Saturday, April 11, 2009


The best advice I ever received from anyone was this: breathe. It seems simple enough on the surface, but I've found over the years that there is no better tactic for dealing with everything than just breathing.

At this point I recommend that you stop asking yourself why I would advise doing something that is completely involuntary and just try it for a few minutes. Focus on your breath and block out everything else. Allow your body to breathe deeply and fill your lungs completely with air before exhaling. Notice the way it feels to have air flowing in and out of your body, the way it almost hurts to breathe more deeply than you are accustomed to. Take a deep breath and hold it for a while; notice the vague sensation of relief as you once again allow yourself to exhale and continue breathing. Now push all of the air out of your lungs until there is no air left inside. Then push even more air out. Notice the suction-like effect it has. Keep holding it and pay attention to the burning sensation. Notice how uncomfortable it is to be in this position of airlessness. Now continue breathing with complete focus for a few more minutes.

Isn't it amazing how many dimensions there are to our breathing? 99.9% of our lives are spent in complete ignorance of this life-sustaining act--thankfully so, because life would be extremely difficult if we had to constantly focus all of our attention on taking in and letting out air. However, whenever possible it is highly beneficial to "return to your breath" and regain awareness of it. Did I hear you ask me what benefits there are? Here you go:
  • Increase in lung capacity
  • Better remembrance of where (and when) you are
  • Increase in resistance to sub-prime temperatures
  • Increase in resistance to extreme emotions
  • Better ability to understand your (re)actions
  • Increase in immune system function
  • Decrease in occurrence of the words, "What was I thinking?!?"

The list could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea. This prescription is chock-full of benefits. Best of all, the side effects are only unpleasant for a little while--that is, until you realize they are not the problem and your attitude is the problem. They include the following:
  • Decreased ability to lie to yourself or others
  • Decreased ability to ignore your inner workings
  • Decreased ability to numb yourself from potentially emotional events
  • Decrease in self-pity and increase in constructive conversations with yourself
  • Decreased ability to make yourself disappear completely
Allow an example of how this works. Imagine, if you will, a recent event that left you feeling frustrated, betrayed, infuriated, or otherwise icky and unpleasant. How long did it take you to accept these feelings? Depending on how serious the situation was, it could vary from nanoseconds to days or weeks. Perhaps you still haven't even considered how you should have felt. Most events, however, are small enough and ambiguous enough that we absorb them into our subconscious and hide them away to avoid feeling their effects. We "pretend" that everything is okay (and do a ridiculously good job of it, most of the time).

Those feelings have to go somewhere, though. Depending on the philosopher or psychologist, the process of taking these feelings inside without properly processing them is called internalizing. The problem with internalizing is that the feelings are inside you still. They have been stored in our minds and in our bodies. Juanique will tell you that stress is definitely stored in the muscles, and she has the pleasure of trying to work it out during massage therapy. I can tell you from my experiences with her working the stress in my muscles that it is very painful physically. I can tell you from my experiences with counselors working the stress in my mind that it is very painful emotionally--perhaps more so than it would have been at the time I originally experienced it.

There is, of course, an opposite and equally costly way to avoid properly processing emotional stressors. That is to lash out and overreact to the feelings as if a preemptive strike will prevent the inevitable emotions. While such a response definitely acknowledges the feeling, it does so in a manner that fails to understand the meaning of the feeling or the lesson such a feeling is intended to convey. Someone who lashes out (with anger, despair, etc.) only knows that they have been threatened by whatever caused the feeling. It isn't important why they feel threatened, or even whether they should feel threatened. They are reacting in a raw and unfiltered way that precludes meaning. They will store stress just the same as someone who internalizes.

Here is where breathing comes into the equation. If you haven't already figured it out, remembering to breathe at these emotional junctions can prevent the buildup of stress. Whenever something unpleasant happens, tell yourself to breathe. I know you have heard this before, but it bears repeating now that you have some context. When you breathe deeply and focus on the breath, at least two things happen: first, you allow yourself to feel the emotion that habit has taught you to internalize. I have found that focused breathing forces me to feel whatever I have been hiding from myself, even when I don't want to feel it. Second, you give yourself a chance to process the emotion and learn the lesson it is attempting to teach you.

Accepting your emotions and understanding their source is extremely important to your emotional and physical wellbeing. This does not mean you have to act on your emotions, nor does it mean you have to take lots of time to analyze everything that happens to you. It is a simple process of allowing them to be what they are.

This post is too long already. Sorry! I'll bore you with more in the future, so brace yourselves. And don't forget to breathe! (at least 5-10 minutes a day to start, plus whenever you think about it during the day).


PS- I shamelessly stole all of these Creative-Commons licensed photos from Flickr. I meant to make the links go to the photographers' sites, but I messed up. Sorry! I'll do better next time (yes, I'm too lazy to fix it now).