’d been experiencing debilitating panic attacks and anxiety for decades, they had been meditating so effectively that their prefrontal brain lobes lit up on MRI scans, plumped up like perfectly ripe peaches.
That’s not precisely the way the monks’ brains were described in the medical studies I’d read about, but that’s how I imagined them—happily pregnant with positive energy. Unlike my brain, which felt battered and bruised, swollen with anxiety, adrenaline, heartache, and hormones.
“I want the brain of a monk!” I decided right then and there.
I also wanted everything that went along with that brain—peace and tranquility, compassion and kindness, wisdom and patience. Was that too much to ask for?
And so my mission was born.
I became determined to get my prefrontal lobe to light up like the monks’ lobes, to develop a brain that would run quietly and smoothly, instead of bouncing around in my skull like a Mexican jumping bean. Some people set up meth labs in their basements, but I wanted a Klonopin lab in my head, producing a natural version of the drug my therapist had prescribed for me several years earlier, to help me cope with chronic anxiety and panic.
I had already been searching for serenity on and off for forty years, during which I’d traveled to Turkey and toured the ancient caves of early Christian mystics, read Rumi’s exquisite Sufi poetry, and learned about the mysteries of Kabbalah. I regularly drank herbal tea and lit incense in my bedroom. And I’d gotten my meridians massaged while my chakras were tended to by soft-spoken attendants at occasional spa splurges.
I would have loved to travel to Nepal to find inner peace, sitting at the feet of a monk on a mountaintop, but I panic at high altitudes. I didn’t want to move to a monastery, but I figured there were dozens of things I could do in my own backyard that could make me positively monk-like. So I decided to try behaving like a monk while still shopping for dinner at my local suburban strip mall. And I decided to chronicle my adventures.
This full-scale brain renovation would take some time, planning, improvisation, and hard work. Still, I hoped, if I exercised my tired gray cells properly, on a sustained, regular basis, and fed my brain all sorts of good things like meditation, guided imagery, yoga, macrobiotic stuff, and Buddhist teachings, maybe it would change physically. I’d heard neuroplasticity thrown around in scientific reports, a term that means that the brain is supposedly able to transform itself at any age. Perhaps mine would be like Silly Putty—bendable and pliable and lots of fun to work with.
What did I have to lose? I shifted in my airplane seat, the monks still gazing up at me from the photograph.
On the outside, I was functioning just fine: I was a happily married mother of two terrific sons. I’d traveled to more than fifty cities around the country to promote a bestselling book I’d coauthored, called The Faith Club. But inside, the anxiety disorder I’d battled all my life had left me exhausted, out of shape, and devouring chocolate to boost my spirits and busted adrenal glands. My body and heart ached for my children, who had left the nest, and my mother, who was in her ninth year of Alzheimer’s disease, confined to the advanced care unit of her nursing home. Twenty years earlier, my father had died from cancer; but he’d been just about my age when the tumor had started its deadly journey through his colon.
Clearly, I was facing my own mortality. Although I wanted to run like hell away from it.
In another rite of passage, a wonderful therapist I had seen for many years had died recently, and I had attended her memorial service. When I’d arrived at the Jewish funeral home, a woman with a shaved head, dressed in a simple dark outfit, had greeted me. Although her smile was kind, her presence initially threw me off. Was she Buddhist? Was she a nun? Did her brain light up on an MRI scan, too?
After greeting people at the entrance to the chapel with a calm that put everyone at ease, she conducted the proceedings with warmth, wit, and sensitivity, urging people to speak about our deceased friend. I took her appearance to be a message from my late shrink.
“Go for it,” I imagined her saying. “Go find your inner monk.”
I didn’t know the difference between my dharma and my karma, but I was willing to learn. Perhaps I’d define other terms for myself, like mindfulness, lovingkindness, and maybe even true happiness. I’d try whatever techniques, treatments, and teachings I thought might move me along the road from panic to peace.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, believes human beings can change the negative emotions in their brains into positive ones.
