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The Annual Tease of New Year’s Resolutions

The Annual Tease of New Year’s Resolutions

New Years Resolutions written on a note pad.

Do you, like myself and many others do a bit of a mental review of your year (or your life)at New Year and come up with some ‘resolutions’ for the coming year? Some big goals for personal change?  If so, to what extent do you achieve those goals?  I read yesterday that 25% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolutions after one week, and 60% do so within six months.  I didn’t check if there is any research backing up these statements, but they were food for thought, all the same.

I think there are many reasons that their New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for many people, but I will list just three that I think are particularly important.  Hopefully this list might help you to identify some of the thing/s that trip you up if you are unable to persevere with your resolutions.  Or they may even allow you to give yourself permission not to engage in this annual tease, if the time is not right for you.

Your challenging goals – problems or dilemmas?

1.       If it is a challenging enough goal that we need to set a New Year’s Resolution to achieve it, it is most likely not a simple or easy goal to achieve.  Dike Drummond, M.D. in his book ‘Stop Physician Burnout’ writes about the distinction between a problem and a dilemma.  Understandably, we generally  approach challenges with a ‘problem-solving’ mind-set – analyse the problem, identify possible solutions, choose the best solution, implement it and voila!  Problem solved.  This approach works well for straight-forward problems – e.g. there are two people in your house-hold and only one car, but today, you both need the car.  Apply this process and voila!  Problem solved.

But many of our challenges are more of a dilemma than a problem.  A dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two alternatives – especially when both alternatives are either undesirable or mutually incompatible.  Or perhaps both alternatives are very desirable – for example “I want to lose weight and I want to keep on enjoying yummy sweet and fatty foods”.  And in the case of the changes we tackle in New Year’s Resolutions, it’s not just one difficult choice, but a choice we need to make over and over and over again, day after day, after day – on days when we’re feeling highly motivated and on days when we are exhausted and don’t have any delicious and easy-to-prepare healthy food in the refrigerator.

A dilemma requires managing, not solving.  And managing requires an ongoing strategy with regular reviews to ‘tweak’ the strategy to find what will work best.  It’s not a quick fix process.  Many people approach their New Year’s Resolutions as if they are problems, when they may in fact be dilemmas.

Maintaining mindfulness, awareness and perspective regarding our goal over the long-haul

2.   When we are working on an issue that requires us to make ‘the good decision’ over and over and over again, we need to be able to maintain a relatively high level of awareness or mindfulness.  Using the weight loss example again – we need to be able to notice the urge to grab a bag of chippies or chocolate bar from the ‘snack box’ at work, before we’ve gone ahead and done it.  We need to be able to resist urges, see the bigger picture – remember our overall goal for better health or losing weight, be aware of the consequences of our actions, be aware of alternatives for healthier choices – to generally maintain a state of awareness, choice and perspective.  These are all mental functions that we can only achieve when we are in a ‘relaxed and focussed’ frame of mind.  When we are stressed out, in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, we are more likely to be caught in tunnel vision, impatience, impulsiveness, and black-and-white thinking – not a place where we can make wise decisions.

In fact, to have a ‘fighting chance’ of sticking to our New Year’s Resolutions, we need to spend as little time as possible in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, and know how to change state to the ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology each time we notice that we are stressed.  In addition to Mindfulness and Diaphragmatic Breathing, Neurolinguistic Programming has some great strategies for accessing and anchoring resourceful states such as being relaxed and focussed.  But first we need to have a good level of awareness of our current state so that we know when we need to change it!  Again, Mindfulness is vital here.

Ironically, at the time when we make our New Year’s Resolutions, we are usually in quite a ‘relaxed and focussed’ place.  We may be on leave from our jobs or on holiday, and are giving ourselves some ‘me-time’ / thinking time where we intentionally choose to enter a place of perspective.  Which is a great place to formulate goals, so long as we stay there long enough to formulate a fairly detailed and grounded strategy that will ensure we are able to achieve those goals.  But many people don’t take the time and effort to formulate a detailed strategy at that time, and then return to a busy life and get caught back into the rut (and ‘tunnel vision’) of being busy, ‘fire-fighting’, and coping or surviving.  It is likely to be almost impossible to stick to resolutions that involve managing dilemmas under these circumstances.

