I am fascinated by the intersection of emotions and spirituality. I don’t pretend to have all the answers right now, but I know that the ability to control run-away emotions – both positive and negative ones - is vital to keeping us grounded, spiritually centered and in the present moment. Managing - not suppressing - emotions is the goal of an Everyday Mystic.
You have probably heard about the fight or flight syndrome which is our automatic response, mediated by our emotional brain, that allows us to react quickly to dangerous situations. I often tell the story of my sister-in-law who jumped in our swimming pool to save her energetic two-year-old daughter who had just fallen in. Lisa’s brain did not debate the merits of saving her daughter over ruining her own clothes or hairdo – she just jumped in immediately and pulled my niece to the surface so quickly that they both came up laughing. That is a perfect example of the spirit of my wonderful sister-in-law, but also of the positive aspect of our fight or flight syndrome.
The fight or flight syndrome doesn’t serve us as well in most other, modern-day situations, such as those with co-workers, bosses, family members and just the stress of living. Generally, we don’t have the option of fleeing the scene of a tense encounter with our boss, or of fighting her. Neither choice is recommended in civilized society.
Plus, many of the stressors we encounter are generated by our knee-jerk reaction to certain situations. For example, most of us get stressed if we get a call or email from our boss that simply says, “Please see me now.” We jump to the worst conclusion and assume that we are getting fired. Our emotional brain perceives a possible threat and mobilizes the body for its age-old reaction – fight or flight. Our physical symptoms might include increases in our heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure, butterflies in our stomach, or weak knees. Anticipating the worst, we walk into our boss’ office and are surprised and relieved that she only wanted our opinion on a report.
In those stressful situations, it should be our goal to stop the cascade of emotional hormones before it even starts. This means being able to identify your personal stressful trigger AS IT HAPPENS and catch yourself before your body has a chance to react. One of the best ways I know how to stop the fight or flight response is a simple breathing exercise. This came to me from several sources – several whispers from the Universe, so I know that it is true for me – including my yoga teacher, a Harvard Business Review article on stress relief and a fax from a friend.
The breathing exercise is easy: Your inhalation is half the duration of the exhalation. In other words, you breathe in quickly and fill your lungs completely and exhale slowly. On the first breath, count to 3 on the inhale, then 6 on the exhale. On the next breath, elongate it to 4 counts on the inhale and 8 counts on the exhale, then count to 5 and 10.
I recommend this technique from my own experience. I often wake up in the middle of the night, panic and then cannot go back to sleep. If, immediately upon awakening, I breathe in to the count of 4 and breathe out for 8 counts, I can rollover and go right back to sleep. Another example of the power of this technique is a chief executive of an entertainment company who only lit a cigarette when he was stressed during the day. He smoked about four times daily, always in response to stressful triggers. After discovering this breathing technique, he successfully substituted it for his cigarette habit and discovered that what calmed him was the opportunity to inhale and exhale fully and deeply. He was able to kick the nicotine habit and use the natural power of his breath to calm him.
What are your experiences with this wonderful breathing technique?
Meditation (from Thich Nhat Hanh):
I breathe in, I feel love.
I breathe out, I feel peace.