And who was I to doubt the Dalai Lama?
Maybe my journey would resemble something like Siddhartha meets Diary of a Mad Jewish Housewife.
Forget “Physician, Heal Thyself,” I decided as my plane landed in New York and my daydreaming turned into a reality.
My new mantra would be “Neurotic, heal thyself (and please stop complaining).”
© 2011 Priscilla Warner
Table of Contents
How to Live
1 Takeoff 3
2 Bowls Are Ringing 7
3 Panicky Pris 13
4 My Demons 20
5 Be Still My Brain 27
6 The Monk Who Knew Panic 30
7 Beginner's Luck 43
8 In Over My Head 47
9 The Big House on the Hill 55
10 Joy Therapy 60
11 Getting Grounded 65
12 Let the Games Begin 72
13 The Art Sanctuary 80
14 The Long Reach of Providence 87
15 Tinkering with My Tool Kit 93
16 Attuning to My Tribe 99
17 Touching a Nerve 102
18 Smiling at Fear 106
19 Hooked on Healing 112
How to Love
20 The Lovingkindness Convention 121
21 Magical Repair 131
22 Reborn 138
23 The Soul Doctor 149
24 Breathing with a Twist 158
25 This Is Your Brain on Love 166
26 A Good Friend 177
27 Finding the Golden Buddha 183
28 Breathing Breakthrough 188
How to Die
29 Learning to Die Happy 197
30 My Religion Is Compassion 206
31 A Lesson in Impermanence 213
32 One More Happy Person on the Planet 218
33 Neurotic, Heal Thyself 222
34 Dawn 228
35 Happy Birthing Day 232
36 Letting Go 239
37 Roshi 246
38 My Safety Net 251
39 Just Breathe 258
40 Proof 264
Appendix: Priscilla's Plan 270
What People are Saying About This
“I have always considered Priscilla a dear friend. But after reading her book, I realize she is also a great teacher. When I finished reading Priscilla’s book, a smile washed over my face and I let out a sigh. I promise you will do the same.”—Meredith Vieira
“Learning to Breathe is an exquisite, funny, life-changing approach to anxiety and panic. I highly recommend this book.”—Christiane Northrup, M.D., ob/gyn physician and author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom
“From one who has suffered from anxiety (and who hasn’t?), catching one’s breath is imperative. Priscilla Warner opens every holistic door on her journey from panic to peace. Readers will cheer Warner as she finds some semblance of serenity Her recipe for success makes this book prescriptive as well as entertaining—her dharma becoming her karma.”—Joan Anderson, author of A Year by the Sea
“Part mystery story, part comedic hero’s journey, part state-of-the-art psychology, and part public health message, this is a complex, brainy book that goes down in one sitting like some kind of a tasty chick-lit snack. Learning a lot is rarely this enjoyable and teachers rarely this appealing.”—Belleruth Naparstek, author of Invisible Heroes and creator of the Health Journeys guided imagery series
“On a quest to rid herself of almost lifelong panic attacks, self-described ‘neurotic’ Priscilla Warner begins her journey toward liberation. Her humorous, honest, and detailed account provides readers with a rich tapestry of both her inner experience and snapshots of the many approaches and teachers she encounters along the way: This vividly described personal odyssey of her ‘panic-to-peace project’ resonates profoundly with the universal desire for serenity and understanding.”—Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., originator of EMDR therapy and author of Getting Past Your Past: Take control of Your Life with Self Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy
“Wise, searching, fearless, and big-hearted, Priscilla Warner’s search for inner peace will resonate with anyone who has ever been anxious or at sea—in other words, all of us. She is a comforting and stabilizing guide through her own life—and ours. This book is a gift.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion: A Memoir
“The words leap off the page. Priscilla Warner’s courageous story from panic to peace brims with insights that light the path to simply living a better life.—Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., author of The Now Effect