‘New Year’s Resolution’ or ‘New Year’s Wishful Thought’?

3.       Maybe it would help to ‘call a spade a spade’.  We think of these things we set in the new year as ‘resolutions’.  Definitions of ‘resolution’ include: the quality of being resolute, great determination; a mental pledge.  But for many, New Year’s Resolutions could more accurately be thought of as ‘New Year’s Wishful Thoughts’ or perhaps ‘New Year’s Vague Goals’ – if we haven’t developed a long term strategy for implementation which includes supporting our ongoing determination in keeping this ‘mental pledge’ or ‘promise’ that we have made to ourselves.  So my suggestion would be that if we haven’t got the time, or level of commitment to create a good strategy, why not spare ourselves the guilt and disappointment and slight erosion of self-esteem that occurs when we break our promises to ourselves, let ourselves down – again, and just acknowledge the reality of the matter, without judgment – that the time is not right for this particular goal at this time.

So bearing this in mind – choose your ‘thing’.  If not a ‘resolution’, then what?  I do think that setting general intentions without a clear goal can be helpful.  Last year, a friend set her friends the challenge of selecting a quality to focus on for the year.  I chose the quality of ‘spaciousness’ – which I pondered upon many times during the year.  It served as a general sense of direction for the year, and although I didn’t have a specific detailed strategy I frequently revisited this somewhat vague intention, with positive results I wouldn’t have predicted.

Compass

Be kind to yourself, and get real

My words of advice on New Year’s Resolutions

–          Be real with yourself – accept what is, because it is – yourself and your circumstances.  Following the advice of the Serenity Prayer – accept the things you can’t change, have the courage (and determination) to choose to change the things you can when the time is right, and use your wisdom to know when and how to effectively tackle those changes you want to make.

–          Be kind to yourself – don’t set yourself up for guilt and disappointment with unrealistic and ungrounded ‘resolutions’.

–          Consider using this year to put some more foundations in place to help you tackle those important goals that the time is not yet right for.  Look out for ways to develop more mindfulness and mental spaciousness this year – and maybe next year you will be in a better place to tackle those goals successfully.

 

Please comment:

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences).  Please add your comment/s below.

Do New Year’s Resolutions work for you?  What words of advice would you offer regarding setting New Year’s Resolutions?

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

 

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Stress … It’s Doing My Head In

Stress ... It's doing my head in

Feeling a bit like you’ve just got too much going on at once?  Too much pressure?  Too many people making demands on your time or your peace of mind?  And feeling like you just can’t think straight, get perspective, work out where to start?

And possibly, as a result of this feeling, saying and doing things that ‘aren’t you’.  Maybe you’re normally relatively calm and organised, but at times you just feel like all this stress is ‘doing your head in’.

Well, maybe it’s not just about you.  Maybe you’re not ‘losing it’, going crazy or whatever.  In fact this is just what our brains do when we end up in the ‘stress response’ (also often known as the fight-flight response).

I personally find it quite reassuring to understand what happens when our brains flick into these particular unhelpful patterns when we are stressed.  Partly I find it helpful because I can remind myself I’m not going crazy, this is exactly how my brain is designed to operate under stress.  And that thought reminds me that focussing on actions that will help my physiology shift from ‘stressed out / freaking out’ to ‘relaxed and focussed’ is the most useful thing to do.  But I’m running ahead … first, here are some ideas that help to explain in simple terms why our minds do what they do when we are stressed.

We’re not as ‘modern’ as we think

In the same way that it is a natural reflex for our bodies to flick into ‘fight-flight’ physiology any time we perceive we are facing a threat (whether that is a real physical threat or a perceived threat, perhaps something that has us feel that our security or wellbeing is under threat) our mind can flick automatically into a ‘fight-flight’ style of thinking.   The ‘fight-flight’ reflex is a very primitive reflex which we have in common with even the most ancient animals.

