Choosing to stay chilled out

Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly
Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly

I’ve been uptight for way too long. I’ve been cranked up, worked up, stressed out, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I didn’t know how to relax until about 10 years ago, when I started deliberately practicing that.

I had no choice. My spouse was seriously ill. I was losing it. I had to figure out a way to get myself back from the edge… I was dangerously close to it, and my life was literally disintegrating around me, along with my sanity.

I got help. I found a neuropsych who could work with me.

I also learned how to do “progressive relaxation” — and I did it on a regular basis. It wasn’t just some fun thing I wanted to try out. It was life-and-death, and the balance of my life depended on it. I sat za-zen. I meditated each day before I did anything, and then again when I went to bed.

Over the years, I’ve lost touch with that old practice. I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. And I’ve gotten increasingly cranked up and tied up in knots, as the months and years have progressed.

I’m back at that “choice point” again. Relaxation isn’t optional for me. It’s got to become a way of life. It’s not that I’m close to the edge. I’m just sick and tired of being stressed out about everything, and having nothing good come of it. Consider it a reality check on the ROI of being stressed. The return on the “investment” isn’t good.

That means, the time and energy spent is it’s not an investment. It’s a waste. I can’t get those hours and days and weeks back, that I lost to being stressed. They’re gone for good. And what do I have to show for them? A little, but not a lot.

So, I’m going to try something very different. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but my plan is to keep my system in a prolonged state of relaxation. Just let my body relax. Just let my mind not worry about all that sh*t that everybody else is so worried about. I get too bent about crap I can’t control. It’s just kind of dumb. What the heck do I expect to happen as a result of my outrage, anyway? That it’s going to change anything? It doesn’t — except my internal state of mind. It just wrecks my peace. It doesn’t actually turn the speeding car in the right direction. If anything, it just pushes my internal accelerator to the floor.

And what do I have to show for it, after all those years of slamming the pedal to the metal? Not a whole lot, to be honest. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, frustrated, outraged, confused, and not nearly as successful as I’d like to be. I’ve gotten in my own way, with all the frenzy. I’ve literally made myself sick, by letting my fight-flight response get the better (and worse) of me.

I know, I know, TBI has complicated matters for me. It’s at the root of much of my suffering, and not understanding it has made things so much worse. There’s no doubt of that. But I’ve also made things more difficult for myself by my choices to get bent out of shape, and stay that way — and also by not actively managing my issues. I have no excuse, now. I haven’t had an excuse for years. I know I’ve got sh*t going on with me, and it’s my responsibility to handle it, already.

But I’m getting tense again.

Let’s try to change that… No, don’t just try — DO.

To quote Yoda…

Do, or do not. There is no try.

It is possible to actively change your internal state from fight-flight to relaxation. I’ve known how to do it for years. But I haven’t consistently made a habit of it.

Till now. Till I got sick and tired of having nothing to show for my outrage, other than… outrage.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been deliberately relaxing when I felt myself tighten up. I tighten up — get tense — a lot. After being in a constantly tense state for most of my life, I know how to do that. It’s an immediate reflex. A knee-jerk response.

And when I consciously relax — just let it all go — things tend to clear up. Even if they don’t completely clear up, I feel better. And that’s something. I’m tired of feeling bad all the time, for no good reason. I’m old enough to know better, and I do. I’m also old enough to want to just enjoy myself, instead of chasing all sorts of distant goals that — if I’m honest — were never going to work out, in the first place.

Enough wasting the energy. Enough wasting time I’ll never get back.

Time to relax.

Choose to chill.

And enjoy my life.

Regardless.

Onward.

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Training my brain to choose

I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.

Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one

Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.

It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.

And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.

But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.

It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:

“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)

The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.

This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.

It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.

So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.

Less Facebook, more za-zen

Keeping it simple

So, I’ve had a crazy busy week, and I’ve taken a few steps to make my life simpler and less hectic.

