Use the breath during times of change

The fall equinox is always a time of change, whether it’s as simple as putting on warmer clothes or as challenging as starting a new school or a different job. This year many people have had even greater hurdles in September, as they have been hit with hurricanes, floods, fires and devastating earthquakes. Although there are plenty of stories about people bouncing back, rebuilding and starting anew, the reality often is that people struggle a great deal, and for a long time. This can have a ripple effect on overall well-being.

Whether we’re dealing with a change we’ve chosen or a change that has been thrust upon us, we usually do best by utilizing both problem-focused, actionable strategies, as well as emotion-focused methods for reducing anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to calm anxiety is with the breath. Recently I did an online yoga practice called “Metamorphosis” with teacher Claire Missingham. As we relaxed into the practice, she said,  “Let your breath begin to soothe you.” Even though I use breathing techniques a lot when I am stressed or anxious, I had never framed it as self-soothing. But I realized that, of course, that’s really exactly what it is. So what follows are some of my favorite breathing practices (I’ve tried to give credit where it’s due).

“Don’t forget to breathe”

In the 1985 movie, “Follow That Bird“, Grover gives Big Bird a piece of advice as he is leaving Sesame Street. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says, “in and out.” Sometimes when anxiety strikes, the first that happens is that the breath gets shallow, or we even hold our breath. So the best way to start any breath practice is just to notice your natural breathing, in and out.

“Letting Yourself be Breathed”

Do this while lying on your back:

1. Close your eyes, letting your arms rest alongside your body and focus your attention on the breath without trying to influence it.
2. Imagine that with each inhalation, the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation, withdrawing it. Imagine yourself passively receiving the breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating every part of your body, even your fingers and toes.
3. Try to hold this imagination for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil)

universe

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

This is particularly good for relaxing before you go to sleep at night:

1. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just above your top teeth.

2. Take one or two deep breaths to start.

3. Now begin counting as you breathe: Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8.

4. Repeat this 4-7-8 sequence three or four times.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health)

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Balances the nervous system. Hillary Clinton says she used this technique after the election.

1. Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
2. Use the thumb and forefinger to alternate closing off one nostril at a time.
3. Beginning with an exhalation, use the thumb to close off one nostril. Keep it closed off as you take your next inhalation.
4. Then release the thumb and press the opposite nostril closed with your forefinger as you exhale. Inhale through the same nostril, then switch the finger and thumb again.
5. Continue alternating from one nostril to another in exhale-inhale cycles for as long as it feels comfortable.

(Adapted from Olpin & Hesson)

Anti-Stress Breathing

Sit comfortably as you would for meditation:

1. If you would like to use a “mudra”, touch the tips of your pinkie fingers and thumbs together, while keeping the other fingers on each hand together but not touching the opposite hand.
2. Close your eyes or focus on the tip of your nose.
3. Inhale deeply through the mouth, and then exhale through the nose. Then inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
4. Continue with this alternating pattern for several minutes.

just breathe

 

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Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.

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The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.

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By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!

 

How colored chalk changed my brain

Marian Diamond is best known for studying Einstein’s brain, as well as her penchant for carrying around a hatbox with a human brain inside. But my memories of her revolve around the color-coded lectures she used to give in her anatomy class at U-C Berkeley. Before we had PowerPoint, we had Marian Diamond and her colored chalk.

We would arrive in the lecture hall and find the chalkboard covered with an outline of the day’s class, complete with drawings of anatomical structures. Several different colors of chalk were used to separate parts of the lecture or demonstrate various pathways. I never knew exactly what I would see when I walked in, only that I would be mesmerized for the entire class period by the clarity of her presentation and her dynamic teaching style. Of all the professors I had in college, she is one of only two or three whose classes I vividly remember.Diamond-Zhukova750-410x273

So when I heard that Dr. Diamond died last week, at the age of 90, I was sad for only a moment, and then I smiled, thinking back to that Berkeley lecture hall. Marian Diamond was an expert in brain development, and I realize now that she wasn’t just teaching us about the anatomy of the brain, but actually changing our brains too. She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity and to test theories of how the right stimulation can promote brain development at any age.

In the introduction to her book, “Magic Trees of the Mind,” Diamond wrote that “The brain, with its complex architecture and limitless potential, is a highly plastic, constantly changing entity that is powerfully shaped by our experiences in childhood and throughout life.” She believed, and showed, that nurture is every bit as important as nature in determining how our lives turn out.

Back when I was in Marian Diamond’s class, I was contemplating a career in nursing, but unprepared for the competitiveness of Cal pre-med students. My laid-back studying habits weren’t a good match for the tough courses I was taking, and I ultimately switched majors. Little did I know that many years later I would go into the field of health education. Now I rely on Diamond’s work all the time in the courses I teach on stress management.

