FINEST DAY OF THE WEEK, DEPENDING ON HOW YOU LOOK AT IT – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Finest

Duke did not steal it. I blamed him, although he was noticeably unruffled by being blamed since he does not consider stealing small plastic objects he can chew as something shameful. It’s just delightfully crunchy. Pill bottles (empty), DVD covers, other miscellaneous containers — and two pairs of kitchen scissors plus Garry’s red mouse. I knew it was him. It had fang marks. Garry may chew, but he has no fangs, at least that I know about.


We had errands to run today. It’s May 2nd or (depending on the day) late winter. I put on my sweat pants, turtleneck sweater, wool socks, shoes, and my peacoat. I should have also worn a hat because — yes — it was raining.

How unusual.

Garry asked if I was ready to go, so I closed my computer, grabbed my little camera and tucked it into my bag and off we went. We had to sign papers at the insurance company, mail some stuff to the Town of Uxbridge (to prove we still live here), and go grocery shopping.

All of which we did. When we got home and I unpacked the groceries and put everything where it belonged, I called Owen to tell him to pick up his mail — and by then it was past the dog’s dinner time and a little past ours, too, I took out my computer and turned it on. I had a few bills to pay. Nothing big, which is why I had to pay them. It’s the little ones I forget.

But I couldn’t do anything because my mouse had vanished. Both Garry and I stared at The Duke who appeared to wonder what the problem was. He has previously stolen two pairs of kitchen scissors and had eaten Garry’s mouse. So who wouldn’t assume he’d also eaten mine? Any dog owner would have assumed the same thing, right?

With a flashlight, we examined the underside of all the furniture (dirt, all that dirt), the dog crate (where we had previously found both pairs of scissors and Garry’s mouse). Nothing.

The Duke

And then, looked at my end table where I keep the computer, my big external drive and about a dozen chargers for miscellaneous camera batteries. My little camera was sitting there, in its case.

But. I put my camera in my bag, lest there be a picture to take. IF my little camera was on the end table — what did I put in my bag?

Suddenly, I knew. It was my mouse.

Totally humiliated, I extracted my mouse, mumbled about getting REALLY old and moved on with life.

Out of the whole week — and it was one hell of a week — this was my finest day. It was perfect.  This was possibly the finest hour of my finest day. I had both of us crawling around the floor looking for the mouse that I’d put in my bag because I thought it was my camera. It looks nothing like my camera. It’s not in a case, for one thing. It weighs a few ounces while the camera is almost a pound.

Camera and mouse

My body did something completely different than my brain was perceiving. This worries me. How many other things am I doing that I don’t know I’m doing? Until they call me and tell me I didn’t pay the bill, I really don’t know.

You can’t make this stuff up. Even if you try. (And why would you try?)

My doctor says I am not sinking into dementia. I know because I asked him. I believe he replied by saying, “Not a chance!” As if I had was hoping for a cure from life and he was giving me the bad news with which I would have to cope.

The dog really did not do it. I done it. Myself.

Sorry, Duke. You did eat Garry’s mouse. You left DNA with the fang marks.

A BIPOLAR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first husband, Larry, was bipolar, but he wasn’t diagnosed until thirteen years into our 25-year marriage. However, the ups and downs were a part of my life from the beginning. Larry could be fun, smart and affectionate. He had a wicked sense of humor (including clever puns), tremendous energy (sometimes too much, manic energy), a great “joie” and endless enthusiasm.

Larry in a jocular mood

He loved to read and was interested in a wide variety of subjects, ranging from physics and biology to history and sociology, to law and mysteries. He also loved the arts, particularly the theater and at one point we had five theater subscriptions at the same time. In addition, we also went to Broadway shows quite often, which kept us very busy and very up to date on the theater scene of the day.

One of Larry’s passions was shopping and when manic, he was a true shopaholic. He couldn’t resist buying anything that tickled his fancy, which was a lot of stuff. On the other hand, I loved it when Larry would shop with me in my favorite stores; craft shops, art galleries and jewelry and clothes stores. He would even come into the dressing room with me and help me pick out what clothes to buy. He had wonderful and sophisticated taste, though his taste was often a lot bolder and flashier than mine.

I really shouldn’t complain, because Larry loved to buy things for me. However, when he was manic, he would overspend and buy everything in sight. I was in charge of the budget and it was frustrating to see all my budgeting and saving go out the window with Larry’s shopping sprees. It got to the point that I would pretend that I didn’t like things we looked at because if I said I liked it, it would be mine in no time flat!