Unfortunately our minds and bodies are not great at telling the difference between real, physical threats and everyday worries or anxieties.  So most of us flick into the fight-flight response without even knowing we are doing it.  We are then caught in a physiology that would equip us well for a brawl, or to survive in a dangerous world, as if we were surrounded by sabre-tooth tigers.

The ‘logical’ brain goes off-line and ‘emotion brain’ jumps into the driver’s seat

Ironically, the more ‘modern’ or highly evolved, rational, problem-solving part of our brain (the neo-cortex) is less activated when we switch into the fight-flight response, and instead the more ancient ‘emotion brain’ (limbic system) takes over the ‘driver’s seat’.  So when we are facing stressors and most need our problem-solving ability, we have least access to it if the ‘fight-flight’ response has been activated.  And you may have noticed evidence that the ‘emotion brain’ is more activated in times of greater stress – you may find yourself feeling more emotional than usual, perhaps more prone to tearfulness or more ‘short-fused’ than you would normally be, and you may find that you take things more personally than usual.

In addition, the limbic system responds in a very fast, very ‘black or white’, or ‘all or nothing’ way.   You might find that when you are feeling particularly stressed that you find yourself saying things to yourself like “This is a disaster” (as opposed to “This is quite a big setback”),  or using ‘all or nothing language’ such as “I will never be able to …”, or  “They always do this to me”.

And when I say that we see things as very ‘black or white’ I guess I’m really saying we see things as very black – we are not in a state to notice what is going well or the many good things in our lives.  We are in a negative mind-set because of the fight-flight response.  This leads to us to a bit of a ‘siege mentality’ – we can feel that we are surrounded by people who are mean and/or stupid.

Looking out for danger

When we are in ‘stress physiology’ we become ‘hypervigilant – we are on the look-out for what is wrong or what could go wrong.  This makes perfect sense given that your body and mind are acting as if you are living in a very dangerous world.  In a genuinely dangerous world, we need to be on the look-out for danger.  But our tendency to flick into this stress physiology, and the hypervigilance that goes with it when faced with every-day ongoing stress, is very unhelpful.

As you can see, we are hard-wired to think negatively when we are caught in the fight-flight response.  Another way of describing ‘hypervigilance would be to say that we are in a hyper ‘judging’ mode – we are filtering for whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and mostly when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology we are only able to see the ‘bad’) and we are paying particular attention to the size of the gap between how we perceive things to be and how we perceive they ‘should’ be or we wish they would be.

The ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ Physiology

This is the opposite to the ‘fight-flight’ physiology.  When we are relaxed, we much more easily and automatically notice the good things in our lives.  In this physiology we don’t have to give ourselves a ‘pep talk’ to think positively, we are naturally aware of the good things in our lives.  We are also much more compassionate, and much less likely to judge – either others or ourselves.  In this physiology we also have full access to our pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that can problem-solve, be rational, be creative, and get perspective on life.  Our concentration is better and our memory works better.  All-in-all this physiology has a lot going for it!

Adopting a ‘bottom up’ approach

There is growing acceptance within psychology today that we can’t easily ‘think’ or ‘work’ our way out of this dynamic.  For many people trying to be ‘rational’ in our thinking when we are caught in stress and anxiety, and trying to be ‘positive’ doesn’t work when we are trying to get out of this nasty cycle. In fact, we can end up feeling worse because we think we ‘should’ be able to ‘just be rational’ or ‘just be positive’ and try as we might, this ability eludes us.  And this leads to more self-judgment and more of that nasty vicious cycle.

Instead of trying harder to think our way out of this physiology, a more effective approach is to ‘use our bodies to change our minds’.  It is helpful to recognise that we are in the stress physiology, remind ourselves that we are hard-wired to think in this negative way when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology, and then choose to take action to change our physiology.  So give yourself a break.  Trying to stop yourself thinking in this negative way when you are in the ‘stress’ physiology is like trying to rake water up hill.  Once we take action which moves us into a more ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, then we can ‘go upstairs’ and change the way we are thinking.

