LeAnn Thieman

By LeAnn Thieman

How to Cope in Your “War Zones”

How to Cope in Your “War Zones” 150 150 LeAnn Thieman

There were 100 little babies laying three and four to a cardboard box, strapped in the belly of a gutted cargo jet. It was 1975, Saigon was falling to the Communists, and I was accidentally caught up in the Vietnam Orphan Airlift.

A stressful situation. If you don’t have coping skills, you learn them fast!

As our plane took off, I was haunted with an image of three days before when I had stood on the runway and watched as the first planeload of orphans crashed after takeoff, killing half of the adults and children board. I clutched our newly adopted baby boy to my chest. Would this plane be blown out of the sky too? I trembled so hard I could barely hold our son. To cope, I started slow, deep easy breathing…the kind I’d learned from our Lamaze classes several years before. The same breathing I’d used to bring our daughters into our family, I was using to bring our son.

Since then I’ve learned over and over that those child-birthing techniques are not just for women and not just for labor, but they are life skills. Breathing, relaxation, positive thinking and visualization are imperative for coping with the challenges in the “war zones” of our lives.


In our ever-busy, often chaotic daily lives it’s important to take time every day for mental breaks. Slow deep breathing is one of the best and most effective tools for mental rest, relaxation, and focus, but it is so simple we often discount it. Rhythmic breathing relieves stress and tension and releases endorphins in our brains, our bodies’ own pain medications. Stress raises adrenaline levels in all of us, putting us into the “fight or flight mode.”

This ancient survival mechanism is leftover from when cavemen were chased by wild beasts. In this mode, our bodies send all the energy and circulation to the organs needed at that moment and take energy away from those not needed for survival then. That’s why our hearts, like the caveman’s, beat so fast and our breathing is rapid when we get scared. We need a heartbeat and breathing to run and survive. What we don’t need is a bladder. This explains why kindergarteners wet their pants on stage. They are so nervous up there, singing their songs that their little hearts and lungs are working overtime to help them survive. Think of the last time you were really nervous and afraid. Did you have to go to the bathroom?

Breathing and relaxing decrease adrenaline output and allow our organs and body parts to work at their best and “save” us.

Controlled breathing is one of the easiest ways to improve mental and physical health. Slow, deep, and consistent respirations have been proven effective in treating migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety disorders, and pain.

Rhythmic breathing is easy. Breathe slowly, from your abdomen, in through your nose to the count of 4, then out through your mouth to the count of four. In-2-3-4; out-2-3-4. As you breathe in, think the words “I am” and as you breathe out think, “relaxed.” Continue for several minutes, getting slower and deeper with each breath. It works.

When I was en route to Vietnam, the national officers of our organization met me at the airport with $10,000 to smuggle into Vietnam!  So with the most expensive padded bra in world history, I headed through customs. An angry-looking Vietnamese guard with a gun barked at me, and I feared he’d take one look at my chest and know this was not an act of God! Trembling with fright, I knew I’d give myself away. So I started that deep breathing– in, $1,000, $2,000, $3000, out $4000…! I relaxed and made my way safely through customs.


We are only as relaxed as our hands and our faces. You can’t relax if you’re making a fist…or clenching your teeth… or the steering wheel. You schedule so many activities into your days, yet seldom schedule relaxation. Still, you must allocate at least fifteen minutes every day for relaxation, meditation, or prayer.

Ideally, you should set up a “relaxation” place at home, where you can listen to guided relaxation exercises or soothing music while doing slow, rhythmic breathing. Involving all five senses is best, perhaps by lighting a scented candle or gliding in a rocker. Once you’ve mastered this relaxation technique, you can utilize it in your break room, office, the ballpark, or bed.

Positive Thinking

I am an absolute believer in the power of positive thinking. You get what you expect from life. When you expect positive things, you act accordingly and get positive results in return. When expect success you usually succeed; when you expect failure, you usually fail. When you expect health, you make healthy choices; when you expect illness, you are often sick.

Henry Ford said, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

The average person has forty thousand thoughts per day, of which 80% are negative. Every time you have a negative thought, your brain releases negative chemicals that make your body feel bad. Think about the last time you were upset. How did your body feel? Did your heart rate increase, your jaw clench, your breathing quicken? Now, imagine one of your happiest times. When you do so, your brain releases chemicals that make your body feel good. You’ll notice a slower heartbeat, deeper easier breathing, and relaxed muscles.

Your brain can literally be “rewired” with positive thinking. Some neurological connections are strengthened while others are replaced. New thoughts and images stimulate new pathways in the brain and, when constantly repeated, have a great impact on behavior. For example, if you constantly think, “I’m so annoyed with my leadership team and I can never get all this work done,” and think of all the irritating things they do, you are strengthening those neurological connections. Those thoughts and images become a part of your strong belief system, and that affects your mood, behavior, relationship, and work. But if you change your mental engineering by using positive thoughts and images, soon your brain will be rewired, and your thoughts, images, actions, and productivity will change. The more you repeat, “I love my leadership and my job!” the greater the neurological impact.

You can take positive thinking one step farther by incorporating Positive Imaging. Positive visualization is a powerful and mysterious force in human nature that’s capable of bringing about dramatic improvement in our lives. Einstein said, “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.”

Cancer patients say they have less nausea and vomiting when visualizing a serene white beach of Maui, cascading waterfalls, peaceful sunsets. But it seems that can work in reverse. One cancer patient saw her doctor in the grocery store and it brought back such intense images of nausea with her chemo, she threw up on his shoes!

Make a list of positive statements and repeat them multiple times a day. Here a few ideas to get you started:

Positive Affirmations

I am relaxed and centered.

I love life.

I lovingly care for my body, mind, and spirit.

I am living my priorities every day.

I am happy and blissful just being alive.

I am vibrantly healthy and radiantly beautiful.

I am strong.

I have enough time, energy, wisdom, and money to accomplish my desires.

I love doing my work, and I’m richly rewarded, creatively, and financially.

The light of God within me is producing perfect results.

I always communicate truthfully, clearly, effectively, and lovingly.

I bring joy and laughter to all I do.

I invest my time wisely on what’s really important.

My relationship with__________ is growing happier and more fulfilling every day

Breathing, relaxation, positive thinking, and positive visualization work. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be asked to rescue babies in cardboard boxes in a war-torn country, but your efforts and stressors are sometimes as great. Remember to breathe, relax, and think positive as you navigate your “war zones.”