Two pendants with matching earrings Larry bought for me on trips out West

Once my son, David, then around twelve, went to an electronics store with Larry. Before they left, I pulled David aside and instructed him to try to keep his father’s purchases down. They returned with not one, but two VCR’s and I asked David why he had failed to rein in his dad. “Hey!” he said. “I talked him down from three, so don’t complain!”

Another positive side to Larry’s love of shopping was that he was always an active partner with me in decorating our homes, helping me choose everything from wallpapers and fabrics, to furniture and window treatments to bathroom fixtures and door knobs. We also designed our house in Easton, Connecticut together with the help of an architect. It was a wonderful, shared experience and the house meant so much more to both of us for the experience we had in creating every nook and cranny and picking every design element. I remember jumping out of bed late one night to draw out a new plan I had just thought of for the kitchen/breakfast room area. It was a wild idea and it was the design we eventually used in the house. I still love it 30 years later!

The kitchen design – with rounded eating area and round sunroom off of kitchen island area

Larry exhibited his sense of humor and fun one Christmas when he and David, like many other Jews, went to the movies on Christmas day. Before the show started, as a joke, Larry stood up and started singing the Jewish classic “Havanegela”. To his delight, the rest of the audience joined in and Larry acted as conductor for the group sing-along!

Larry didn’t sleep much and was always on the go. I needed a lot of sleep and ample amounts of downtime, which created much conflict between us. On weekends, he would get up early and want to go out and do something, get something to eat or just window shop. David was also not a morning person so we would take turns appeasing a very persistent, and often annoying and inconsiderate Larry.

Larry playing with David, 6 and Sarah, 1

One day, when Sarah was about eighteen months old and couldn’t talk yet, Larry got up and started pestering David, who was six and a half, and me to go out with him. Suddenly, our toddler ran into her bedroom, grabbed her coat and then ran to the front door. It was her way of saying “Take me, Daddy! I want to play with you!” Now Larry had a new playmate for his early weekend excursions and David and I were thrilled! When Sarah could talk, she’d say to Larry, “Let’s go sopping!”

Larry and Sarah continued their ‘sopping’ trips for the rest of Larry’s life (he died shortly before Sarah’s 21st birthday). He and Sarah also traveled and went to lots of shows and movies together from early in Sarah’s life and it was something wonderful she shared with her dad. Those memories are important and comforting to her now.

But there was a dark side to Larry’s bipolar disorder. When he cycled manic, as he did every year or so, he became volatile, paranoid, angry and agitated. He would fly into rages about the slightest thing, real or imagined and he would become verbally abusive. To our frustration, he would often ‘forget’ these episodes as soon as he calmed down. He was what is called a “rapid cycler.”

A classic example of that syndrome happened one Thanksgiving when we were supposed to drive from New York to Larry’s sister in New Jersey. In the morning, Larry was curled up in a ball on the bed, refusing to even get up. I eventually got him up and we started to drive to New Jersey when he suddenly went berserk over something.

I don’t remember what it was on that occasion, but once the kids were making too much noise in the back seat of the car and once I left the dirty dishes in the sink. To Larry, that proved that I didn’t care about him, that he didn’t matter, that he wasn’t important to me and that I was a bitch.

The four of us when David was 13 and Sarah was 8

On this Thanksgiving drive, Larry pulled the car over to the side of the street and stormed off, refusing to come back to the car. David finally talked him down and got him back into the car, because, as usual, Larry refused to even talk to me. We eventually made it to New Jersey, but Larry had gone from paralyzing depression to raging mania in the course of one day.

Another holiday in New Jersey ended badly because of Larry’s manic overreactions. He stormed out of a lot of rooms, houses and cars over the years, often on major holidays with family. But this one was special, even for Larry.

We were playing a game with Larry’s sister, Robin and her family, my kids and Larry. Larry was being hyper-competitive and was trash talking everyone constantly, which I think he thought was funny. After asking him to stop several times, Robin finally got exasperated and told him to shut up and Larry snapped.

The four of us when David was 16 and Sarah was 11

He stormed out of the house, but this time he took our car and disappeared. We eventually got a call saying he was at the train station and was taking a train back to New York, even though he was supposed to be going back to Connecticut with me and the kids for the long holiday weekend. Robin had to drive David to the train station so he could drive our car back to Robin’s so I could drive back to Connecticut with the kids. Robin talked to Larry at the station and they patched things up, but Larry still insisted on taking the train to New York, disrupting and appalling everyone. I was mortified and everyone else was shaken and upset. This was not an uncommon situation for me, but each time it happened, it was like a punch to the gut.

