In a world where wellness is on trend and buzzwords spin around us, words like ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation,’ Ms. Tucker brings us a Scripture-based approach through breath prayers in her new book Breath as Prayer. Ms. Tucker learned a lot about mental health and finding peace in crisis and has been gracious enough to share her journey but also the technique that can help us anchor onto the Rock of Ages. She was lovely, and I learned so much from our talk.
If you want to learn more about breath prayers after reading this interview, sign up for her sneak peek journey where she will offer guidance, demos and more resources to help with anxiety.
Thank you for reading! And if you or someone you know struggles with anxiety or is weathering a crisis, pick up Breath as Prayer!
Modern Witnesses (“MW”): Congratulations on your new book Breath as Prayer: Calm Your Anxiety, Focus Your Mind, and Renew Your Soul! We are so excited to have you here with us to chat about it. I saw that a big part of your journey in exploring mental health began when one of your children was experiencing panic attacks. Was this a completely new journey at this point or was this something that you had thought about or a technique you had used personally before?
Jennifer Tucker (“JT”): I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to mental health until she [her child] started having panic attacks. Even though, looking back, I have come a long way and learned a lot in the last four years. I can look back and see that I have had anxiety and depression for a very long time but didn’t identify it as that because mine manifested in different ways. It is something I just pushed to the side and ignored, but when my daughter started having panic attacks, it was something we could not ignore. It was not something we could push to the side; it came to the forefront. In order to help her through her anxiety and help her, I had to face my own struggles and recognize, as we learned through therapists and through research and stuff, I was like, Oh my gosh, that is me. That is what I struggle with. My perfectionism, my overworking, my need to have control over everything– that is rooted in anxiety. I have had to do a lot of self-work so I could be the best help to her and a good example for her, too.
I didn’t intentionally seek out anything to do with mental health until she started really struggling because I had to. I read a quote once that said, “You either hurt enough that you have to change or you learn enough that you want to change.” Unfortunately, most of us hurt enough that we have to change, and so, usually it is in those hard situations that we make changes, because we have to.
“Unfortunately, most of us hurt enough that we have to change, and so usually it is in those hard situations that we make changes, because we have to.”
MW: That is a lot, so you were doing a lot of self-work and also helping your child. What made you take the extra step—I mean through this book you are really going out there and helping others. What inspired the pivot of being like, I am also going to share this with the world?
JT: Well, this book isn’t something I sought after. I am not your typical author, and I never really considered myself one. I was actually sitting in the hospital with my daughter when I got the email from an editor, out of the blue. She just happened upon one of my little blog posts, and I don’t even post very often, at all. I had written about breath prayers when I had learned about them, and she reached out to me saying, “Hey we are thinking about this book idea. You could write it.”
I was in the hospital facing the hardest things at the time; this was last year. And I thought, There is no way. There is no way I can write a book. I am barely surviving day-to-day, I am struggling. It was funny because she didn’t tell me the topic at first, but then, I thought, I wonder what it is about, because I am not a writer. I don’t have a big audience, I am not an influencer, I thought, What in the world? But then, when she said it was [about] breath prayers, it stopped me because that is what got me through each day in the hospital. They became a lifeline to me. It was like day 11 in the hospital when I got that email. So, for 11 days straight, I had been praying breath prayers to get through my day and to deal with my own very overwhelming anxiety that I was feeling of a very unknown future.
She spent quite a few weeks hospitalized and then in treatment and then in long-term treatment. Last year was hard, and the process of writing this book was what helped me through. These prayers are what I prayed. This is what got me through that very hard time.
What encouraged me to make this public and share our story a little bit are the other moms who have reached out to me privately. I have shared bits and pieces, and of course, this whole story is not my own story to tell, it is hers. I can only share what she is willing to share and respect her story, but as her mom, it has definitely affected me, and I have my own story with anxiety, too. It is a trickly little balance there, but the bits I have shared— I get moms who have sent me messages, and friends even, saying, “My son is struggling with this,” or “Nobody talks about this,” or “I didn’t know, where do we go and where can we get help?” Because they have kids who are struggling, too, and I didn’t know. I wish I had had someone I could’ve sent a message to and been like, “What do you do or where do you go for this?”