‘Bridges’ into the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology

There are many ‘bridges’ that help us to move from ‘stressed brain’ to ‘relaxed and focused brain’.    Physical exercise is really helpful, as is spending time with people who care about us or whose company helps to uplift us.  Spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, or being in nature can also be very helpful, as can music, art or other creative activities. Play is very potent also.

But perhaps the most direct and powerful is diaphragmatic breathing.

Learning to gain greater control over your physiology through diaphragmatic breathing will pay dividends.  Imagine how much more calm, enjoyable and productive life would be if you could easily access the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology, where your brain is more efficient and you can easily get things into perspective.  So if you haven’t already, do explore the simple but powerful process of diaphragmatic breathing.  And make sure you use it as often as you need it to, to help you keep things in perspective and to prevent you from visiting that ‘it’s doing my head in’ territory that detracts so significantly from our quality of life.

Just breathe … diaphragmatically. It can change your life.

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences:  Please add your comment/s below.

Can you relate to any of this – have you noticed some of these thought patterns when you’ve been stressed.  And have you been annoyed with yourself for being ‘so negative’ or ‘so grumpy’ but not been able to get out of that frame of mind.  Or maybe you’ve had friends who’ve given you that oh so helpful (not) advice ‘Don’t be so negative’.  I’d love to hear about your experiences of this ‘stress dynamic’.

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

 

 

 

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7 Ways The Fight-flight Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health

7 Ways The Fight-flight Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health

Understand the Fight-flight physiology and its effect on our heart rate and health

Nothing is likely to improve your quality of life more than understanding how the ‘fight-flight’ response affects your physiology, your brain and how you think and behave.  This is ‘news you can use’.

So firstly, what is the fight-flight response?

This is a very ancient response that we have in common with even the simplest animals.  It is a response that is designed to help save our lives in physically life-threatening situations.  How does it do this?  By ramping up our heart-rate, blood pressure and breathing pattern to ensure enough oxygenated blood flows to our arms and legs so we can run like crazy or fight like crazy, and live to tell the tale.  Along with these three physiological changes there are many other large and small changes that contribute to our survival. This response is designed as a very short-lived response to cope with real, life-threatening situations.  Unfortunately this response is activated whenever we sense a ‘threat’ –– whether it is a physical threat or just a worry about whatever issues are going on in our lives.  And because there are nearly always issues we can get worried about, many of us are living in a constant low, or even high- grade ‘fight-flight’ physiology.

7 Ways The ‘Fight-flight’ Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health

Our bodies are not designed to cope with prolonged periods of ‘fight-flight’ physiological arousal.  When left unchecked, we can end up experiencing the following:

1.  When we are in an already higher than normal state of arousal in terms of the fight-flight response, with our hearts beating faster than normal, our blood-pressure elevated and our breathing faster and shallower than normal, it only takes relatively small additional stressors to lead us to feeling panicky or overwhelmed.  And potentially, when the stress level gets to a certain level we can be triggered into a full-blown panic attack, perhaps ending up in the Emergency department at the hospital feeling like we are having a heart attack or can’t breathe.

2.       When we are in the fight-flight response, a more ancient part of the brain, the Limbic system or Emotion brain becomes more highly activated and the logical, rational, creative, perspective-giving, problem-solving part of the brain becomes less activated.  Why?  We survive best in emergencies if we don’t stop to ponder, strategise or philosophise.  Instead our impulse to run or fight kicks in and takes over.  Which is perfect when we are in a physical emergency situation, but not so great when in a conflict with our boss or partner, for example.  So if you have noticed that you can’t think very clearly, or that you become more emotional than usual when you are stressed, now you know why!   And when ‘Emotion Brain’ is in the driver’s seat of our lives, we tend to make poor health choices – to grab that chocolate bar or alcohol to drown our sorrows, or to decide ‘to heck with it, why should I bother going to the gym’.

3.       Bodily functions that are not immediately needed for our survival partially close down.  This includes our digestive systems.  You don’t need to digest your most recent meal to fight the tiger.  In modern times, this may help to explain why there is a very high incidence of digestive system disorders such as heartburn or reflux and irritable bowel syndrome.  Of course things like not eating enough natural healthy foods and not getting enough exercise are also a part of this – and often these things occur because we feel too busy or stressed to fit in exercise and cook healthy meals.