In some ways, it would have been easier for me if Larry had always been abusive and impossible to live with, but he wasn’t. He was eventually put on Lithium, which worked well and contained his mania, but he kept going off the meds.

I loved the non-manic Larry, so the hope that Larry would get help, and then that he would stay on his meds, kept me with him for 25 years.

IF THE SHOE PINCHES, YOU MAY WANT TO KEEP WALKING – Marilyn Armstrong

I just read another post on the power of positive thinking. I was glad to hear one more time how I can conquer pain and make my problems go away by believing they will. Are blessings reserved only for those with a positive attitude? If you don’t smile, will the Powers-That-Be fail to love you?

I don’t think there’s a malevolent deity or evil destiny stalking me or anyone else. Life just is. It’s not omens and portents: it’s stuff that happens.

Positive thinking is not bad.  It’s just that positive thinkers have a way of forgetting how suffering people don’t necessarily want a pep talk. They want to be in less, preferably no, pain. They want love, comfort, and sympathy.

My suggestion? Listen. Find out what they want and do your best to give it to them. Your positivity may cure your problems and you are welcome to use it to make yourself feel better. Just don’t impose it on me or anyone else. Don’t force anyone to smile when they want to cry just so you can feel okay.

I’ve got a few problems that are hard to manage. I have bad days. I want to avoid dragging others down, but I have given up trying to make everyone else feel better by internalizing everything.

It’s unfair to tell people to relax, be happy, smile and that will make everything fine.

It’s not true.

Internalizing pain and sadness increase stress. In the long-term, swallowing your pains makes them worse. Don’t stop hoping or searching for help, but don’t assume that whatever you just read in a book or magazine article is sure to work for you. I personally think “positive thinking” is wildly overrated. No single solution, attitude, or way of thinking will fit most people, much less everyone.

It is said you cannot know anyone until you’ve walked in their moccasins and those moccasins can pinch something fierce.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 4

This is the final part of a four-part series. You can read the others here: Part I, Part 2, Part 3.


Stress

Everyday stress is a killer. Literally.

The greatest damage from stress is caused by excessive triggering of the fight-or flight (stress) response. These throw your entire system into high gear on a chemical and biological level. Your system is designed to handle no more than a few fight-or-flight responses a week.

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Instead, our modern world bombards us with more than fifty such (brief) episodes each day. Over time, this unrelenting stress wears down and damages every part of your body in some way.

Your body can’t distinguish between minor, everyday stress and those which threaten life and loved ones. So we respond to all stressors as if they were charging tigers.

Moreover, your body doesn’t distinguish between physical threats which require action, and psychological threats which require thought or a verbal response — or potential threats which are worries about the future and don’t even yet (or maybe ever) exist.

Thoughts alone can trigger a full blown, physiological stress reaction throughout your body. Your body “believes” your thoughts are real.

If you think about a fight you recently had or might have, your system reacts as if you were having the fight now! The good news is you can trick your unconscious, internal systems into thinking you are sitting on the beach with a tall, cold drink in hand.

This is what gives visualization and mindfulness such power.

The key is visualizing in detail. To demonstrate the power of thoughts and images on your body, close your eyes and imagine, in vivid detail, that you are eating a lemon. Soon your mouth will begin to pucker. You will start to salivate. Your stomach will start secreting the fluids to digest a lemon. Your mind will have tricked your body into thinking you were eating a lemon.

Visualization

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This is a visualization you can tailor to your mood and whatever time you have available:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Imagine yourself in a place you love — the woods, the beach, or some place which holds special meaning for you.
  3. Make sure it’s a place where you feel secure, safe, comfortable, and happy.
  4. Focus on the details of your imagined scene.
  5. Work with each of your senses, one at a time. Focus on everything you see. Colors. Shapes. Light. Shadows.
  6. Work from the ground up.
  7. Focus on the sounds around you, including the silence.
  8. Take a few deep breaths, then tune into the smells. Allow scents to trigger positive emotions.
  9. Focus on the variety of textures around you. Imagine yourself touching the items in your environment – smooth, rough, hard, soft, and so on.
  10. Focus on any movement in the scene you have created for yourself. Clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean.
  11. Finally imagine doing something you love in your mental oasis. Put your feet in a lake. Ski down a mountain. Play with a pet.
  12. Continue the experience until you feel a sense of peace and well-being.

