I love The Beatles and for those of you a little younger, the title of this article is part of a song of theirs called “What Goes On”. It’s about seeing your lover with someone else – and how crazy that makes us. When I hear it, this part of the lyrics always gets me; “What goes on in your heart? What goes on in your mind?” It shows that what we say to ourselves in our minds is so powerful and yet we are literally the only ones who know how that conversation goes. How do we justify the things we do? How do we handle our worries and our fears? It is something each of us deals with and yet the process makes each of us feel so alone.
In the article before this one, called Suicide, Science, and Hippies, I talked about the science behind deep breathing and why it works to calm us. In short; when we are stressed, the brain can’t tell the difference between a worry like a late bill or uncomfortable conversation and potential physical danger, like facing a mountain lion. It’s all the same to our silly brains.
So when we worry, the brain tells the body to behave as though we may be facing a mountain lion. The autonomic nervous system kicks in and tries to protect us by putting full power into the parts of our bodies that can fight or help us run away. This means that things like eating, sleeping, or having sex are not important and so all of those related systems get put on the back burner. Yet we aren’t actually in physical danger; we’re just worried and thinking about things that concern us. The brain can’t tell the difference.
The result is that we spend so much time under stress that our bodies are not operating a normal capacity. We have chronic insomnia, heartburn, other gastrointestinal issues, and lots of problems feeling relaxed enough to enjoy sex, manifesting as erectile dysfunction and infertility. In the last article, I talked about how our breath is the only part of the autonomic nervous system that we can consciously control – so when we take a deep, relaxing breath, we send important signals to the brain, telling it that we are not actually in danger.
Relaxing breaths are a critical part of learning how to calm anxiety and to bring the body back to a place where it can heal. But there is a second and equally important step; your mind.
It is the body’s job to do what the brain says. If we think we are hungry, the body has to go get food. If we think we are sleepy, the body has to put us to bed. If we think we are in danger, the body has to run or fight. So what we think has a profound impact on the body, because the two are literally partners in keeping us healthy and safe.
Here’s how this partnership gets messed up though in our actual lives: Imagine you are sitting in a movie theater, safe, warm, with friends, munching on popcorn. All of a sudden, something jumps out on the screen! Maybe you yelp a little, your heart starts racing, you jump a bit in your seat, or your skin gets prickles. Nothing at all happened to you. Nothing was going to happen to you. However, for for that one, brief second, your brain thought you might be in danger and you had a physiological reaction.
That’s how powerful the connection is between what we think and how we feel.
When we worry, or when we replay an argument in our heads, or when we rehearse something we think we might have to encounter, the body doesn’t understand that its not actually happening. Our ability to play out an experience in our heads and imagine different scenarios is part of why we are at the top of the food chain; not all animals have this mental capability. We can imagine a scenario and imagine different outcomes; then we can choose to implement the scenario that played out the best in our minds.
This is also why we’re kind of a mess in these modern times. We aren’t taught that there are many times when this kind of rehearsal for future events, or replay of past events, needs to have a limit. Because every single time we think about that nasty thing that person said to us, and envision the more clever thing we could have said, it’s as if that nasty thing is being said to us again and again. The brain doesn’t know it isn’t actually happening, we’re just imagining it.
This concept was really tricky for me to learn to tackle because I had become so identified with these replays or rehearsals in my mind. I would lay awake at night and be consumed with imagining scenario after scenario. I had no idea that I was forcing my body to be in fight or flight mode that entire time; no wonder I couldn’t sleep!
Because this is a base reaction of our brains, we have to do the hard work of teaching ourselves to stop the hamster wheel of replaying or rehearsing scenarios. What helped me was to start to recognize when my heart was racing, especially during the day. Why was I tense? I would then realize that I’d been looping on something and I would try to push myself to think of something else, and take a deep breath.
Shifting our thoughts to something neutral or positive goes hand-in-hand with deep breathing to help shift our bodies our of the pressure cooker of stress. We can visualize a scene and think about every detail of that scene, like laying on a beach or going for a hike. Any time a negative thought pops in say to yourself, “I don’t want to think about that,” and then go back to your scene.
Guess what? That’s meditation. I used to think that meditation was thinking about nothing. That is still not possible for me and I’ve been working on this for 9 years. Of course monks who practice this all day, every day of their lives, can think about nothing. But for us normal folks, we should take pride in being able to train our brains to just shift from the negative or stressful to something positive or neutral. There are lots of meditation guides online too.
For me, the one-two-punch of deep breathing and meditation is the foundation for inner peace. There’s more, of course, but if I’m not breathing properly and if my mind is spinning on things that make me worry, then nothing else I do will make me feel peaceful. There is no pill, no amount of alcohol, and no magic product that can do what deep breathing and calm thinking can do to help you feel at ease.
This takes practice and it isn’t easy, especially when you’re a natural worry wort. What I found though was that as I continued to work on this, I would catch myself sooner and sooner. Rather than being hours deep into a loop on something that’s bothering me, I can recognize it as it starts, make an adjustment, and not be tossing and turning all night long. It has taken a while but now that it feels more natural, I can’t tolerate letting myself start to spiral.
So give it a try; start researching deep breathing methods and meditation or mantra strategies. Find something that feels right to you and be dedicated to it. Just like with anything else that’s new, you need to keep practicing until you get it right. Have patience with yourself; I promise you that this is the beginning of your path to true, lasting, inner peace.