The first thing I did, was unfriend a person who has become a tremendous pain in my ass. I work with them, and our relationship has really altered over the past months, with them climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, and me holding back and not diving into all the politics and drama for a number of reasons. First, I’m not at all impressed with the opportunities available to me at work. Second, I’ve already done the ladder-climbing thing, and while it was exciting for a while, back about 15 years ago, I saw the dark side of it and opted out. Third, I’m not big on games. Fourth, in their heady rise to the top, they compete intensely and step on people to get there, and I’m not interested in being someone they compete against. That sh*t just depresses me.

So, while this onetime friend of mine has been maneuvering and operating all over the place (and trying to pull me into their activities), I’ve really cooled to them. And I unfriended them on FB. Which kind of freaked them out and made them feel rejected (which they were, if you think about it). But it simplifies my life, because now I don’t have to worry about getting miffed over something they post — or some comment they make to one of my posts.

FB has gotten way too intrusive for me.

The other thing I did was remove FB from my mobile phone. It was just getting too enticing for me, and I was spending way too much time on pretty much nothing. I mean — like so many others — I would start looking at posts, pictures, movies… and before I knew it, an hour had passed me by.

Which is never good. Especially when I have so little time for the things I truly want to be doing.

So, I made it harder for myself to go on FB, and I removed it from my phone for a few days. And it did simplify my life. (Turns out, I had to reinstall it last night, because my internet connection died, and my smartphone was the only way I could reschedule a meet-up I arranged for today) Just not having access to FB for a few days gave me additional time to focus on projects that are late-late-late, and just calm the heck down.

The calming down is the important part. Because even when the things I see on FB are good, they are still energizing and invigorating, and they get my blood pumping. There are jokes, there are observations, there are rants. And they always get me thinking and reacting. They jump-start my system as few other things can.

Now, that’s fine, if I actually do need a boost to wake me up. But all that uproar, all the time? It’s not necessary. And even if I am dragging a little bit, the neurocognitive / biochemical jolt of Facebook is usually a lot more than I really need, to get going. Going on FB for me, when I am a little “off” is like drinking a couple cans of Red Bull when I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s way too much for me, and no matter how good it feels to get that Facebook “rush”, it’s still putting a strain on my system that ultimately wears me out.

So, now I’m repairing the damage I’ve done, and I’m doing several things:

  1. I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
  2. I’m back to doing za-zen, or sitting silently and focusing on my breath and my posture for set periods of time.

This is accomplishing several things:

  1. It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
  2. It is re-training my system to develop its own ability to wake — or rest — at will.

Za-zen — my own version, which is simpler than thinking about koans, but more focused than Shikantaza (which is just sitting) — is for me about simply sitting, being wakeful and mindful about what is going on in my body and mind, but not “taking the hooks” of thoughts that “want” me to follow them, like monkeys running off into the woods with my car keys.

Some say that meditation is for relaxation, to relieve stress, but I have long believed — and I recently came across a study that echoes my belief. That study, “Awakening is not a metaphor: the effects of Buddhist meditation practices on basic wakefulness” talks about how sitting meditation can actually heighten wakefulness in long-term practitioners. It’s not necessarily about relaxation — it’s actually about waking up.

I have noticed, over the past years of sitting za-zen (which I have done for over 20 years, since I first learned about it), that I have actually learned how to wake myself up, even when I am incredibly tired. Sitting — just sitting — focusing on my breath and keeping myself alert to my posture, the sensations in my body, and whatever thoughts might be rattling ’round in my head, doesn’t relax me. In fact, it does the opposite. So much so, that I cannot sit za-zen right before I go to bed, because it wakes me up too much.

I sit in the mornings, instead. And I’m considering starting to sit in the afternoons when I start to get cravings for sweets. When I’m feeling low and groggy, I tend to reach for the trail mix, which is a far better option than a Snickers bar or some other kind of sugar. But I often end up eating too much sugar in the course of a busy afternoon, so I need another option.

The more I think about it, the more za-zen seems like a good option for me. Sitting with silent focus, even for just a few minutes, does wonders for me. And if I can incorporate it into my daily life — not only stepping away to sit in silence, but also having that attitude of za-zen when I am in meetings at work, or I’m trying to better focus on what’s in front of me… well, so much the better.