The critical factors in nurturing healthy brain development, according to Marian Diamond, are a healthy diet, physical exercise, being challenged, having new experiences, and being loved – especially love in the form of touch. In studies of rats, she showed that those living in an enriched environment had thicker cerebral cortices, the biggest part of the brain and the one most important for attention, memory and learning. She also learned that rats who were held and petted every day lived longer than others. While much of her work focused on children’s brain development, especially the negative effects of growing up in impoverished environments, she also realized that we retain the capacity for growth throughout life. As she wrote,

“Perhaps the single most valuable piece of information learned from all our studies is that structural differences can be detected in the cerebral cortices of animals exposed at any age to different levels of stimulation in the environment.”

People know this already, even if they don’t know anything about science. A Gallup survey several years ago showed that “learning something new” was one of the biggest predictors for whether someone thinks they had a good day. We’re bored if we’re not challenged, and we languish if we’re not loved. We know we feel better if we eat healthy food, and think better when exercise gets blood flowing to the brain.

Daniel Defoe wrote that, “The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” What we learned from the diamond that was Marian is that the brain needs its own share of polishing and nourishment for us to lead a rich, fulfilling life.

 

5 Ways to take a Vacation Day right now

In Washington, some of the bars opened early yesterday so that people could come and drink while watching James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. All around the country people took the day off from work so that they could stay riveted to the TV. It’s a crazy world when this is how we’re spending our days off!

Instead of sitting on a barstool, however, I turned to my “52 Lists Project” journal for inspiration and distraction (although I confess to a few sneak peeks at the testimony). List #22 asks us to think of favorite places we have been and what made them so appealing. But that’s not the end — the next step is to think of places in our communities that could “transport” us the same way. In other words, can we bring the vacation experience to our everyday lives? Can we transport ourselves for a little while away from all the chaos of recent times?

When I list my favorite vacations, in places like Croatia, Hawaii, Seattle, Yosemite or Australia, here are some of the characteristics that pop out:

  • Simplicity
  • Scenic drives
  • Grandeur
  • Friendly people
  • Fresh food
  • Connections to the past
  • Bringing the outdoors in

How do I replicate that at home?

1. Simplicity & fresh food:

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When I visited Croatia, I was impressed by the beautiful national parks, the simplicity of people’s lifestyles, the ability to eat a meal where every bite of food came from the farm we were on. Here at home the next best thing is to make a meal based on what comes from the farmer’s market or my yard:

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2. Bringing the outdoors in:

Poipu Beach Park

In Hawaii, the thing I liked best was the way the boundary between indoors and outdoors was so blurred. Nearly everyplace I went was open to the outside; there wasn’t a big reliance on artificial air conditioning.  This is hard to achieve during summer in DC, but I could spend more time on the roof of my building, eat at more outdoor restaurants, and open my windows when the temperature allows:

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3. Grandeur. I haven’t been to Yosemite in years, but the grandeur of the park is something one can never forget. Its sheer rock faces, memorialized by Ansel Adams and countless photographers since him, are familiar even to people who haven’t been there. It’s a place that is just jaw-dropping in all seasons. What my area offers:

Great Falls_3Great Falls Park – the rocky passage of the Potomac down the Mather Gorge, accessible by way of the Olmsted Island bridges, provides a pretty awe-inspiring outing that I never tire of.

IMG_2318The monuments, while man-made, have a whole lot of grandeur about them.

4. Connections to the past:Rome - Colosseum, Forum, Palatine (12)In America, we can’t compete with the Greeks or Romans on the ancient past, but we do have the advantage of recent history here in Washington:

Arboretum_20120407_13The original columns from the U.S. Capitol can be seen at the National Arboretum.  The way they rise up out of nothing, in the middle of a huge expanse of green, is spectacular.

5. Scenic drives:

Great Ocean Road_226In both Ireland and Australia, I took breathtaking drives along coastal roads. That’s tougher to replicate here where we’re inland, but how about the cherry blossoms in spring:

Cherry Blossoms (2)

In some ways, this prompt is very much like a values exercise we do in stress management. It asks you to imagine your perfect day and what it would include, then compare it to your typical day. How alike are they? Is there a way to make more days perfect, by incorporating more of what you value?

The columnist Earl Wilson once said that, “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.” As much as we might value watching important Senate testimony, a steady diet of it isn’t good for anyone. If you can’t take it anymore, perhaps it’s time to take a real vacation day.

 

Do you believe in miracles?

“We need to recognize that there is no age at which we lose our ability to be miracle workers,” writes  Darren Main in “Spiritual Journeys Along the Yellow Brick Road.”  Leave your comfort zone, he says, take risks and rediscover a sense of creativity and exploration – because in doing so, you can accomplish great things.

IMG_0086Are you feeling like it might take a miracle to get through the next four years? Do you doubt how much control you have over what happens to you? If so, it might be a good time to take stock of your physical, emotional and psychological “bank account”. What resources do you have and how can you best put them to use?