Gradually ease yourself back into your day focusing on your breath, then the sensations in the room. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and take another deep, abdominal breath.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a slightly different way to focus on the present moment. Focusing on the present decreases tension and stress. It increases your enjoyment of life. You can give your body and mind a mini-vacation from worry about the past and the future, and reduce the damage stress can do over time.

Schubert Theater boston night

You can practice mindfulness while you are doing anything from washing dishes or folding laundry, to walking upstairs or even eating.

All you need do is spend a few minutes focusing on the details and sensations of the moment. Use all of your senses, one at a time.

Mindful eating is a good exercise for beginners. For example, while eating an orange you can focus on the color and roughness of the skin and the different colors and shapes of the segments. Then focus on the feel of the rind, pulp and juice on your hands, face, lips and tongue and the sensations in your mouth, throat and stomach as you bite, chew and swallow. Then turn to the smell and the taste of each bite and how they change as you go through the process of eating. Come back to the real world slowly and focus on abdominal breathing for a few moments before you get on with your day.

Aggravation

Life is aggravating. It just is. You can’t completely eliminate everyday annoyances or anxiety, so be prepared to change how your body reacts to them. I’ve explained abdominal breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, mindful walking, visualization, and mindfulness. All these techniques can reduce the level of stress stored up in your body and mind. Using these can dramatically improve the quality of your life.

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Do what you can, whenever you can for as long as you can. Just … do something. No matter how small, anything you do will protect you and help heal your mind and body. In the process, you’ll develop skills which will serve you well in the future by allowing you to take control of your responses to the stress life inevitably brings.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 3

I ‘ve talked about breathing and visualization as relaxation techniques. This week, I’d like to add a third element – movement.

Human-Body-Muscles

Coordinating breath and movement can calm you down, center you, clear your head, and focus your mind, and help the relaxation spread to the muscles throughout your body.

Another benefit is that the physical movement gives your mind a focal point that can not only deepen relaxation but can also allow you to relax when you’re too restless, fidgety, listless or unmotivated for the purely mental techniques.

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When you are concentrating on moving your body in a certain way, it is easier to keep your mind off stressful thoughts that creep into your mind. However, thoughts will invariably intervene at some point when they do, just acknowledge them and immediately click the remote and switch back to the breathing channel. Then refocus on your movements.

One classic exercise that combines breathing and movement is Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. This can be done standing, sitting or when you are having trouble sleeping, in bed. Body focus techniques not only help insomnia but also improve headaches and stomach problems if done for a period of time when you’re having symptoms.

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In PMR, you first tighten and then release major muscles, starting with feet and moving up your body. Doing this helps you learn what your muscles feel like when they are tense versus relaxed. It may sound strange, but most people don’t realize their muscles are tense until the tension gets bad enough to hurt.

You may need to learn how and when to relax your muscles. PMR not only helps you relax, it increases your awareness of muscle tension. Soon you’ll be able to prevent muscle tension from building by stopping it before it gets serious.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Start by squeezing your toes together as if you were making fists with your feet. Hold the squeeze and feel the tension in every foot muscle. Then let everything go, all at once, as you exhale.

Try to feel the muscles in your feet relaxing and loosening up. Next squeeze your calves and thighs, hold the squeeze feel the tension and then release it quickly, always on an exhale. Feel all the tension evaporating from your legs.

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Focus on the contrasting sensations of tension and relaxation, tightness and openness. Continue up through your body tightening and releasing, sequentially, your buttocks then your chest and shoulders, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. Then move onto your arms and hands, making fists and squeezing them tightly.

Hold and release the muscles in your throat and neck and then scrunch your face together and squeeze your eyes shut, hold, and then release. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Hold and release. Then bring your focus back to your abdominal breathing, perhaps counting out an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Gradually transition back to your day.

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Short Form PMR

There is also a short form PMR when you are pressed for time. Divide your body into three sections, from your feet up to your face. Then tense all the muscles in each section, hold them and release all at once with an exhale, as you did above. Then move onto the next section. For example, feet, legs, thighs and buttocks are one section, chest arms and shoulders are another section and neck, throat, face and jaw are the last section.

Once you’re comfortable with PMR, you can try a Mental Body Scan. As with PMR you can do a detailed body scan, or use a short form. Like before, begin at your feet and work up your body. This time, though, just mentally scan for tension. When you find tightness in your muscles, mentally release it. I like to visualize the tension floating away from my body, like steam, evaporating into the air.

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You can also imagine the tight muscle opening up, spreading a warm, heavy feeling as it releases all its tension. Then let this sensation spread slowly up your body. Scan every part of your body in as much detail as you have time for. For example, you can divide the face into scalp, forehead, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, jaw and tongue or you can treat the face as a whole. Either way, make sure your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, not clenched!