I used to actually do that, years ago before my last TBI. And it helped me so much. It “leveled out” the upheavals that had long been with me, because of all my previous TBIs. But when I fell in 2004, that completely threw me, and I became just a shadow of myself. I stopped sitting. I stopped meditating. I stopped thinking about anything except the daily business of just getting from Point A to Point B, and not falling victim to the demons that seemed to rage in me.

Now much has evened out with me, and I’m in a place where I can actually put my focus back on za-zen. I’ve done this before, so it’s not new to me. And the Awakening study confirms that people with past meditation experience can have greater increases in “tonic alertness” which is where you can become more alert in unexpected situations.

That’s what I’m striving for, these days — more alertness, more engagement in my daily life, less reactivity, and more skill at handling sudden and unexpected situations. And it turns out that I have the past experience and the present tools to help make that happen.

When I just sit and breathe and count and focus on my posture, even for just a few minutes, everything gets better. And that’s what I want. Better.

I’ve got another full day ahead of me, so it’s time to get going. On it goes.

Onward.

TBI/PTSD anger management by using the breath

Breathe
Breathe in... breathe out... relax

I just found this poem, while looking through WordPress for blog posts on anger. It says so well in far fewer words, the same thing I’m about to elaborate on.

I’ve been studying a bit of breathing over at coherence.com and also thinking about things I’ve read there. I’ve also been studying sitting zazen, as it’s described by elders who have been practicing it for many decades, and I am struck by the similarities between the two.

Now, breathing can take may shapes and forms, and different people have different ideas about how it “should” be done. I’ve actually been criticized by friends who thought they’d been taught the “right” way to breathe. They said I was breathing too shallow, or too fast, or not having the right posture.

I appreciate their concern and wanting to help me, but … whatever.

And then there’s the formally trained respiratory therapist I came across, years ago, who said that there is no wrong way to breathe. And that was a real breath of fresh air for me — literally and figuratively.

Anyway, in my reading about Coherent Breathing, I’ve come across the concept of “Breathe… then relax.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I was usually told “Relax… then breathe” but it never quite did it for me. When I read up on coherent breathing, I understand why — because you need to give your body what it needs to relax. You can’t just order it — RELAX!! — and demand that it comply. But if you give your body what it needs to relax — a balancing of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which gives them both equal time and lets them work together, instead of at odds — you actually CAN relax.

I’ve come across more and more talk about the autonomic nervous system (ANS) — the combination of fight-flight sympathetic and rest-digest parasympathetic nervous systems — when I read the writings of elder (or deceased) lifetime zen / buddhism practitioners. While everybody else seems to be fixated on things like mental calm and personal peace and spiritual enlightenment, they focus in on the basic physical components of calm and peace and enlightenment — the balancing of the ANS.

This, they say, is the foundation for what so many seek. And yet so many are focused on things other than their bodies.

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time yammering about all the high-minded stuff right now. What I AM going to talk about is something very basic, very essential, very critical to TBI and PTSD recovery* — Anger Management (*and yes, for those who believe they are chronic lifelong conditions that you can never completely cure, I’m going to use the word “recovery” anyway — in the sense of recovering our composure, our presence of mind, our human dignity, our relationships, our futures).

My own Anger Management, I am finding, is made about 1000-times better, when I use steady, conscious breathing to keep my ANS in balance. See, here’s the thing — I hate to admit it, but I get anxious really easily.  I also am prone to panic attacks, which I would never admit until this past year — heck, I didn’t even realize I was having panic attacks!

Now, I used to be pretty chill, but since my TBI in 2004, all that gradually went away. I believe it’s because of a combination of physical biochemical changes that took place when I fell, the constant restlessness that feeds my brain’s agitation, and the repeated abrupt, jarring surprises I had, time and time again, when my brain wasn’t working the way I expected it to. Any way you look at it, I can be a real ticking time bomb, if the conditions are correct.

Now, this has been a HUGE problem for me and my family — I also had a lot of problems with this when I was younger (and having a concussion or two about every year or so). But I never made the connections or figured out what would help me chill out my anger, till pretty recently.

See, the thing is, everybody I’ve ever talked about has approached anger management from a psycho/spiritual standpoint. They’ve encouraged me to “get in touch with what’s bothering me”… to “learn to love myself”, to “make peace with my shadow” and learn to “dance with my demons”. All good advice. But it’s all geared to a level of experience that is a symptom of my agitation and rage, not the cause.