It is widely recognized that resilient people are more able to recover quickly from stressful events, and to utilize a variety of coping skills and strengths in doing so. Resilient people have generally built up these resources ahead of time (i.e. the bank account) by engaging in practices that enhance their physical and psychological well-being.  So when tough times hit, they have a more positive view of themselves, can make plans, and are clear-eyed about what’s needed. Most importantly, resilient people tend to have what’s called an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a term that refers to the degree to which individuals believe that they can control the events that affect them. Are outcomes based on your ability and effort, or are they the result of outside forces and luck? If you believe that you can control yourself and influence the world around you, you are said to have an internal locus of control. If, on the other hand, you think that everything is decided outside of your control, and many events are just fated to happen, you probably have an external locus of control. While most people don’t fall at one extreme or another, we do have tendencies in one direction.

People who have a high internal locus of control tend to be happier, less depressed, and to suffer less stress. People who have a higher external locus of control often don’t seek solutions for problems because they don’t believe they can effect any change. It is possible to develop a more internal locus of control, however, by monitoring your self-talk. Check to see if you are speaking in absolutes (never, always, must, have to), and try substituting other words. Instead of saying, “I can’t”, say “I won’t” or “I choose not to”. The important thing is to remind yourself that you do have choices.

The more you can leave your comfort zone and have some success making small changes, the more you will believe in your capabilities, and the greater sense of agency you will have. Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “Your confidence in your ability to grow influences your ability to grow.”

This is more important than ever for people who are unhappy about the direction of the new U.S. administration. During a recent talk at American University, DeRay Mckesson of the Black Lives Matter movement said that progressive activists need to do more than just oppose everything for the next four years. They need to be creative, ambitious, and to “fight for real things, too, in this moment.  I worry sometimes because I’ve seen people get so defeated that they forget to dream about what the world can be.”

Miracle workers are the resilient, dedicated people who leave their comfort zones every day to dream and enact what the world can be. They are the teachers who show their students how to be critical thinkers. They are the people I volunteer with, who provide food, clothing and opportunity (with dignity) to those who need a helping hand. They are the lawyers who went to airports to represent immigrants. They are the women who are deciding to run for office in their local communities.

Amelia Earhart once said that, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” We can all be miracle workers if we set aside fear, make the decision to act, and fight for real, positive change.

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If only this were a Mel Brooks movie

Each new day of the 2016 presidential election campaign makes me feel more as if I’m in some sort of psychocomedy like the movie “High Anxiety“, only instead of a hospital for the “very, very nervous” we have an entire nation on the edge of its seat, unsettled, uncertain, unhappy and yes, very nervous.

Plato said that “a good decision is based on knowledge,” but he also said that “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowedge.” And when it comes to elections, emotion might have the upper hand. Psychologist Steven Sosny, writing in Psychology Today, says that we suffer from election stress partly because the “toddler brain” hijacks the “adult brain.” Adult thinking is rational and calm, while toddlers make impatient and sometimes greedy choices based on emotions.

A lot of people are already locked in to their candidate. Often such certainty is emotional, says Sosny, not intellectual. That’s why it’s becoming virtually impossible to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you politically. In fact, just today in The Washington Post, there was an article about how geographically and socially polarized we are politically. People who would have discussed the elections with friends and co-workers in prior years are staying strictly away from such conversations this year.

A study of the 2012 presidential election found that voters don’t always want to feel responsible for the outcomes of elections, especially independent and undecided voters. The harder it was for a person to decide on a candidate, the more likely they were to ascribe the outcome of the election to fate.  In addition, stress hormone levels might even impact voter turnout. Research published in 2014 found that people who have higher baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol are less likely to participate in voting, while those with lower baseline levels are more likely to vote. In other words, people who have a lower tolerance for stress don’t want to engage in what is an inherently stressful process.door-number

The stress continues into the voting booth. Israeli researchers found that cortisol levels just prior to casting a vote were twice as high as people’s baseline levels and even higher in people whose candidate was predicted to lose. This year, with the rollercoaster we’ve been on, it’s hard to say when we last experienced baseline stress levels. No wonder I’m hearing more and more people say, “I just wish it were over!”

Following a 2004 election in Taiwan, about 10% of the population was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, labeled “post-election stress syndrome.” And in this country, we usually see advice after election day on how to deal with these “blues”. This year, however, our high anxiety and election coverage fatigue might call for some pre-election stress relief. So what might help?

  • Going on a complete media “fast” for a few days.
  • Getting your news from print sources rather than TV or radio, which tend to be more hyped.
  • Focusing on your own life. The truth is that the election outcome won’t affect your day-to-day routine at all, at least not right away. So take comfort in that and use your emotional resources there.
  • Doing a loving kindness “just like me” meditation. The hardest thing for those of us who feel passionate about a candidate is recognizing that those on the “other side” want the same things we want, deep down. Focusing on the ways that they are “just like me” can help.

If the election really were a Mel Brooks movie, it would end with all the bad guys getting their comeuppance and all the good guys living happily ever after. In real life and politics, it’s not that simple. But at least we know that we can do it all over again in 4 more years.

Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.