More and more people are coming to this blog, looking for ideas on chaos and rigidity and mental health. I suspect it’s due to the “Mindsight” work of Dan Siegel, whose work I’ve read. I’ve also seen him speak at an event, and he seemed genuine and sincere, and I could relate to what he was talking about.
For me, chaos and rigidity are both symptoms of some sort of neuro imbalance. In particular, of the autonomic nervous system. When I’m in a regular state of fight-flight-freeze, it makes it really difficult for me to be flexible. I’m on guard all the time against what else might be coming to get me. Even if my fight-flight is about regular everyday stress at work that I encounter all the time, it amps up my responses to things that happen to me in the course of each day — especially when I am tired. And I become really rigid about what I can and cannot tolerate. I’m on edge in the extreme, and I’m really hard to live with at home.
On the other hand, when I swing to the opposite extreme and “take a break” for several days and don’t do what I’m supposed to be doing, spend time just roaming around on back roads, or surfing around on the web, watching dumb YouTube videos and such, I’m about as far from fight-flight as I can get. But my rest-digest has sent me into the opposite end of the spectrum. And you can bet your hard-earned money that, come Monday, my life is pretty much chaos. Things that needed to get done, just didn’t get done. I’m behind on my stuff, I’m behind on my life. And so I swing to the opposite extreme with my moods and my nervous system — I go from extreme rest-digest to extreme fight-flight. And God help anyone in my path…
All of which makes it really hard to have a whole and wholesome view of my life. When you’re constantly ON, there are parts of you that forget that they’re off… and you can forget how to turn them back on. Things like digestion, prolonged concentration, relaxation, and restful sleep, can become distant memories that you may become convinced you don’t need, anyway. And you can’t imagine why they ever interested you, once upon a time.
In this process, I become a little mentally ill, feeling like there’s something wrong with me that needs to be eradicated or fixed or ignored, or whatever. I feel like there are holes in my soul, and I have lost a significant part of myself. I am so caught up in feeding the part of my system that shuts other parts down, that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to more and more trouble, more and more trauma. And all the while, the part of me that’s ON, thinks everything is fine.
Which is pretty mentally ill. Oh, well. At least I’m aware of it. And I’m aware that it’s not the best thing for me, so I’m not delusional. Not this way, anyway 😉
But speaking of the part of me that’s ON, it’s time for me to take it offline. I’ve had a long day, a busy day, an active day, and I need some serious downtime. So, off I go…
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.
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.
I have been consciously working with my breath for about a week, now, and I have to say, the changes I’m noticing are remarkable. These are changes for the better. Changes to patterns and aspects of my life that have been entrenched for a pretty long time. In fact, the patterns and aspects of my life that I feel shifting are ones that I had actually been resigned to having to deal with, for the rest of my born days.
I had thought that I would just always have to deal with things like constant agitation, anxiety, fear, and avoiding the things that freak me out. I had thought that I would just have to get used to restlessness running my life, a perpetual undercurrent of manic-ness flowing in the background of my life, 24 hours a day. I had thought that relaxation was something that other people could do, but not me. I had even thought that conscious breathing was not something I’d ever be able to practice fully.
Turns out, I may have been wrong. All the stuff that I’ve been battling against, for as long as I can remember — especially the behavioral things, and the hidden, underground state of anxiety, despair, and agitation that stokes them — may not be as unmoveable as I had thought. And a very important piece of this puzzle, perhaps the one missing number in the combination that would unlock this mystery that is my life, has turned out to be mindful breath.
In just the past week of doing just a few minutes of conscious breathing a day — and I’m not joking about the “just a few minutes” because I am at this point unable to focus exclusively on my breath for more than about 3-5 minutes — this amazing change has taken place. I’m actually relaxed. Loosened up. Not nearly as rigid as I had been. I’m so relaxed, in fact, that it’s taking some doing, for me to get moving in my current daily work. And looking closely at that pattern and examining why that is, I am realizing more and more each day that it’s not because there’s something wrong with (only) me — I’m just not in a good job. The position is not a good match for me. And I need to change that.
So, I’m revising my resume and I’m reaching out to talk to recruiters. And you know what? The whole way I’m doing that, is changing, too. I have been more present, more confident, more secure in my dealings with recruiters, than I’ve ever been in my life — and I’ve been dealing with headhunters for over 20 years. I’m actually clear and relaxed and centered, and I’m not on constant guard all the time.
This is amazing. Nothing short of phenomenal. During one of my job interview discussions last week, when I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me, I didn’t just sail on past it and assume I would figure it out later. I actually stopped the conversation, made sure I understood what they were asking/saying, and then I responded to the actual question they asked. In the past, I would have just rushed it and fudged it. And I would have ended up either looking a little “off” or getting into a job that I had no business getting into. I’ve done that more times than I can count, but this time I didn’t do that. I actually held my own, and I participated fully in the conversation.
That, because I was calm and centered and focused. I was consciously working with my breath.
Which amazes me, because for years, I’ve been confounded by people who tell me “Just breathe…” in response to traumatic situations. It’s so friggin’ annoying, being told to “Just breathe” when all hell is breaking loose. Seriously. It seems like such a slap in the face, such an over-simplistic, dense, “dumbed down” (if you’ll pardon the expression) response to what can be complex and mind-boggling situations in life.
I mean, honestly… I’m in extreme existential crisis, and you expect me to “just breathe”?! Come on – gimme a break.
But taking a closer look at it, thinking about what mindfulness can do for the physical system*, and thinking about the breath in terms of what it does for the parasympathetic nervous system (the “PNS”) (I wrote an extended post about the importance of the PNS here), I had to reconsider my attitudes towards conscious breathing, and give it a try.
And it’s paying off. In a very big way. Whether it’s the stimulation of the vagus nerve by the expansion of my lungs against the inside of my chest cavity, or it’s bringing my full attention to the act of breathing and blocking out everything else, or it’s the delivery of more oxygen (prana, according to some of my friends) to my physical system — including my brain… it’s working. I could tell something was different, almost from the start. Literally. Within a few days of doing a “piddly” little bit of conscious breathing, I was noticeably more relaxed in my mind and spirit and body, and people around me could tell there was something different.
On Friday night, a long-time friend of mine told me it was good to see me “back” to my old self again. “You’ve been so serious for such a long time,” they said. And others around us agreed.
Yes, it’s good to be back.
And all over the breath. The missing piece of my recovery process. Something I do, every single minute of every single day. It sounds almost too simple to my complexity-hungry mind. But maybe it is.
Anyway, I’m not bothering to doubt the importance of this. These changes are very similar in nature the improvements I’m experiencing as a result of regular (daily) exercise. But they’re happening a whole lot more quickly. I’m quite certain that several things have helped with this — they’ve laid the foundation:
I see a chiropractor regularly, and they have been really helping me get my central nervous system in shape.
I exercise each morning 99.99% of the time without fail.
I am intent on changing my life for the better and I am determined to overcome the obstacles that get in my way.
I eat the right things and stay away from lots of junk food, including drugs and alcohol and cigarettes.
I have help from a great neuropsych.
I have the support of people who love and care about me, who want the best for me.
There are more factors, of course, but these are really the foundations for my own improvement, and my own experience of the breath. I suspect that if I didn’t have these, I might not have the kind of success I’m experiencing. But the fact is, I do have them, and I am experiencing a radical shift for the better in my life, as a result of conscious, intentional breath.