“My mind is a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” (Anne Lamott, Novelist)

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Image courtesy of wikimedia.org

These are times that are creating great and widespread anxiety, to be sure. Many people report experiencing nightmares. Few of us can remain fully unscathed as we’re forced to change our routines and cut ourselves off from the people and places that have offered comfortable reassurance.

And being alone with our thoughts does not, as Anne Lamott cleverly suggests, always provide us with the best company. We can be hard on ourselves by ruminating on our plights and getting stuck in a cycle of worries. 

For me, mindfulness meditation has a very calming effect, and I’ll share with you below one particular resource I find helpful—whether or not you are a meditator, and even if you’re a “fidgety skeptic.”

I also love these wise words from the renowned meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, which underscore so much about being human:

“If you can sit quietly after difficult news,

If in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm,

If you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; 

If you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; 

If you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;

If you can always find contentment just where you are…

…..You are probably a dog.”

It’s a tough time for the two-leggeds, as Internet sensation Pluto the Dog refers to us. (She seems to be having the time of her life; so far there’s been no interruption in her treat supply chain…) And if you haven’t seen her and need an instant lift, I encourage you to look for her repeat performances on YouTube.

Fortunately, there’s also a treasure trove of free material on the Internet to help us get through this terribly difficult time.

I don’t want to oversimplify this issue. Andrew Solomon, a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University who has written about his struggles with serious mental illness, observed in The New York Times that nearly everyone he knows “has been thrust in varying degrees into grief, panic, hopelessness, and paralyzing fear. If you say, ‘I’m so terrified I can barely sleep,’ people may reply, ‘What sensible person isn’t?”

If you’re feeling the way Sullivan describes, you may need professional help. Even if you’re  just seeking some reinforcement, I won’t pretend the resource I’m recommending will banish your psychological or physical pain—or make it easier for you to ignore your sudden or worsening economic problems. 

But I hope if you’re looking for some way to help you better adapt to our truly bizarre situation, you’ll give it a look.

And you needn’t be a meditator to appreciate its offerings and to find these common sense approaches helpful.

The source is Ten Percent Happier: tenpercenthappier.com. I actually paid a discounted price for a phone app last year.

Now, and for the duration of the quarantine at least, the content is available for free on YouTube. 

Live sessions featuring some of the most prominent teachers in the world are aired at 3 pm weekdays and are subsequently available on video. I listen to them (I don’t always watch) each morning before I get out of bed.

Dan Harris, a correspondent for ABC News, is the founder. Harris has explained that he turned to meditation after suffering a paralyzing panic attack on the air. He’s since become immersed in mindfulness and has developed strong friendships with a number of the leaders in the field. 

But he remains ever the “fidgety skeptic” (his words) and is clear when he’s asked to recite or act in a way that doesn’t come naturally to him.

He will repeatedly interject about the scientific grounding of certain practices. I think this approach makes him a perfect host for a program that is far more universal than it might otherwise be.

Each session begins with Harris talking with the guest speaker, who briefly describes her/his background. The speaker then gives an explanation preceding meditation lasting about five-minutes—suitable for those who’ve never meditated before as well as more practiced folks. 

And then the speaker answers viewers’ questions—often my favorite part of the session, as the questions, while unique, underscore so many similarities in what we’re all experiencing. And the answers are invariably helpful. In their entirety, the sessions run for about 20 minutes.

The goal, Harris says, is to bring some sanity into this rocky time, and to build a community, realizing the loneliness experienced even by those of us who are not quarantined alone—because we’re cut off from so many whom we care about. 

Today I heard Rev. angel Kyodo williams (sic), trained as a Zen priest, describe ways to recognize the importance of being in the present moment by trying to look at things in a different way. 

She used the acronym SKY, suggesting boundless spaciousness, to counter the constraints of both being so isolated and experiencing fear in these unprecedented times.

S is for Self-care: We should radically protect our own health and well-being, assess our own situation and take steps to protect ourselves, such as practicing social distancing. She noted that since her health situation puts her at risk, she has become considerably more aware of the need for self-care.

K is for Kindness: That means being kind to both ourselves and others—for example, accepting the annoyance we may feel toward people who seem oblivious to the 6-feet distancing advisory, but not being rude to them.

Y is for Yearning: We tend to contract with suffering, but if we acknowledge that we wish things could be different and are hopeful people take care, we can move out of that mindset. She suggests writing down our yearnings in order to breathe space into our perspectives.

Here is a video of Rev. williams’s presentation.

I have been so pleased with the sessions to date that I’m doing what Harris suggests: spreading the word to help build a community when many people are feeling cut off. I hope if you think you may need something like it—or just want to investigate—you’ll give it a try. 

Annie

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My Fraught Relationship With The Man-In-The-Box

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Jack in box vector image Courtesy of freesvg.org

I reallyreallyreally do not like inanimate objects talking to me. I avoid Siri, preferring to do my own research than to hear her voice—or to have her record my every Internet search (though I hold no illusions about privacy anymore…). I am not tempted to invite Alexa into my home to find that old Sinatra record for me, thank you very much. 