4.       Our immune systems also undergo significant change during the fight-flight response.  To begin with, they become ‘ramped up’ which puts us in a good position if we were wounded in the process of fighting and fleeing.  But when we remain in the fight-flight physiology for longer periods of time than is healthy, our immune system then becomes less effective, leading to a diverse range of problems which suggest an underactive immune system (eg getting every cold or flu that is going around) or an overactive immune system (e.g. hayfever or other allergies).

5.       Our muscles tighten, ready for action when we are in the fight-flight physiology.  Whether it’s our arms and shoulders tensing, preparing us for a fight, or whether we are ‘bracing’ our core muscles, it is not good for us!  The fight-flight response is designed to be of short duration.  Our bodies are not designed to stay in this ‘stress mode’ for longer periods of time.  People often notice this effect as tight or even rock-hard shoulder muscles.  This can lead to shoulder, neck, and back pain, and in particular, to headaches.  And if you do a job that requires repetitive arm or hand movements, this creates the perfect situation to develop Occupational Overuse Syndrome.

6.       Our eyes focus in a way that changes the rate of our blinking.  This can lead to eye discomfort.

7.       And perhaps one of the most important physical effects of being chronically caught in fight-flight physiology, with high levels of circulating stress chemicals (e.g. adrenalin and cortisol), a racing heart and fast breathing is that it is very difficult to get good quality, refreshing sleep.  And poor quality sleep makes every aspect of life harder to cope with, which increases our stress, which makes it harder to sleep …  And given that sleep is when healing occurs – both physical healing and refreshing our brains – this further impacts on our health.

And these are just the most obvious physical affects.  The affects of the fight-flight response on our mood and thinking patterns also take a heavy toll.

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have looked after myself better…

You may be thinking, well, I know I’m stressed, but none of these apply to me.  YET.  I would suggest that if you experience a relatively high level of stress and have done so for a relatively long period, and do not have effective ways of lowering your base-line of arousal or stress each day, then it is a matter of YET.  Our bodies are a bit like Planet Earth.  For decades the human occupants have been burning fossil fuels, pouring toxic waste into the air or soil, felling large forests, over-fishing and de-spoiling the oceans and waterways etc.  And for a long time we had almost no awareness of the consequences of this.  Until relatively recently.  And now we are so far down that path that saving our planet is not going to be an easy task.  Our bodies are like that.  We can be, without realizing it, swimming in a sea of stress chemicals, until, perhaps in our forties or fifties, or sometimes sooner with some symptoms, we find that we have some ‘disorders’’ or ‘syndromes’ that are having a significant effect on our quality of life.
So, whatever your age, now is a good time to gain mastery over your stress physiology.

The sooner the better.  And a good place to start is to learn Diaphragmatic Breathing.

 

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): 

I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences:  Please add your comment/s below.  

Am I being a bit over-dramatic here?  Or do you think there is some truth in my ‘doomsday’ comment that if you are in a constant state of stress and are not experiencing any symptoms yet, it is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ unless you make some changes?  If you’ve already heard your own ‘wake-up call’ what was that defining moment, or insight or stress symptom that moved you to action?  If you’ve helped some-one else make important changes related to reducing their stress, what do you think convinced them to start on their journey of change?  (Please respect their confidentiality and do not include any details of their situation, just what the ‘light-bulb moment’ was for them, the key thing that helped them to start making some changes).

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

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Just Breathe … Diaphragmatically

Create that sense of freedom and spaciousness through diaphragmatic breathing

Just Breathe … Diaphragmatically – It’s Life Changing

In my opinion, diaphragmatic breathing is the number one, must learn, must-do strategy for dealing with stress and anxiety.  Just breathing diaphragmatically is life changing.

Why Is Diaphragmatic Breathing So Powerful For Stress Management?