MW: Right. I can imagine.
JT: [I am] wanting to be the person I wish I had had back then. Someone who understood because we don’t talk about it. Especially, in faith communities, there are not a lot of resources.
MW: Why do you think we avoid those topics? Because it is true that it’s not that we don’t talk about it because it doesn’t exist. It’s odd.
JT: It is really strange. We have been deep in it for a while now, and it is really weird to not be talking about it because it is part of our story now, but I think for a long time— there is a lot of shame around mental health conditions. There is still a lot of stigma in the church. I mean the Bible says all through it, “Be anxious for nothing;” “Do not worry”. I heard that growing up, and I interpreted it growing up as a command. “You should not be anxious, and you should not worry because if you do, you are doing something wrong.”
MW: It was like an expectation.
JT: Yeah, it’s a sin almost. I think that is what kept me pushing my anxiety down and not addressing it because if I addressed it, I struggle with that and I don’t want to struggle with that. I pray and I read my Bible, and I still struggle. What is wrong with me? I didn’t want to admit I had these struggles, and I didn’t hear anyone talking about it except to say, “Fear not. Don’t be anxious. If you trust God, you shouldn’t feel this way.” But I do, I still feel that way, so I think there are a lot of mixed messages in our church, and I have come to learn that those verses that tell us to not be anxious for anything, when Jesus says, “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything,” He is not saying, “I will be mad at you if you worry. If you are anxious, then you are in sin, and you need to repent.”
I can only relate it to my daughter when she was terrified at night, having a panic attack. She came to me. I didn’t get mad at her for that. I wrapped her in my arms and told her, “It’s ok, you are safe, and you don’t have to be afraid because I am with you.” I think that is what God tells us: “You don’t have to worry, you don’t have to be anxious because I am with you and you are safe.” It’s a reminder because I think we need it. He knows we are going to feel those things. We are going to be anxious. We are going to worry. We are going to have these struggles, but He is with us through it all. That was a relief to me, when that shift happened, and it has helped me see mental health through a totally different perspective.
I don’t think we take time to learn about mental health, either. The brain is so complicated and complex just like any other organ in our body, but doctors and scientists are still learning. There is so much we don’t know about the brain and how it works, and it is so interconnected with our thoughts and our emotions. Mental health issues are very complex and multi-layered, so it is never like, “Oh it’s just this. You need to take this medicine, and you’ll be better.” Whereas, if you have diabetes, you take insulin; if you have a heart condition you take the heart medicine the cardiologist prescribes. But with mental health conditions, there are so many complex factors, biological, environmental, events in your life, trauma—there are so many things that can impact it. Chemical, biological connections, and it is complicated. To take the time to really learn about it, I don’t think a lot of people really take that time to figure that out because it’s not just, “I feel this way.” There is so much more to it.
I don’t think we do a good job listening to people’s stories and inviting these people who have these struggles in and saying, “Let me hear about what you are experiencing. Let me walk a bit in your shoes.” I think that compassion begins when we start to listen. We begin to enter into their struggles with compassion and understanding.
I don’t experience things the way they do, but that doesn’t minimize the way they experience things. I think God is big enough for that. I think we put God in a particular box, and we all have to look a certain way, and that is just not how it works.
“I think that compassion begins when we start to listen.”
MW: You mentioned things like diabetes and heart conditions, and these are things we can have a degree of control over. We can prevent them or at least we can begin to feel when things are off, like when your blood sugar drops, but I think mental health issues are things we may have a lot less control over. We typically don’t control the trauma we are exposed to. We don’t control other factors, and it really is something complex.
JT: And it’s not just in your head. There are a lot of physical symptoms to mental health conditions. A lot of times we don’t attribute them to that. We brush it off as something else but our whole body is so interconnected. That is how God made us. There is no single part of our body that is autonomous. Everything is connected to each other, and it all affects each other. Your heart rate affects your breathing, and it’s all connected.