And back in the day when we actually got into cars and drove places, I always resented the high-pitched voice of that GPS woman, who on occasion directed us to dead-end streets and once recommended that we exit sharply to the right when we were in the middle of a bridge.

I’m not accusing her of malicious intent, but her satellite-guided bumbling was not a confidence-builder. I am perfectly capable of bumbling on my own.

Why then, do I invite the man-in-the-box into my life practically every day? It’s because he’s integral to The Device, which shall go nameless so that I’m not guilty of unintended promotion—or worse. 

Let me sidepedal a bit here and note that I am very receptive to integrative medicine, which brings together the best from East and West. My daily meditation, linking me to the Buddhism of 2500 years ago, has been a great help.

I do try to stick with practices that are evidence-based, and to maintain a healthy skepticism about things that sound extreme to me—Eastern or Western.

When several people whose opinions I respect raved about a physician who practices integrative medicine, I made an appointment.

I wanted to see whether she would offer me new, preferably non-pharmacologic approaches for handling my chronic conditions: specifically migraines that I know have an anxiety component, and mild hypertension.

Well, some of what she suggested made no sense to me. But she recommended The Device, which she felt might help alleviate these issues. And it turned out that she was right.

It wasn’t inexpensive—costing several hundred dollars—but it involved deep breathing, so I felt it was sufficiently safe and akin to the meditation that’s a valued part of my life.

The beloved neurologist who treats me for migraines thought it was a good idea, as it’s a form of biofeedback, which is an evidence-based method to alleviate migraines.

A description: An elastic belt holding a sensor is attached to a computerish small box, as is a pair of earbuds. I snap the belt around my torso and insert the earbuds. Then I listen to the instructions that the little man-in-the-box provides. Note: I am substituting The Device for its brand name. 

Here’s how a session begins:

“Lean back and relax and listen to the music as The Device detects your individual breathing patterns,” he tells me.

If I perform that difficult task to his satisfaction for several seconds/minutes, he says, “The Device has detected your individual breathing patterns. Now breathe according to the guiding tones.” I hear sounds—bom, bom—and I match my breath to the tones. 

Sometimes, as in this morning, he immediately tells me I’ve reached the “therapeutic breathing rate,” which means I’m really cookin’. More often, seconds/minutes pass as he goads me with that familiar refrain: “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out” before I reach that coveted goal.

Once there, I continue breathing in and out in sequence with the tones for another 14 “therapeutic” minutes (not sure why it’s that time length, but it always is) until he says, “The Device is turning off. Bye for now.” Let me tell you, I’m never sorry to part with him at that point.

And then I get to see how well I’ve performed by clicking on the box’s levers. Here’s where I realize my slight touch of OCD kicks in. I’m back in school, and I really want to do well. 

In fact, I usually do. The range deemed acceptable for the initial breathing rate is between 6 and 30 breaths per minute—the lower the better. I’ve never gone above 7.2; this morning’s readout was 5.2, which I guess means I had a pretty restful night’s sleep. 

The recommended final breathing range is 5-10 breaths per minute, and I’m nearly always below that—usually 4.8-4.9. Occasionally, I’ve gotten to 4.3, which is nearly Yogi territory, I think. More about that shortly. 

The Device also reports my synchronization rate (how well I synchronize my breathing with the tones) and my breath detection rate (how well the sensor can recognize my in-and-out breaths).

I’m usually right where I should be with those as well. Except if I cough or sneeze. Or hiccup. Then all bets are off.

But I’ve learned one especially bitter lesson. If my initial inhalations are too long while the sensor is assessing my pattern, once the tones begin, I wind up struggling to match them. And the man-in-the-box knows it. He chides me: “Don’t hold your breath!” 

Try breathing in for longer than you possibly can—and continue for 14 minutes—and you’ll see what it’s like. (Actually, just take my word for it; it’s not something a sensible person would do.) 

The lesson I learned: When using The Device, never-ever breathe in for long, lest the sensor monster constantly remind me of my failure.

In such instances, my synchronization rate would ensure a “needs additional work” message on my school report card.

He (my electronic tormenter) has also on more than one occasion said: “Try to breathe more evenly.” I make an effort not to take offense that he’s dissatisfied with my performance.

And he is oh-so picky about that sensor. “Tighten the sensor,”  he’ll command. Or  “loosen the sensor.”  Even “reposition the sensor.” His standards are high. I scramble to do his bidding. 

I used to strap on The Device just before bedtime, but I found all kinds of reasons not to go through the process then. So it’s now the first thing I do upon awakening—after taking a long drink of water to prepare my dry mouth for the routine.

Sometimes I wonder, as you may well, why I subject myself to this regimen-with-verbal-abuse on a daily basis. Of course, I always have the option of shutting the darn thing off.

But, while The Device hasn’t totally replaced medication, it really has done what the doctor said it might: migraine frequency diminished, blood pressure low-normal, anxiety lessened.

So I’m locked in to this challenge. Plus, in these pandem-icky days, I figure it’s not so bad to give my lungs a bit of a regular workout.

And then I meditate and express lovingkindness for all the nasty thoughts I’ve had about the bossy little man-in-the-box.