There are many physiological changes that occur in our bodies when we go into the ‘fight-flight’ or stress response, and most of them occur automatically, completely outside of our conscious control.  But breathing is one of the few that we can consciously regulate.  We can’t tell our heart-rate to slow down or our blood pressure to reduce (unless we are deeply experienced in self-hypnosis or meditation), but we can choose to change our breathing pattern.  And if we can start to breathe as if we are deeply relaxed, this can be like the beginning of a domino effect – it can trigger changes in all the other aspects of our physiology, for example slowing down our heart rate, blood pressure and slowing down our racing mind.

When we are caught in the fight-flight response our breathing is fast and shallow.  Why?  Because this is the breathing pattern required to get the maximum amount of oxygen into our blood stream to give our arms and legs more power for fighting or running.  And the muscles that make this type of breathing happen are our upper chest muscles rather than our diaphragm.

The fight-flight response is controlled through the sympathetic nervous system.  To reverse all the changes that occur when we go into the fight-flight response, and move from fight-flight physiology to the preferable ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.  And this is what initiates the ‘domino effect’ resulting in reduced heart-rate, worst-case scenario thinking, panic etc.

Just Take Some Deep Breaths … – Or Not!

Firstly to dispel a very common myth – taking big breaths does not help in calming ourselves down – in fact it can have exactly the opposite effect.  Instead we want to take ‘‘lower’ breaths – tummy breaths.  So if we think of taking deep breaths as taking big breaths, this is not helpful.  However if you think of ‘deep’ as being like ‘deep in the ocean’ or diving your breath deep down, low in your tummy, this is helpful.  The aim is to breathe with our diaphragms not with our chest muscles.  When we are doing this correctly, when we breathe in, our tummies expand, and when we breathe out our tummies contract.

A good way to tell what is happening with your breathing is to find a way to notice whether your tummy expands when you breathe in.  See this youtube link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmi6sNG9ttM)  for a simple demonstration of the tummy clearly rising on the in-breath.  Another way to observe whether you are getting correct tummy movement is, with very loose arm and shoulder muscles, to very lightly hold your hands on your tummy with your finger-tips just touching when you are at the end of the out breath.  When you breathe in you will see your finger-tips part.

I strongly recommend getting some training from a health professional if you have trouble breathing with your diaphragm in this way, or if you find that your tummy sucks in when you breathe in.  Some physiotherapists specialize in breathing retraining, and this coaching is a very worthwhile investment.  In New Zealand this help may be available free through your local DHB – ask your G.P. for a referral.

Four Key Pointers

To breathe in a way that helps to calm our nervous system and move us out of a sympathetic nervous system dominated physiology there are four main things we are aiming for

1)      To breathe with our diaphragms, low in our tummies, as already mentioned

2)      To have our exhale being approximately twice as long as our inhale.  One way to achieve this is to breathe out through slightly pursed lips, as if we are cooling a cup of coffee – this reduces the gap for the air to escape from our lungs so slows down the exhale.  Or we can count, aiming for an exhale approximately twice as long as the inhale.  Do not force the breath out.  Imagine that you are letting the breath fall out of you, and that it is a real ‘letting go’ kind of breath.

3)      We aim to slow down our breathing rate, to 5 or 6 breaths per minute.  The chances are, you will slow down your overall breathing rate when you begin to focus on slowing down your exhale.  Slowing the exhale tends to lead to a feeling of ‘letting go’’ of stress, and as we start to feel this feeling, we tend to slow down our breathing rate overall.  Don’t aim for this breathing rate of 5 -6 breaths per minute first off, just gradually slow your breathing down a little by a little, and it will happen more naturally.

4)      It is important to breathe in through your nose.  Sensors in our nostrils help to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.  Also breathing in through the nose results in filtering and moisturizing the air going into our lungs.  If you have a very congested nose, experiment with breathing in with stretched lips (aka a smile).  That often seems to open space in spite of the congestion.  Unfortunately there is a catch 22 with regard to congestion – the more stressed we are, the more likely we are to suffer from sinus and hayfever and hence be congested.  It is important to find a way to break this cycle, and diaphragmatic breathing is an important weapon in your arsenal so don’t give up too easily on the nose breathing challenge.

