After the shock of my lay off leveled out a bit, I started to realize that I had a much bigger problem than losing my job during the Great Recession; I was a hot mess. I was angry, bitter, sad, lonely, and afraid of things that made no sense at all. On the outside, I probably came across as tough, bitchy, and not needing anyone. Inside, I hated pretty much everything about myself and constantly cycled between episodes of anxiety and depression.
I was popping Tums like they were candy, slept maybe 3 hours a night, ate crap or nothing at all, and my body ached pretty much everywhere. I was 60 pounds overweight and regularly contemplated the idea of “not being here anymore”. After a therapeutic road trip, I made the decision to at least try some things, even though I was skeptical anything could change. I felt like I couldn’t check out of life without giving it a real, solid try.
10 years later, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I made that difficult decision.
My grandfather committed suicide when I was 8 years old. He was my mother’s father and I absolutely loved him. He was incredibly kind, funny, and there will never be anything quite like his hugs and snuggles. It was clearly a tricky thing at that age to try to understand that he was dead but that he caused it, on purpose.
As I became older though and started to feel the pressures of life squeezing down on me, I absolutely understood. I described it as my desire not to kill myself but to just “not be here” anymore. I didn’t have a specific plan, although I would daydream a little about if I could actually follow through with one. Would I regret the action in the middle of it happening? Would it be too late to take it back?
When I came to the brink of suicidal thoughts, it was often my grandfather’s memory that would pull me away from the edge. As an adult, I could fully understand the pressures he must have felt and how tempting it would be to check out. But I could equally see just how much changed after he made the decision to leave this earth, all the beautiful things he missed, all the things he could have done to make his life better. It was this blessing of perspective and the knowledge that my grandfather had the potential for joy, that kept me from making any actual plans to end my own life.
It was the memory of my grandfather that made me start to look for real, substantive ways to feel better.
My first thought was drugs. I had heard of antidepressants and a boyfriend had once been prescribed some anti-psychotics that seemed to chill him out. He also seemed like a brain-dead zombie though and that’s not what I wanted. I didn’t know the words at the time but I wanted to be present with myself and comfortable in my own skin. I wanted to face my problems, not hide from them.
I searched Google for natural remedies for stress relief. I laughed so hard when I kept finding the same two things over and over again; deep breathing and meditation. Freakin’ hippies. Breathing and thinking, two things I did all the time, were somehow going to make me feel better? Out of spite for wanting to prove it otherwise, I decided to try these two things in earnest.
It worked. It turns out that the hippies and the Buddhists were right and there’s actually science backing it up. Let’s take breathing first.
It’s not just any kind of breathing. This kind is very focused and the goal is to feel all of your body as you do it; Where are you holding tension? Where do you have pain? Is your breath choppy? Can you continue to breath and try to make each one more smooth? When you take these controlled, deep, and focused breaths it actually sends some signals to the brain that calm us.
How? I’m glad you asked!
When we are in “fight or flight” mode, which is stress, the brain doesn’t differentiate between physical danger and worries. Facing down a mountain lion is the exact same thing to the brain as being late in paying a bill, having a fight with someone, or dreading a tough conversation. It’s all the same to the brain. When we are in this mode, the brain puts the body on auto-pilot so that the functions of being able to fight or run away are in full power. That means that other things like digestion, sleep, or sex are put on the back burner. You’re not going to take a nap, hit on your lover, or eat a sandwich if you’ve got a mountain lion stalking you.
The difficult part is that you can’t control this process. It’s part of your autonomic nervous system, so it happens without your conscious control and in fact, you literally can’t control it. Go ahead, try to digest that meal you just ate. How many times have you told yourself while lying awake in bed at night, “just go to sleep!”? Did it work? Nope. Because these systems are controlled on a much deeper level and we can’t just tell ourselves to make it happen.
However, there is only one of those autonomic nervous system functions where we can take conscious control; breathing. Yup. It is part of this auto-pilot system but its the only part that we can control. You can choose to hold your breath, take shallow breaths, or take deep breaths. If you lose consciousness entirely, passing out, you’ll still breathe because it’s part of that autonomic system, but you can also chose to control it.
That means when you are in a full blown state of panic, depression, anxiety, road rage, or even deep sadness – when you choose to take a nice, relaxing focused breath, a message is sent to the brain saying, “Stand down, everything is okay. The mountain lion is gone.” So the brain then starts sending out the lovely happy chemicals of serotonin and dopamine, and stops sending the panic chemicals of adrenaline and cortisol. You can literally shift the chemicals your brain is sending through your body by calming your breath.
I was absolutely stunned when this started to work for me and it is a practice I still do throughout the day, any time I start to feel tense or unsettled in any way. I also do it at night to help me calm before I sleep and even in the morning so I start my day in a calm way, rather than rushing to focus on all I need to get done.
Those hippies were on to something for sure. To learn specific techniques of deep breathing, just do a simple search online. You’ll find articles and videos with a wide variety of ways to do it – keep trying and you’ll find the one or ones that work for you.
It’s really important for me to press the fact that I don’t think most of us can do these things a few times and just be magically better. It is hard work to change the way we typically react to things and choose a different thing instead; Are you pissed off? Take some deep breaths. Got road rage?
Take some deep breaths. Swimming with stressful thoughts at night? Take some deep breaths.
Rather than wrapping ourselves up in the cloak of depression or willingly staying on the roller coaster of anxiety, we need to be really brave and make a different choice. Drop the cloak and get off the ride. Just stop. Take some deep, focused breaths, and try to calm your entire body. This takes practice and I still do it every single day at random points when I feel I need it, 10 years later. It’s your tool for every day living rather than a magic pill you only take once.
Please keep reading my articles because I’m going to talk next about what meditation really is and how it works with the autonomic nervous system. In other articles, I’ll talk about habits and how we can retrain our brain to more easily accept these new ways of thinking and reacting. I’ve got more tools for you to use, if you’re really serious about feeling better. We’ll also talk about what “happiness” really is, and it’s got nothing to do with a smile.
Stick with me folks. I promise, it will be worth your time. There is no need to check out of life without really trying to feel better. You just have to want to feel better and you have to trust that if you do the work, you’ll get there. I did it and I know you can too.