Mindful Walking

Another exercise that combines breathing and movement is Mindful Walking, which you can do it whenever and wherever you are walking. Start Abdominal Breathing with a 3 or a 5 count inhale and the same count for the exhale. Then count the number of evenly paced steps you take per inhale and per exhale, using only odd numbers for your count. This insures that you start each inhale on a different foot.

For 3-count walking, this means:

  • Inhale – left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right.

A 5-count walk would be:

  • Inhale – left, right, left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right, left, right.

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If you want to increase your relaxation, elongate your exhale and increase the number of steps per exhale. So, for example, you could inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 5 or inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 9 (remember to only use odd numbers and keep your steps steady and even).

If you want to energize yourself, increase the length of your inhalation and the number of steps per inhale while shortening your exhalation and the number of steps on each exhale. You could, for example, inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of 3.

I find when I walk like this, I don’t get as tired or winded. I end my walk feeling more relaxed and centered as well as refreshed.

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Now you know some techniques that can help you circumvent your body’s stress response, reduce muscle tension and quiet your mind. This should help you get through each day feeling more positive emotionally and more relaxed and energized physically.

You shouldn’t have to get more stressed trying to find time for stress control. Do what you can when you can and you’ll find whatever you do, there will be definite benefits.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 2

Last week, I talked about using controlled breathing to turn off the “Fight or Flight Response” in your body and minimize the harmful effects of stress on your body. You can build on that to reduce stress even more.

Manchaug June 2015

MIND AND BODY

Reducing stress requires mind and body relaxing together. Mental relaxation is probably harder for most people — for good reason. Most of us think all the time. More than 50,000 thoughts flash through your mind every day. Buddhists call this mindless internal monologue “Chatter” or “Monkey Mind”.

Photo credit: Huffington Post
Photo credit: Huffington Post

Most “chatter” is negative. Brooding on the past, self-criticism, worries, to-do lists, and so on. This stuff has a powerful effect on your body and psyche.

A thought is reality to your body.

Worrying releases the same destructive hormones that would be released if the worried-about event were really happening. The goal of all relaxation techniques is to anchor your mind in the present, to shut out anxiety and negative thoughts, most of which are locked into the past or future.

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An intense focus on “now”, including how you are breathing, can override “Chatter.” It will give your mind a mini vacation,  a brief, therapeutic — and probably much-needed — break.

Abdominal breathing is a form of meditation. It can help alleviate symptoms of ADD, reduce fidgeting and short attention span.

When you’re in a stressed breathing pattern, you can shift to abdominal breathing. This will pretty much instantly reduce tension, focus your mind, and increase your energy level. It do the same thing to your mind if you feel yourself going into a particularly toxic session of “Monkey Mind” negativity.

VISUALIZATION

Start taking slow, steady abdominal breaths until you feel your body relax. You can start a counting exercise as you breathe. Or you can go directly into a mini visualization, as follows:

  •  Imagine, with each inhalation, you’re breathing peace, calm, and well-being in to every part of your body. With each exhalation, imagine you’re blowing the tension and negativity out.
  • Try saying “peace in” each time you inhale — and “tension out” each time you exhale.

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  • Picture a giant wave of relaxation and tranquility pouring over you with each breath you take, soaking through your body from the top down as you complete inhaling and exhaling.
  • Feel the tension melt away from the muscles in your head and neck. Then feel it flow down your shoulders, arms, torso — finally your pelvis, legs and feet.
  • When a wave has saturated your body with relaxation, visualize another coming in with your next breath. You can add color and light to each wave — your favorite color or a bright light.
  • When you feel loose and mellow, refocus on your breath, then gradually transition back to your day.

It turns out that the process of learning stress control techniques can ease tension and anxiety.

Research shows that feeling helpless creates as much — or more — physiological damage as would the thing or event you fear. Feeling in control reduces stress. All by itself. If you know you can do something to help yourself cope, you won’t feel overwhelmed or helpless. Stress will have less control over you.

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An old but still relevant example is an Air Force study made during World War II. The study showed that co-pilots suffered from more stress during combat missions than pilots. Pilots were in control of the plane; co-pilots were not.

It’s reassuring to know that one of the reasons mind-body techniques work is that they enhance your sense of control over yourself — and therefore your life.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 1

I was a Yoga teacher for eight years.