Proving The Link Between Breathing and The Stress Response

If you have any doubt that breathing style is directly associated with feeling stressed, anxious or panicked, you could prove the link to yourself once and for all by deliberately hyperventilating, and by doing this you will be able to induce a full-blown panic attack.  I do not recommend this!  However, it is a strategy that is often suggested as part of treatment for Panic Attacks to help patients understand that panic attacks are within their conscious control.  In other words, fast, high, shallow breathing is not just a symptom of stress, anxiety and panic attacks.  It can also be a cause.  This is a vicious cycle that you can learn to interrupt, simply by learning calm, healthy diaphragmatic breathing.

Three Ways To Use Diaphragmatic Breathing

1.       As First Aid, or a sticking plaster, to deal with acute symptoms of stress when they arise, or in preparation for a particular stressful event such as a public speaking engagement or a difficult meeting.  This would involve spending several minutes deliberately engaging in low, slow diaphragmatic breathing to settle down your nervous system when you are aware that you are experiencing stress symptoms.

2.       As a preventive treatment, kind of like taking Vitamin C regularly to prevent getting a cold.  This would involve spending 10 – 20 minutes once or twice a day deliberately practicing low, slow diaphragmatic breathing –– in the same way that one might spend 10 – 20 minutes a day meditating to help calm and regulate the nervous system.

When we are in a chronic state of fight-flight physiology, our ‘base-line’ arousal level is likely to creep up and up, over time, bringing with it more severe signs and symptoms of stress.  On top of our normal ‘base-line’ of arousal, we also inevitably experience various ‘stress peaks’’ that are a normal part of everyday modern life, whether it is a difficult situation at work, an argument with a partner, an unexpected bill etc.  If we start the day from a high base-line of stress, the additional stressors of day can push us into a zone of unhelpful stress, overwhelm or anxiety.

By regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing we can gradually lower our ‘base-line’ and with it reduce the signs and symptoms of stress.

3.       As your default breathing pattern.  This is the overall goal.  During relatively sedentary activities e.g. desk work, reading, watching T.V., cooking a meal at home, having a conversation with a friend etc. it is ideal to aim for about 12 – 16 breaths per minute.  This is faster than what you might aim for when you are practicing diaphragmatic breathing specifically to calm down your nervous system.

So, Remember – Just Breathe

Regularly check-in with yourself.  How am I breathing right now?  Am I breathing with my chest or diaphragm?  Am I breathing in through my nose?  Is my out-breath longer than my in-breath.  Pause and take a moment to get centred and get breathing … diaphragmatically.  The benefits of doing this are immense.

 

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): 

I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences:  Please add your comment/s below.

Do you have personal experience of the difference that breathing diaphragmatically can make.  If so, how did you come to discover this?  How and when do you use diaphragmatic breathing?  Do you still find you fall back into unhealthy breathing patterns from time-to-time and have to refocus on re-establishing a good diaphragmatic breath pattern?  (Confession time – I do.)  Do you know of any good youtube clips or web resources on diaphragmatic breathing that others might find helpful – if so, please share.

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

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Clear Your Mind – Free Up Some Mental Ram

Clear your Mind - Free up some Mental Ram

Time for a Defrag?

Perhaps you are familiar with that feeling of having too much on your mind, too many balls in the air, and feeling like you have no clarity, no perspective, and no time to think.

Perhaps it’s time for a ‘defrag’ – time to clear you mental ram, to gain some more ‘working memory’.

But I can’t afford the time to stop and clear my mind right now

When we most need to ‘defrag’ we feel least able to step back from our busy lives to regain some perspective.    This is perfectly understandable when we think about what happens to our thinking patterns when we are caught up in the stress response or ‘fight-flight’ physiology.  If your body is circulating adrenalin and other stress chemicals, your mind goes into the very ancient ‘danger mode’, in the same way it would if you were being pursued by a wild animal in ancient times. And part of that mode is an intense sense of urgency and pressure – which would be very useful to you if you were actually being pursued by a wild animal.  So while one part of you has an awareness that you need to step back or take a break, just about every cell in your body is feeling that sense of urgency, and tells you that you can’t afford to stop or slow down – that you have to soldier on.