The REAL cause of my anger management issues? I believe it is, was, and (almost) always has been, an out of whack Autonomic Nervous System — a hair-trigger fight-flight sympathetic nervous system taking over and pushing my rest-digest parasympathetic nervous system out of the way, like a bully shoving a “sissy” down into the mud and stomping on their head.

Flying into a rage over the slightest thing? Not because I wasn’t “my own best friend” — rather, because I was tired and agitated and I flew into fight-flight mode on an instant’s notice.

Getting pissed off while in traffic and getting aggressive towards other drivers? Not because I projected my own insecurities onto them — rather because I was already on edge about being in traffic, I was already in fight-flight mode with my amped-up SNS, and all that adrenaline just fed on itself to make itself even more virulent and aggressive.

Melting down and flipping out over seemingly small issues? Not because I was spiritually damaged or had some character flaw — rather, because I panicked, plain and simple, and it came out as a melt-down.

Holy smokes… if I’d known this just five years ago, how much different could my life be right now? I’m telling you, seeing my anger outbursts and hair triggers as a physiological phenomenon, not some sign of psycho-spiritual disturbance, makes all the difference in the world. It instantly makes the challenges about something other than my broken self, and turns it into a physical situation that I have the tools to manage.

Again, let me say it loud and clear:

Anger issues, for me, are NOT about psychological problems, emotional damage, mental illness, or a defective character. They are about my fight-flight sympathetic nervous system being in an uproar that drowns out my system-balancing parasympathetic nervous system. Anger issues, temper outbursts, rage attacks are all reliable signs that the innermost “wiring” of my body is in need of some attention. And when I give it the attention it needs, it chills everything out in a way that doesn’t just fix it once — it lasts.

So, how do I give it the attention it needs? By breathing consciously. I breathe slow and steady into my gut, feeling my belly expand when I inhale, and filling up my whole chest cavity too. I count my breaths, focusing on them instead of all the crap that’s going on outside, and it keeps my mind from falling into the trap of someone else’s mind games, or some mistaken perception I have. When I focus on my breath, not only do I take a break from the soul-sucking drama, but I am also strengthening my whole system for future times when I need to keep balanced and sane.

I am training myself for future times when I am so bombarded, I have trouble keeping my presence of mind to breathe. The more I practice, the easier it becomes. So, it’s important for me to practice.

On the one hand, this really excites me that I have figured this out. On the other hand, it really bothers me that it’s not more widely known and used. Rehab facilities could be using this… recovery groups could be using this… hospitals could be using this… therapists and counselors could be using this… occupational therapists and physical therapists could be using this… and so could family members who want to help both their injured loved ones as well as themselves. Trauma survivors of all kinds could be using this, including traumatic brain injury survivors, particularly mild traumatic brain injury survivors, who often lose more in the long run than you’d ever guess or expect.

I think part of the problem is that when people find something that works, they instantly become very strict, rigid, and orthodox about it — they decide what the rules are, they tell people the rules (with the best of intentions), and then they enforce those rules to no end.

I’m in the position, myself, where I’m not a big fan of strict rules and regulations. I think everyone is different, and we all need to find our own ways. What works for me, might not work for you, so you have to figure out what’s most appropriate for your situation.

But I do think it’s helpful to understand the underlying “mechanics” of how this all works — to understand the physical principles behind what you want to achieve, so you can figure out the best way to do it for yourself.

Try the conscious breathing thing… counting your breaths, or just noticing how you feel when you’re taking slow, measured breaths. It’s free, it doesn’t require a trained professional to teach you to do it, you can do it anytime — no scheduling required — and you can keep practicing in many different situations, to gain your composure and strengthen your sense of self.

Conscious breathing for anger management… Try it. You might like it.

Or, as Miro says at http://warriorpoetwisdom.com

When people think of warriors
They think of blood and death
The truth is that a warrior
Is all about deep breath

If it WAS a TBI, then this is good news

A visualization of the number of times the words "hope" and "crisis" were used in the New York Times. Click the image to see more details. Very cool.

