One pretty solid way to calm down quickly

Here it is: Take a few deep breaths.

Oh, what a cheat! Are you frustrated by that advice – advice you’ve probably heard all your life? Maybe you’ve tried it and felt bored, irritated, or frustrated by the lack of quick gains. Maybe you’ve been to a meditation group and felt the same kind of cheated. If we’re all breathing, all the time, and nothing seems to be changing, it doesn’t make logical sense that breathing can do much of anything, does it?

In the 1970s, noticing the claims of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation program, Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson began studying TM and ultimately found the greatest benefits of for-profit meditation can also be found in what he termed the “relaxation response.” In his book, Benson explains that when engulfed in the “fight, flight, or freeze” anxiety reaction, we can practice the ability to slow down that reactivity in the body (that is, relax the muscles and organs) and allow more blood and oxygen to flow more effectively, by way of a few simple steps: Sit comfortably, relax your muscles, become aware of your breathing, and keep focusing on your breathing for several minutes.

Benson and a cavalcade of other researchers and neuroscientists soon found lots of ways in which deep breathing helps to calm specific parts of the body and nervous system. They also found that by practicing the relaxation response (you can call it meditating), we can in time increase our ability to make choices in the moment rather than react to our environment. By practicing this choosing, we create new brain grooves that allow us more and more to be in control of our lives.

Still, most of us find it difficult to make the choice to make time to sit in our apartments and focus on breathing for ten minutes a day. We’d prefer a gimmick. I prefer a gimmick. I’d like to share two of my favorite relaxation/meditation gimmicks with you.

The first gimmick is one I learned from one of my favorite Living Yoga teachers:

Crocodile Pose

Lie on your stomach, holding your elbows, making a kind of a tent between your armpits and the floor. Place your forehead on your forearms, if that’s comfortable. This is what yoga folks call “crocodile pose.”

From this position, it’s almost impossible to breathe quickly, or from the chest. (Adults tend to breathe that way, while children almost always breathe more naturally, slowly and from the belly.) Diaphragmatic breathing does many things simultaneously: it strengthens the immune, circulatory, and digestive  systems; increases the amount of oxygen you take in; and, in so doing, forces a relaxation response by slowing down the body and mind.

In many upsetting situations, it’s difficult to find the space to lie down on the floor. Crocodile pose is a good go-to to practice deep breathing, but might not be the most helpful in a moment in which we’re triggered to fight, flight, or freeze.  This second gimmick is more socially acceptable:

Stand up straight. Notice that you’re likely breathing from the chest. Now, interlace your fingers and put them behind your back. Notice that you’re likely breathing from the belly. Notice that your breathing is probably slowing down a bit. Notice any changes in how you feel. Keep your hands behind your back for just two minutes, and focus on the sensations of breathing.

But as they say at the end of the book reviews on Reading Rainbow, “You don’t have to take my word for it…”

Meditations for Newbies

I hate the word “meditation.”  Because: for too many people, it conjures up all kinds of negative stereotypes, such as the idea that sitting still for a long period of time would bring on enlightenment… if you were only the kind of person who was truly open to the enlightenment that meditation teaches.  

“I don’t have time,” “It’s boring,” and “I tried it once and nothing happened” appear perfectly acceptable reasons to avoid “meditation.” However, the scientific evidence is in: the benefits of becoming more attuned to the present (rather than worrying about the future or feeling awful about the past) and getting more grounded in what’s going on with your body are hugely rewarding. Until somebody comes up with a better term than “ommmm, meditation,” I’d like to present the following list of things that I’ve found to provide the above benefits without involving sitting still while feeling bored and stupid about not being good at “meditating”:

1.  The good people at Palouse have created a FREE online eight-week course based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques. Although online learning can be problematic for many of us (no one to force you to do the work), this is a wonderful resource for the ambitious. In the first week, you’ll find an incredible body scan meditation audio file, empowering articles that encourage you to focus on your goals, and instructions for homework assignments that prompt you to articulate and remember your reason for committing time to the course. IRL, courses like these cost an arm, a leg, plus airfare to Massachusetts. This is truly a wonderful resource for those interested in becoming more tuned into the present and more capable of managing difficult emotions. *Trying out the exercises recommended for the first day of this course and then not coming back to it still counts as trying out meditation!