Annie

Keeping Anxiety in Perspective

 

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By Sharon Salzburg

Reprinted with permission from the app Ten Percent Happier.

Note:  Sharon Salzburg, a pioneer in American mindfulness education, is a regular contributor to Ten Percent Happier and the author of nine books. I’ve quoted her previously in my discussion of lovingkindness in this post.

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Everywhere I teach, people describe being exhausted by the mounting anxieties of contemporary life, from political uncertainty to climate change and now, the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need to remain calm and composed amid so much danger, real and perceived. But how do we do that?

Here are two steps that I recommend.

1. Distinguishing Anxiety from Fear

The first step in coping is to learn to distinguish anxiety from realistic fear.

Fear is immediate: a threat right in front of you that requires a swift response. My dear friend Sylvia Boorstein uses the example of finding yourself driving through a blinding snowstorm that prevents you from seeing even a few feet ahead. Without needing to think, all your senses focus so that you can respond in a way that ensures your survival and that of the other people in the car. This is a useful response to a dangerous situation.

On the other hand, Sylvia uses the example of trying to reach her son, and not being able to do so. “There could be a thousand reasons he is not answering the phone,” she told me once. “He’s in the shower. He fell in love. He’s sleeping. But my mind goes to the worst extrapolation of that. If I phone my son and he doesn’t answer, that means he must be dead.”

And so her eyes widen and her heart races, as she escalates into a state of hyper-alertness — even though all of this is only taking place in her imagination.

Even worse, anxiety feeds on itself. Sylvia describes it as a “free-floating hyperactivity of the mind.” I would add that anxiety doesn’t just float; it intensifies, building one conjecture upon the next. It can be very harsh. You might even feel anxious about having anxiety, and it gets stronger. A friend sent me an old Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown sitting up in bed in the middle of the night saying, “My anxieties have anxieties.” That captures the proliferation of anxieties perfectly.

Now, of course, sustaining ourselves requires vigilance, and the fear response accelerates you — heightens awareness, focuses the senses and alerts the reflexes.

But when those senses are piqued by imaginary threats, we become consumed by anxiety. The fact that anxiety grips the body in the same way as fear gives anxiety more credibility than it deserves. When your body reacts this way, it believes anxiety is alerting you to a genuine threat.

And when the brain is spinning out one horrifying outcome after another, it does not have enough space to clearly perceive the world around us as it is, and make careful, appropriate choices to protect ourselves and others.

So, first step: start by taking a breath or two to ground yourself so that you can determine if the threat you feel is real or a conjecture from circumstances. Is this a real threat? Or is my mind making it up, or perhaps exaggerating what’s actually there? Don’t try to forcefully calm yourself down — that’s too much. Just try to determine if this is a real fear, or an anxious conjecture.

2. Applying an Antidote

Next, once you know that what you feel is anxiety, consider an antidote.

One of my favorites is to cultivate some lovingkindness for yourself: both the chant-like nature of that practice, and the generation of lovingkindness will help. There are guided lovingkindness meditations on the Ten Percent Happier app, and on the internet. They’re very simple – often just chanting to yourself “May I be free from harm. May I be strong and healthy. May I be happy. May I live a life filled with ease.” And then extending those same wishes to the people you love and to the wider world.

When you say those wishes sincerely, every element of the practice is a relief. The phrases channel the energy instead of allowing it to proliferate. As you do this, you are back in charge and you can feel the body relaxing as the space around your anxiety opens up and releases. When you release control, you are free to choose how to react rather than being inhibited by frightening conjectures.

Another effective tool is to simply change your physical surroundings. Get out of the house, if there are things triggering your anxieties there. Go for a walk. The tools are simple – the key is knowing when to reach for them.

Let me conclude with another story from Sylvia Boorstein. Recently, Sylvia was walking through Costco and found herself in an aisle surrounded by big-screen televisions all of which were displaying news about politics.

Instantly her pulse started to race, and all her fears for the future ricocheted inside her mind, so much so that she had to stop shopping and pause.

First, Sylvia took a breath and then another to bring herself out of her mind and back to her body — in the here and now. Then, she could see that she was in a big public place, and she was safe. There was no immediate threat.

From that, she expanded her thoughts to her reliable car in the parking lot, her home where she has lived comfortably for decades. Rooting herself in the present — and in her larger context — shrunk the anxiety and thereby weakened it, allowing her to go about her errand.

Sylvia’s story illustrates the two elements of coping with anxiety. The first is recognizing it. Is the threat in the moment, or is it in the mind? Once you name it, it’s easier to address it. You, like Sylvia, can reach for a number of tools.

Now, nothing in life is a straight shot. Sylvia is in her 80s now, and she still works with anxiety all the time. We go forward, we fall down, we have to pick ourselves up or let someone help us up — we go forward again. That’s how change happens, that’s how progress is made — through resilient effort, not through self-punishment or judgment.

But change is possible. You can live a life that keeps anxiety in perspective.

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Did you find Sharon Salzburg’s guidance helpful? Can you relate it to your own life?

Annie

Continue reading “Keeping Anxiety in Perspective”