My training taught me a lot about the interrelationship between the mind and the body, on a physiological, scientifically explainable level. Using that knowledge, I compiled some quick and easy stress control techniques for my students I call “On The Go Stress Control”. These are small things you can do during your day to reduce stress and alleviate its negative consequences.

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STRESS AND YOUR BODY

Stress is a condition which causes psychological and physical damage. The most insidious and dangerous form of stress is the everyday kind. Traffic, being late, dealing with difficult situations, and other people. This kind of stuff bombards you constantly. The damage it causes is consistent and cumulative. Ironically, while there are no “quick fixes” for most things in life, there are quick fixes for stress-related symptoms. Called Relaxation Techniques, you can do them for a few minutes, any time, even during your most hectic days. These are easy to learn, pleasant to do, and are amazingly effective at curbing your body’s harmful reactions to stress.


There’s a saying, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” These techniques can allow you to surf in the often turbulent seas of life.

In this first piece, I’d like to concentrate on breathing, which is the simplest and most powerful of the relaxation techniques.

Breathing is important in two different ways. Breathing involves two different systems in your body – respiratory and the nervous systems. I’ll only talk about the latter here because most people already have a rudimentary understanding of the respiratory system.

Breathing forms a bridge between your body and mind. It’s the key to preventing or minimizing stress reactions. It acts as the messenger service by which the mind communicates with the body – and visa versa. Your breathing is the only thing you can consciously control which lets you turn off the stress response.

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When your mind perceives or even imagines a threat or impending stress — big or small — your breathing changes. It triggers what’s called the “Fight or Flight Response” which automatically releases over 1500 chemicals into your system to prepare you to fight for your life — or run like hell.

Heart and breathing rates increase dramatically, as does blood pressure, muscle tension, and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream, along with many other toxic reactions.

Constant stress slowly poisons you and over time, this wear and tear can injure almost every system in your body.

The problem is that this system evolved to protect early humans from infrequently real threats to life and limb. It doesn’t differentiate the more subtle stresses of modern life. The fight or flight response is on or off. There’s no dimmer switch to deal with the stressful but non life threatening situations which make up most of our lives.

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Rapid, shallow breathing triggers the alarm and initiates the survival mechanism of your body. Slow, deep breathing — called abdominal breathing — is the “all clear” signal. It turns off your body’s red alert and reverses the fight or flight sequence. It stops the release of stress hormones that initiate physical stress reactions.

When you learn to control your breathing, you also control your stress response.

Relaxation works on tension the way aspirin works on headaches. You can do breathing exercises (or other relaxation techniques) anywhere, anytime. You can do it while you’re stuck in traffic, waiting in line, sorting laundry, sitting in a dentist’s chair, or at your desk. The more practice, the more effective they are and the more relaxed you will be. You can use them to deal with a specific stressful situation more calmly and rationally — without being thrown into a panic state.

ABDOMINAL BREATHING

Breathe through your nose (unless I tell you otherwise).
Put one hand on your belly, one on your chest. Start by taking a take a slow, deep breath. Feel your belly rise, then as you breathe deeper, feel your chest rise.

Feel the breath going into your throat.

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As you exhale, reverse the process. Feel your chest falling, then your belly as you tighten your abdominal muscles and squeeze out that last bit of breath before you inhale again. It may take a while before this feels natural. This is the way you should be breathing all the time, to keep your system in equilibrium. Most people don’t, hence high stress levels.

COUNTING

After you’ve mastered abdominal breathing, you can go to the next level and add counting. You foster relaxation when your exhale is longer than your inhale. You energize yourself when your inhale is longer than your exhale. If you want to relax or stay calm, inhale to a slow count of 3, then exhale to a slow count of 6. Next, inhale to a slow count of 4, then exhale to a slow count of 8.Two to one is the best ratio for breathing.

Experiment until you find the count which works best for you. Continue doing it as long as you can — at least a few minutes.

If you find yourself getting sluggish during the day and need a pick-me-up, instead of grabbing an energy drink or another cup of coffee, get a shot of natural energy. Inhale to a slow count of 4, 6 or 8. Then expel your breath rapidly through your mouth, making a whooshing sound — or saying “Haaaa”. If you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, just do a quiet exhale to the count of 2, 3 or 4 while keeping the 2 to 1 ratio (if possible).

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Abdominal breathing is not only a stress relieving exercise. You can combine it with all the other forms of relaxation. It allows other techniques to work and can help you fall asleep, even if you have insomnia.

In subsequent pieces I’ll teach you other techniques, like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Visualization, and Mindful Walking.