MW: We live in a day and age where fitness folks and wellness influencers, I guess we could call them, talk about ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ a lot. These have become buzzwords. I love how your book is so Christ and Scripture-centered. You do a good job in distinguishing it from new age practices and other things that have been influential, these days. This is not what people may automatically think about at first glance. It’s clear to me that for you, mental health is physical health, which is so true. In a nutshell, what role do you feel faith plays in anxiety and mental health? Maybe some of us have felt this way, where we are like, I read my Bible, I pray and why do I still feel this way? What makes what we find in this books different? We have Scripture here, and this element of a prayer type meditation based on the text. What role does faith play in managing the human aspect of how we struggle?
JT: I think faith plays a role in our entire life. If you trust Christ then you are a follower of Jesus and that is going to influence every single element of your life. I think that from how we treat our bodies to how we walk through our day. God tells us in His word that He is going to transform us through the renewing of our mind. I think we get to be active participants in that when we do things that help shift our thinking.
Our brain has neuroplasticity. It can change, and we can rewire our brain by changing the way we think. By rerouting our thoughts and shifting how we respond to certain things. I am not saying in any way that prayer if a cure for anxiety disorders. And there is a really big difference, I try to make that clear too, between your everyday anxieties and worries and an anxiety disorder. Those are very different things.
Mental health conditions, like physical health conditions, have their own symptoms and require treatment and usually require some professional help, and that is not a reflection on anybody’s faith. That is not saying you have failed at faith, but I do think that it is a very important part of our mental health, because like I say in the book, there are a lot of religions and practices that incorporate breathing exercises and meditation or some kind of prayer, even if it isn’t to God. These things aren’t unhelpful in and of themselves, Like breathing really does help the body. There are literal physiological things that happen when you slow your breathing because it connects to that vagus nerve and your parasympathetic nervous system, and it can literally calm your body. Deep breathing exercises on their own are very very helpful.
A lot of people participate in that. Often times the goal of that type of meditation is to empty your mind and completely reach some level of nirvana or thinking about nothing, whereas breath prayer, and when we tie faith into it, prayer in the one true God, that connects. Breathing connects our brain and our body but faith and our prayer connects our soul to God. We are pulling in that eternal part of us in. It is not just about our body calming but about connecting us to our Creator who is our true source of peace.
“Breathing connects our brain and our body but faith and our prayer connects our soul to God.”
A lot of different religions and practices encourage you to look inward for peace. You have all that you need within and to look inside yourself. And that is where I make the critical distinction because I am so not an advocate for that because I don’t think we have all we need within ourselves. I don’t think we can reach true peace on our own. As Christians, we believe our true source of peace is Christ. Our true source of peace is God. By connecting and turning our minds toward Him, that is really where we are going to take that breathing that does help calm our body, and then we connect that to God and we are turning our mind to Him. That is the key difference between breath prayers and other types of breathing, and to me, that has been extremely significant. It changes the way I respond to my anxiety.
I used to get really anxious, and I would only think about the things that were worrying me. I would spiral into worry, worry, worry. Now, I have learned, that anxiety is very physical. I get shaky, I sweat, and I cry a lot when I am anxious, and everyone has different symptoms of their anxiety. I can identify those now, and instead of it making me spiral into a whole bunch of worry, now I am like, Ok, I am feeling anxious. Let me slow down a minute and take some deep breaths and change the way I am thinking. Let me turn my thoughts to Christ; let me shift from all of this. And it doesn’t take all that away. There are still things, but let me put it in perspective, and take it to God. Let me shift how I respond. It doesn’t remove my anxiety. I am still going to feel anxious some days. That won’t completely go away because I am human, but I think that shifting how I respond to my anxiety is key. Do I do this perfectly every time? No. Do I still spiral into worry? Yes.
The more times I do that, which is why I recommend doing breath prayers every day for a while, even if you aren’t feeling anxious, the practice of that—you are changing your body’s response. You are teaching it. Just like we learn any habit, you are training your body, Ok, when I am feeling these feelings, I am going to turn to God in prayer. I am going to take some deep breaths and slow down and address it, and take it to God. It really does help. You will find you are more automatically doing that.
“It is not just about our body calming but about connecting us to our Creator who is our true source of peace.”
MW: Are there other tools you use for healing or things you have made a habit of?
