My Childhood Illness Came Back After 16 Years—And Almost Killed Me

A junior in college studying abroad in Spain could not figure out why she couldn't breathe, but a helpful mantra helped ease her anxiety.

Courtesy Cheyenne Buckingham

I was 20 years old, studying abroad in Spain in the midst of my junior year of college, when I nearly died. No one could figure out why I couldn’t breathe—I was on my own. I realized it was up to me to survive.

Gasping for air

A couple of weeks earlier, my only feelings were excitement and joy that I was going on a 29-day trip to Spain. Then, on Christmas Day in Seville, I left my host family’s home to go for a 30-minute walk along a beautiful bike path. It wasn’t too hot, yet I felt winded and my face was on fire. By the time I got back to my host family’s house, I was completely out of breath and my heart was racing. After ascending the several flights of stairs to my room, I collapsed on the hardwood floor, grasping at my throat and chest in an attempt to remove what felt like a hand squeezing my airway shut. I couldn’t tell whether it was anxiety or something physically wrong that was robbing me of air. I didn’t even have enough air to call for help.

The power of breath and mantra

I started chanting a mantra as I pressed my cheek to the cold floor, hoping that a trace of oxygen would slip through the strawlike opening in my throat. I began repeating to myself, “You are strong and you are calm,” over and over again until I started to get more air into my lungs. Realizing that fear and helplessness were taking over, I used the mantra to establish control. I pledged that anxiety would not win this battle. I began taking small breaths: Inhaling, 1, 2; exhaling, 1, 2 (something I’ve learned from yoga). Here are some tips for healthy breathing.

Bronchitis versus asthma

An hour later, I regained a somewhat normal breathing rhythm, enough to call my translator and ask for help. After a steroid shot in the butt, an overdose from an inhaler, and a chest X-ray, all the doctor could tell me was, “Tienes bronquitis” (“You have bronchitis”). All I could think was that there’s no way bronchitis prompts that kind of reaction.

I wouldn’t learn until nearly three months later, back in the U.S., that I had experienced a severe asthma attack. My mother remembered that I had it as an infant; a doctor confirmed that my asthma had returned. Here are the 7 signs of asthma you ignore.

Asthma and bronchitis can both cause similar symptoms, ranging from shortness of breath to tightness in the chest. However, unlike asthma, if you have bronchitis, you’ll likely experience a lower fever, chills, and body aches. Visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to learn more about the differences between bronchitis and asthma.

Looking back on that day, I have no idea how I was able to stay calm, but my reaction saved my life. Giving in to anxiety would have further tightened my airways; by integrating my yoga breathing exercises, I got through. It’s a lesson I carry with me through life: Relax, don’t give in to fear, and just breathe.

You can use these 11 tips for managing anxiety and panic disorders, to help manage your breathing if you’re ever in a similar situation.

Cheyenne Buckingham is a New York-based journalist with special interests in health and food. Her work has appeared in various online magazines including, Eat This, Not That!, 24/7 Wall St., Prevention, and Edible Columbus. When she is not busy writing, Buckingham enjoys reading, training for both half and full marathons, doing yoga, and travelling abroad.