I’m making good progress reading Mindsight by Daniel Siegel. I’ve been reading in the mornings while I ride the exercise bike, as well as sometimes in the evening. It feels good to be reading again — I’ve realized that the main thing that makes it so hard to read, is being constantly distracted by stray thoughts.

With all due respect to my association-driven brain and the tons of (sometimes useless) knowledge I’ve crammed into all those nooks and crannies — and there are a lot of them, if you ever examine a brain closely — the main challenge with my reading is having mind seize on an idea and think, “Hey – that reminds me of _______!” and runs off in a different direction, making connections with other ideas and information I have. And I get left in the dust, the book unread and what parts I’ve read not being fully grasped.

Sigh

But the Mindsight reading is going well. And I’ve gotten some really great ideas from it. The main gist of the book, that I can tell, is that intently focusing the attention on something for extended periods of time helps to build connective fibers in the prefrontal cortex — the place where planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior, originate and are managed. Mindful awareness can strengthen the physical structures that make these things possible, and add more skill to one’s practice of them. The activities of the prefrontal cortex are where I have huge issues:

It is responsible for the executive functions, which include mediating conflicting thoughts (uh-oh), making choices between right and wrong or good and bad (it’s not that I WANT to choose wrong, I just tend to have trouble distinguishing my choices), predicting future events (what will happen if I press this button?), and governing social control — such as suppressing emotional or sexual urges (sexual urges I can manage — it’s the emotional ones that get me). The prefrontal cortex is the brain center most strongly implicated in qualities like sentience, human general intelligence, and personality. (That could be why some people think I’m an idiot and treat me like one, or treat me like I’m not anyone at all. Or maybe they’re just assholes? That’s entirely possible.)

Anyway, I can really use some help with my prefrontal cortex, and I’m hoping Mindsight will do me some good.

In the book, Siegel talks about how practicing Mindsight helped that kid with the problems with outbursts — dysregulation, I believe folks call it. It helped him get a grip, handle himself better, and have an overall better view of himself in the process.

Another important piece of this kid’s treatment was exercise. He combined exercise with mindfulness work, and he used going for a run as a way to take the edge off his temper and issues. Sounds like a plan.

Hearing about this kid’s problems made me think there was more to his situation than just being a teenager. I latched onto the idea that this kid may have sustained some sort of head trauma when he was around 13. I know it’s all conjecture, but if there was some brain injury involved, then the fact that he could overcome his crying jags and his raging outbursts with this mindful awareness practice and exercise (and nutrition – let’s not forget that), then it really give me hope for myself. What’s more,  it is also consistent with my own experience in the past few weeks.

I’ve been practicing Mindsight, myself, in hopes of strengthening the parts of myself that seem to be particularly challenged. In addition to doing my morning workouts, I have started doing breathing mindfulness practices each day. While I’m still in bed, I breathe deeply 45 times (the number of years I’ve been alive), really concentrating on the breath. It’s interesting how I tend to wander and “get lost” in the course of this practice. I also tend to get tense and hyperventilate, if I’m not careful. But I’m working on it, and it’s getting easier over time. And after doing this for the past 2 weeks, I’m starting to get the hang of it.

Perhaps most significant, it’s helping me get out of bed in the morning, since I do it before I get up. I had been having a terrible time just getting out of bed — I’d lie there for30… 45… 60 minutes (sometimes longer), before I actually got up. Doing this breathing work helps me wake up more quickly, and for some reason, I actually want to get up. Magic.

Anyway, over the course of the past week or so, I have been noticing how I don’t get as upset over “triggers” like I used to. It’s really wild. Things that used to just set me off into a freakish rage, sometimes now just happen. I notice them, but I don’t react to them immediately. They just occur. I don’t jump into judging them, or making them into bad things, or deciding that they demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m a total friggin’ loser. They just happen. And I have an extra few minutes to decide what I’m going to do in response.

Case in point:

This morning I woke up at 4:00 a.m. I had gotten to bed at 11:30 p.m. last night. Now, 4-1/2 hours is not my idea of a good night’s sleep, especially when I’m at a real deficit lately, and I was pretty upset about being awake. I lay in bed for half an hour, trying to get myself, to relax, getting more and more agitated and upset. And I started to worry about money. I start a new job on Monday that’s going to pay me less each paycheck (though the benefits and total value of the position is far greater than the job I just left), so I’m concerned about my money situation.