JT: Sleep. I have recognized that getting enough sleep and allowing myself to rest is extremely important. When I am not getting enough sleep, I can tell. That is usually when I have more of a struggle with my mental health. Resting, in general. Taking a Sabbath. I am not good at that. I am no expert; I fail every week. I know how important it is because I know how I feel when I do take time to rest. I am a recovering perfectionist. It is still not there, but I recognize that [my anxiety] is rooted in all this work, and I have to get everything done, and I have to control all this stuff—taking time to rest in general has been a huge thing.
MW: Rest is underrated. The book is broken up into themes. How did you go about choosing the prayer themes?
JT: I took time to think, What are the things that cause me anxiety? And what things do I need to pray about? I looked at patterns and themes in the Scriptures I prayed. There are themes like ‘repentance’ because a lot of times, sin in my life will cause me to be anxious, and that is just a reality. Learning to repent regularly—there are even prayers like that. It is important to reflect on those things because if I don’t my connection with God is interrupted. All those different things are things I used to narrow down the themes I chose.
MW: The art is really beautiful in the book, and I noticed that nature was a theme. What, if any, role does nature play in wellness and mental health?
JT: I think it is huge! Just getting outside in creation and what God made is another way to connect us to our creator. There is a whole beautiful world out there. These flowers, trees and animals, they bloom and grow and God provides for them. Like the Bible says, the birds don’t worry about what they are going to eat, and the flowers don’t worry about what they are going to wear. You don’t have to worry. Just like He created this whole beautiful world, He is going to take care of you too.
There are a lot of lessons and metaphors in nature. That is my go-to when drawing, botanical stuff.
MW: I love it.
JT: We love going hiking. I wish we lived in a place with mountains and something beautiful around us. The stillness and pace of nature is so important. We get so busy, hustle bustle. Our calendars get so full. Nature moves at a different pace. Nature doesn’t hurry.
“Nature moves at a different pace. Nature doesn’t hurry.”
MW: Do you have a favorite Scripture to pray?
JT: My favorite one is The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all that I need. That is the one I prayed in the hospital last year over and over and over again. That is the first one that came to my head that first night. Something about Psalm 23 has always been really significant to me, knowing that He cares for me and He is going to take care of me. As long as I have Him, I have all that I really need. All these other things are not as important in light of Him. He knows what is going on in my life. He knows and He is holding me. It is my go-to.
“As long as I have Him, I have all that I really need.”
MW: You live in Georgia; I love the South. What are some must-see spots in Georgia?
JT: We love the state parks. Everything is a drive from where we are. We are right in the middle of GA. There isn’t a whole lot here where we are unless you like to go out to a restaurant to eat, there are tons of restaurants. I love Savannah, and I love the parks. Cloudland Canyon (near TN and AL). We stayed there once there were fireflies all around and waterfalls, it was so beautiful. Yurting is probably the closest thing to camping I will ever get. I love yurts.
MW: What are your top three essentials?
JT: I love my audio books. I always have something in my Audible account to listen to. Even in car rides, I will turn it on. My Audible books are mysteries and that type of genre. I always have ChapStick in my purse because my lips get really dry. I love soft blankets, at the house. I don’t care how blazin’ hot it is outside, I will always have a blanket on me.
MW: Very cozy! This is one we ask everyone. I always love the answers– If you had to define Christianity in a sentence, it would be:
JT: A faith in Jesus Christ that propels us to love others the way that God loves us.
Ms. Tucker has a five-day email series for friends who want to try breath prayers and see if that is something they are into, there is a free email series you can sign up for at littlehousestudio.net. A lot of people aren’t sure what it is and they sound new age, but this is rooted in Scripture and a faith-based thing. You can find a sneak peek here!
Jennifer Tucker is an illustrator, lettering artist, and graphic designer whose work has been featured in multiple publications and books, including The Message Canvas Bible and the ECPA bestselling coloring book Whatever Is Lovely. Jennifer is a devoted follower of Jesus and an advocate for mental health. She writes and shares her art online at BreathasPrayer.com.
Buy your copy of Breath as Prayer here.
For more Jennifer:
Until next time, keep witnessing!