2.  For meditation newbies, Buddhify does a great job of offering lots of short (like, under five minutes) guided meditations based on what you’re up to. For example, this app currently offers three distinct guided meditations for situations in which you’re “waiting around,” and another three designed for use while you’re “walking in the city.” Given that it can feel like your only meditation options are between traveling to a meditation center and carving out an hour of time to get “present” in a group setting versus… not actually meditating at all, Buddhify does us the service of offering the low-key option of just putting in ear buds during the walk back to work from the food carts.

3.  Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has a neat exercise called the “Conveyor Belt.” It asks you to imagine you’re at a conveyor belt, like at the grocery check-out, and reminds you to notice the thoughts and feelings that are coming up for you, encourages you to label those (“anxiety about tonight,” “urge to stop meditating,” etc) and imagine placing them in a bucket. No judgement required – just notice what comes up, label it, and put it away. This simple meditation can be extremely helpful not just for those of us (all of us) who struggle with maintaining focus on our breath while meditating, but has several potential added benefits around regulating emotions. Debbie Corso does a nice job explaining the rationale behind this meditation as well as describing how it works in her life in a very honest way.

4.  The use of expressive arts for therapeutic treatment has been ubiquitous since at least the 1960s.  It makes a lot of sense. Think about dancing and physical movement exercises, which can help ground us in our bodies while freeing us to explore patterns outside of our regular routines. Similarly, drawing exercises such as Zentangles have become recently popular. In this video, artist Suzanne McNeill demonstrates the activity of mindfulness (as well as permission for creativity) that Zentangles can afford.

5.  Sometimes, it’s hard just to get into the idea of meditating, to remember why it’s important “to do nothing.”  Which is why videos like this TED Talk become useful. We all need prompts and reminders at least some of the time around doing things that are good for us. In this video, Andy Puddicombe explains his experience with meditation, details relevant research around the usefulness of tuning into what’s going on in the present, and manages to be sort of funny as well. He also encourages juggling, and…

6.  Speaking of juggling: it is a free or nearly free activity (depending on how many oranges you currently have on hand) that is initially terribly challenging, takes many patient hours to learn, and therefore makes you feel like a superhero when you’re finally able to do it (sort-of) correctly. After proving yourself able to manage three balls for twenty passes or so, you’ll notice that besides being a fun challenge, juggling is relaxing in the same way that getting into “the zone” while performing defense in the Superbowl or while consistently petting a sleepy animal and watching reruns on the couch can be. And unlike EXTREME challenges, the practice of learning to juggle moves from frustrating to meditative within a much shorter time span. This youtube is a very useful primer on the “sport,” while this article offers evidence for the idea that juggling is an excellent method for reducing anxiety.

7.  Pzizz! There are loads of sleep-inducers out there, and this one truly does the job without the side effect of medication-grogginess. This app, now free on IOS, has both a “power nap” and a sleep option, both of which feature a very melodic male voice followed by various sounds that are different each time you use it – which means your brain never learns the pattern, nor needs to attend to the pattern rather than let you really rest. At the time you set to wake up, it gently wakes you, with one of several customizable options. Now, you may be thinking that inducing sleep is not the same as increasing awareness of the present moment, and you would be correct; I cheated with this one, but only because it’s really, really great at what it does.

Can People Really Change?

This week I had the pleasure of attending Walter Mischel’s discussion of his latest book, The Marshmallow Test. That “test” – a famous experiment in which five-year-olds are told they can have one treat now, or wait and have two treats – was an adorable high point of the Research & Statistics course I had in grad school. Youtube is full of videos replicating this data, and everyone should watch all of them, because they are amazing.