My head got hold of that, and it started to churn. I started to make up all these mental spreadsheets and calculations of how much money I was going to have each month, and how to stretch what I had. I tried to put a better light on things, telling myself this was something I needed to figure out, but I was getting really agitated and tweaked over it.

Then, all of a sudden, I realized what was happening — I was awake before I wanted to be, I was anxious about having left my last job, and I was not on the same schedule today that I normally am on Fridays. I was off-kilter, and that was making me anxious, and my energy was trying to find an outlet.

The moment I realized that, my agitation started to subside, and I felt myself looking at my behavior like I was at a distance from it. I could see that it was just my body getting wired and getting my brain in on the action. And I could see that I had choices about what I did with the energy.

I decided to make a different choice — to direct that wave of energy towards doing some deep breathing and progressive relaxation. I also realized that the windows were open in my bedroom, and the birds singing outside were really loud. So, I closed the windows, put in my earplugs, lay back down, and did my progressive relaxation, starting at my toes and working my way up to the top of my head. I hadn’t even gotten past  mid-thigh when I was back to sleep.

And I slept through — up to 5 minutes before I was supposed to run out to my chiro appointment. I didn’t get a chance to work out and stretch and get myself woken up before I left for the chiro, but I was also able to navigate that, instead of getting all tweaked about it and flipping out with myself. I just got up, washed off, threw on some clothes, and went to my appointment. Then I came home did my workout, read my book, had my breakfast, and got on with the morning.

Simple enough, right? It sounds like it, but up until a few months ago, it was a real challenge for me. Up until a few weeks ago, even. This mindful awareness practice, this “mindsight” stuff actually seems to be working for me — and this after only a few weeks of doing it every day. I do make a point of doing it every day, just like my workouts/warmups. It’s become part of my daily routine, and it helps me get on with my life, not postpone it. That’s a good thing. It’s a really good thing.

So, even if that kid in the Mindsight book was just dealing with being a teenager (rather than having sustained a mild TBI), for me the practice is working. I feel a lot more chilled out, a lot more present, and a lot less driven by events that happen to me. I know it probably sounds implausible, for it to have an effect so soon, but I hear others have had the same experience.

The great thing is, I don’t have to go to an ashram or a retreat center or sign up for some special class to do this. I can read a book, watch/study videos of Dan Siegel talking about this on YouTube, and practice it myself. I know about the vagus nerve and how it helps with relaxation. I know about the parasympathetic nervous system and how it helps tone my overall nervous system, so I’m not so tweaked and fried and hair-trigger-happy over every little thing. I know some background neurology and psychology stuff, so that helps me get my head around this.

But the proof is really in the pudding. I can “know” all I like about this mindful awareness practice, but does it really work?

So far, for me, it does. I recommend others try it, too.

Love your vagus nerve

One of the great mysteries of life, is how the vagus nerve can be so widely ignored. It’s the biggest nerve in the body and it extends from brain (starting near the carotid artery) and down through the chest cavity. It directly communicates with the lungs, heart, liver, blood vessels in the lungs, heart and gut, the stomach and small intestine, the pancreas, and the enteric nervous system, which I wrote about before.

One of the big things it does, is get the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. It balances out the whacked, adrenaline-crazed sympathetic nervous system, and gets us to chill out. It can head anxiety attacks off at the pass. It can cancel panic before gets hold of you. It tames the tigers of agitation and edginess, and soothes jangled nerves.  It It gets our proverbial runaway Prius of a system to actually stop accelerating — like shifting into neutral, or unsticking the floormat that’s wedged under our brake — and it gives our body the ability to decelerate, already.

Let’s face it, going 90 mph all day, every day… bouncing from one multi-task flurry to another is no way to live. Survive, sure — but don’t we want more than that? We eat… but do we digest? Do we even taste the food we eat? We sleep… but do we rest? When we wake up, are we even truly awake? We pump ourselves up with caffeine and sugar, then we bring ourselves down with a huge meal followed by television and/or a couple of beers. All the while, our internal system — which is built to bring us up and down appropriately on its own — is getting fried and whacked out and driven to extremes that make it forget it knows how to do this job by itself.