In addition, many of us have been brought up with a strong work ethic, and when things get tough, we just work harder.  When our brain is clogged up, we’re not thinking clearly, we have no sense of perspective, and have difficulty in prioritizing.  In this state we are not able to work as efficiently as usual.  Working harder in that state is not helpful and is likely to just get us more stressed.  In a sense, working harder in this situation is like already being down in a big dark hole, and the only tool we have handy is a spade, so we pick it up and dig like crazy.  Not a very clever idea.

What is it that we fill our ram with, to the point that we reach that overload point?

I would suspect that maybe 80% of the space in many people’s minds is filled with mental movies – scenarios that we have created in our heads.  These ‘virtual reality movies’ are often of the worst case scenarios we imagine for the future, or movies re-running past disappointments, upsets or guilt.  And we tend to play them over and over in our heads.  I would suspect that only 20% would be real current problems that we are in the midst of solving.  As Mark Twain is quoted as saying “I’ve lived through many troubles in my life, and some of them have actually happened”.  There is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by clearing our ram of these unhelpful mental movies.

Mindfulness practices can be very helpful in clearing our mental ram.

1.     Regular daily mindfulness meditation allows us to take a break from our mental movies daily, and through doing this practice we get better at not accumulating as much dross during the day.  Through our daily meditation practice of ‘just noticing’ and ‘being in the present moment’ we build up our ability to move our attention away from unhelpful mental movies whenever we drift into them.

2.     We learn to notice more quickly when we begin to go into our heads and create unhelpful mental movies.  This saves us from getting lost in them for as long and reduces the amount of time we spend feeling worried, guilty etc in relation to them.

3.     Through our daily mindfulness practice and using everyday mindfulness tools we are strengthening our ‘attention muscle’ and the more helpful neural pathways.  And the less time we spend re-running old movies or playing unhelpful future movies, the weaker these unhelpful neural pathways will become.

4.     The increased calm or equanimity that we develop through regular mindfulness practice means that we tend to be pulled into less ‘drama’ during our day.

5.     As we develop increased compassion for ourselves and others we experience less anger, frustration, resentment etc. which means that we don’t fuel difficulties and challenges and turn them into dramas as much.

The result being that we create a lot more mental space, feel a lot less stressed and can think more clearly.

Resisting the ‘I haven’t got time’ dinosaur brain message

So when the wise part of you is aware that you need to step back, slow down or take a break to get some perspective and clear your mental ram, but the ‘crazy-brain’  is caught up in the fight-flight physiology and tells you that you can’t afford the time, it’s useful to remind yourself

●      That’s just ‘crazy-brain’ adrenaline-fuelled thinking – and you are not being pursued by a wild animal

●      With a clear mind you can think and work more strategically, make better decisions and less mistakes

●      You will be more efficient and enjoy your work more if you clear your ram, refresh yourself and return to your work with a sense of perspective

So although it may feel hard for you to do, stepping back and clearing your ram is definitely worth the effort.

 

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you)

I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences:  Please add your comment/s below.  

Do you find that you get caught up in the ‘I can’t afford to take a break or slow down’ mode?  Are there particular ideas or thoughts that get you ‘hooked in’?  I know that one of mine is a desire to ‘clear my plate’ before I finish a task, but knowing that I have set myself a challenging (in fact often completely unrealistic) time limit to get things done in.

Or do you have a reluctance to accept anything less than the highest standard so you never have ‘enough time’ to achieve the standard you want?  

Or what other thoughts or beliefs trap you into a sense of rushing, urgency or ‘not enough time’?  

And if you’ve broken through these traps, what tips can you share with others as to what worked for you.  Or books you’ve found helpful that others might enjoy?  (I recommend Dr Libby Weaver’s ‘The Rushing Woman’s Syndrome’ – it contains great easy to understand explanations of the physiological (including hormonal), nutritional and lifestyle factors that contribute to women’s stress.

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

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