The thing that really drew me to Mischel, however, was his earlier research into personality theory. Beginning in the 1930s, many psychologists believed that the “Big Five” characteristics of personality were consistent across time and circumstance. An introvert would behave the same way at jury duty as he would during his son’s graduation. A person who lacked conscientiousness when speaking to a telemarketer would be found similarly lacking on a first date. Mischel’s finding contradicted this nonsense, instead indicating that context is important.

Context is important. I find this idea so freeing. It goes to that change is more than possible, but probable. “Change your environment, change your life” has so much more hope in it than “Wherever you go, there you are.” It is true that most of us do not have the means to change extremely important variables that deeply affect our lives, and yet, there is always a part of our circumstance that we do have control over. Paying attention to both parts is vitally important. (“…And the wisdom to know the difference” – noticing that part’s important, too.)

Mischel spoke to the importance of situationism as he politely and obliquely complained about the media’s zealousness around treating his will-power/”marshmallow” research as destiny-describing. The idea that five-year-olds who choose to eat one treat rather than delay even more gratification by having two treats later will necessarily become forty-five-year-olds incapable of controlling themselves is a silly and useless idea. We are all capable of taking more notice of our surroundings and our choices, and even those of us who sometimes choose to eat a whole thing of Cherry Garcia are also capable of some pretty great things… including, sometimes, choosing to eat a whole thing of Cherry Garcia.

A thought about returning veterans

On the day before Veteran’s Day, I saw a performance of “The Telling,” a national platform for veterans to describe their experience, and for civilians to experience that with them. With an audience of about a hundred, I had the privilege of listening to four US veterans become utterly vulnerable in front of me. Their bravery on stage was astounding. War was not glamorized, tragedy was not over-enunciated, and no over-arching agenda was advanced. Instead, three men and one woman allowed themselves to speak with honesty about the daily facts of life at war: laundry, hauling, drinking, painting, sexism, anger, and fear. They were able to talk about the impact of witnessing trauma on their relationships. They spoke about wanting to die. Some of them said they were still grappling with their pain, still finding themselves screaming at night, finding it still difficult to cope or to let themselves feel.

I was reminded of the idea that touching and being touched are the two most important activities of health. Touching others – telling stories, sharing selves, in ways little and big – was cited by two of the veterans on stage as the thing that kept them sane. “I’m not here for you,” one told the audience; “I’m here because this is the thing that is keeping me alive.” Another agreed, and said that years after combat, finding himself able to start to tell parts of his story to friends was revelatory for him. Finding connection and feeling safe and heard is fundamental and foundational.

I have a friend who served, and he’s told me that when recruits enter the military, there’s a long and exacting socialization process. (We call this “boot camp.”) When leaving the military, however, there’s no formal process for re-entering civilian life. We all know about increased rates of addiction among veterans; we’ve all heard stories about how difficult it is to re-align without having the structure, expectations, and role that one had in the military.

Finding therapy can be extremely difficult for veterans due to both the stigma around asking for help and the fact that getting help through the VA can take months. How much easier would it be for the military to provide new veterans the space to de-brief, complain, voice fears, and tell their stories? I think about the years that some have to wade through before being forced into treatment by their partners or employers, and it doesn’t make sense to me. We should be providing more coordination and care to those that chose to serve their country.

For Portland residents, thankfully, our community also offers free and confidential mental health services to veterans year-round. For more information, please check out the Returning Veterans Project.

Brene Brown on Vulnerability

This TED Talk went viral in 2010 for good reason. Brown’s choice to highlight the way secrets such as shame keep us disconnected from others and ourselves is a revelation. I regularly review this video, and recommend it constantly to family, neighbors, and random strangers on the bus. As Maria Shriver put it, “I believe the world needs more guides like her who are showing us a wiser way to our inner world.”