Honestly, people, is this any way to live?

I don’t think so.

The good news is, we’ve got a system that knows how to chill out like nobody’s business. And the techniques to get it to do that are always ready at hand, relative easy to do, and they cost absolutely NOTHING to do. No paying for a huge meal or a six-pack or a tall skinny Americano that you had to wait in line for 20 minutes to get.

It’s free. And in these days of fiscal limitation and reduced monetary means, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Oh, wait — it’s not actually free. You have to give something to get: that something is your intention and attention. You have to make an effort. It doesn’t cost money, but it costs you something even more precious and sometimes more challenging to produce — deliberate attention and regular practice.

If you’re willing to put in the effort to practice this, and you’ve got enough resolve to actually do this, it’s yours for the having.

But if you don’t want to bother… well, there’s not much I can do for you.

Okay, if you’ve decided you want to know how to make the most of your vagus nerve, here’s a picture of the Autonomic Nervous System, compliments of Scholarpedia:

ans

You can click on it to zoom in. Check out all the parts of your body that are affected by the vagus nerve (or “nerve X” as it’s sometimes called) — that starts up in the right-hand corner of the picture, near the base of the brain.

And here’s a zoom of it, with the organs it’s connected with highlighted.

Vagus nerve connections close-up
Vagus nerve connections close-up

See all that vital stuff going on? Well, those are pieces you can’t live without, and to function properly, they need to have input from the parasympathetic as well as the sympathetic nervous system.

Everything’s connected, as we all know. But we tend to lose sight of the dualities that we need in order to get by. There seems to be a general trend towards partisanship — you’re either a Republican or a Democrat, either a conservative or a liberal… and nothing in between. Well, the human body has multiple sides, as well, but those sides need to be working together regularly and effectively, in order to have optimum health.

If Washington worked like this, we might get somewhere… but I digress…

Now, bringing balance to our systems so that we can rest and digest and allow our systems to catch up with themselves — and jump back into the fray with even more energy and resolve and focus — is a great way to live your life. And it’s not that difficult, actually.

You just breathe. Breathe deeply. Slow the breath and pay attention to the feeling of the breath moving through your nostrils and into you lungs. Fill your lungs up, so that they press against the inside of your chest cavity and stimulate the vagus nerve, which will in turn tell your system to ratchet it down a bit… send a little of the good stuff through our hormonal pathways, and reward us wonderfully for the effort we’ve put out. Do it for three breaths… or five… or ten. Do it for a minute… or two… or five. But do it. The more you try it, the more you’ll like it. I sure do.

Think of it as your reward. Stimulating the PNS with deep, controlled breathing (for me, anyway) is not about dropping out of life and running away from the fray. It’s not about being a wuss and hiding out, just breathing deeply while the rest of the world rolls on by. Quite the contrary. For me, it’s all about rewarding myself with a much-needed break, building back up my resources, so I have the energy and strength and focus and resolve to jump back into things — and do it well, in ways that are better than they were before.

Gotta love that vagus nerve!

Okay… gotta breathe…

What to do while you’re waiting in the emergency department

It occurred to me over the past few days, while walking and breathing, that doing conscious breathing would be an excellent way to spend the hour(s) you have to wait to be seen in the emergency department. ED visits consume an average of 222 minutes of waiting. That’s over three and a half hours. That’s time taken away from doing what you would rather be doing.

What a waste, right? Well, if you take the time there, to focus in on your breathing, to slow down your system, and chill out your sympathetic nervous system with mindful breathing that brings the focus away from all the terrible things that could happen and focuses it on your breath — the one thing you can be certain of — it can do you a whole lot of good.

How? By directing your state of mind away from you panic and into the areas of your brain that are more logical and more centered and better able to communicate with the doctors and nurses, and get them the information they need, to help treat you.

Time spent in the emergency department doesn’t have to be wasted. Nor does have to be consumed by fear and anxiety and dread. You have other options for how to direct your attention.

And if you direct it to your breathing, that can be 222 minutes well-spent.