Coping Strategies

Many of us are feeling the effects to varying degrees of chronic stress.  Given our 24/7 news cycle which rarely has anything positive to offer, it’s not surprising that rates of anxiety have been increasing.  We seem to be fed a constant diet of fear.  If only this or that group was eliminated from our lives all would be well and we would be safe.  Sadly, reality just doesn’t work that way.  Life is full of problems and this is true for every life.  I would challenge anyone reading this to examine their own life and tell me that they have never had cause for anxiety, fear or just plain suffering.  Some of us like to think there was mythical time in the past when life was somehow simpler and easier.  But if you are truly honest, would you really want to go back to that time?  Was it really as great as your hindsight suggests?  And even if it was – for you anyway – the fact is time only moves in one direction.  We can’t go back.  We can only accept what is right now and move on from there.  In the complex world of today there are no easy answers.  Pointing fingers might make us feel good but it solves nothing.

So what is a person to do when faced with our daily bombardment of negativity.  One possibility is to try and ignore it.  Turn off the TV and the computer.  Avoid newspapers, magazines and radio.  Great idea!  But just as we look between our fingers at horror movies, few of us can really stay away from current events for long.  And sometimes it’s not national issues that get to us but something closer to home, like family or neighborhood discord that’s not so easily avoidable.

Another strategy is to pick a problem and find some way to address it with your own time, money and/or expertise.  This can be especially effective at a local level where you can sometimes actually see results from your efforts.  Or even if the results you seek extend beyond your view, you can at least feel like you’re contributing to a potential solution.  Helping others is widely prescribed as an antidote to stress and even depression.  It certainly beats complaining and blaming.

Still the feeling of helplessness in the face of any problem – illness, life changes, loss – can cause stress.  When you’re in the middle of a crisis it can be difficult to see clearly or to remember that all things change and nothing lasts forever.  Although it may seem simplistic, sometimes even  a momentary distraction can be helpful.

One very simple example is breathing.  There is actually science behind the calming power of breathing.  A recent article in the journal Science describes the “rhythmic activity of a cluster of neurons in the brainstem [that] initiates breathing . . . [and] has a direct and dramatic influence on higher-order brain function.”  The article states that “Slow, controlled breathing has been used for centuries to promote mental calming, and it is used clinically to suppress excessive arousal such as panic attacks.”  This study found a physiological and neural relationship between deep breaths and peaceful feeling.  According to an article in Yoga Basics which references this study:

“These findings suggest that the rhythm of our breathing directly relates to our higher-level brain activity.  For example, short, rapid breathing warns the brain that we may be in a stressful situation. . . .In contrast, deep breathing and long sighs encourage the opposite response. These tell our brain that we are safe”

There’s a key – the word “safe”. When we are fearful it is usually because we feel unsafe.  If we can convince our brains that we really are safe, a major cause of stress can be relieved.  A simple practice like deep breathing with a focus on long exhales can go a long way towards achieving that goal.  Now we even have scientific evidence that this reaction is real.  What’s even better is the knowledge that breath is always available.  We take it for granted and often don’t even notice it, but as long as we are alive, we are capable of breathing.  For some of us, breathing is obstructed and difficult.  But to the extent that we are capable of slow, deep breaths, this can be a good coping strategy when feeling stressed.

Another potential fear and stress-reducing practice is to create a gratitude list.  We’ve all heard of these, but how often do you actually remember all the positive things in your life?  Especially when you feel surrounded by a huge seemingly insurmountable problem.  If you can’t think of anything positive, try reading this article from the Chopra Center.  Even the most hard-core fear monger is bound to find something in this list to be grateful for.  Somewhere (unfortunately I don’t remember where) I read a suggestion that when feeling fearful or just overwhelmed to look around you and simply name everything you see.  The goal of this exercise is to bring you into the present moment.  Often what we fear is something from the past or something that might happen in the future but hasn’t happened yet, and, in fact, may never happen.  If we come back to the present moment it will keep us from regretting something we can’t change or anticipating something that may never happen.

Of course, no coping strategy works if you forget to do it.  And all interventions can be easily overlooked during a crisis even for the most stable and centered of us.  But when things seem at their bleakest, sometimes the only thing you can do is find a way to cope.  A little relief might help you to get to through the crisis.  And then maybe next time you’ll remember the practice that helped.  As alway, practice is the key.  The more we practice, the better we get.


Breath of Life

By now we all know of the tragedies and struggles emerging in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  There will no doubt be more as the days and weeks go by and people try to move forward with their lives.  Soon, too, we will be able add tales from those enduring Hurricane Irma and the storms and other events that will inevitably follow.  Our hearts go out to all the people encountering so much loss.  Many of us are trying to help in any way we can.  With these events happening over such a wide swath of our country, everyone seems to know someone who is personally effected.  These are events beyond our control.  Technological advances have helped give some warning, but ultimately these events often behave in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to foresee.  No one is at fault.  It’s just the way things are.

While Houston struggles to emerge from the watery deluge, the opposite problem has been creating disaster conditions in several northern states.  These states have been experiencing extreme drought.  In addition, years of various fire suppression policies have resulted in an abundance of fuel susceptible to any stray incendiary source. As a consequence of this volatile mix, fires are burning out of control in many areas from central Canada south to Montana and beyond.  The smoke has been drifting southward for most of the summer and is now being acutely felt in my area, the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

As I looked out my window last week, I could see the haze settling among the trees.  Each morning the sun has risen as a blood red disk in the sky, its light being filtered through layers of smoke.  Last Sunday was so bad that it was difficult to be outside.  The Rapid City Journal reported that “wildfire smoke exceeded unhealthy levels” over Labor Day weekend. The smoke stings your eyes and the back of your throat.  Locally we, too, have had small fires all summer and, in fact, there was one burning a few miles south of my town a few weeks ago that caused some home evacuations.  Still we in the Black Hills have gratefully been spared any major fires this summer and we remain quite a distance from the worst of the current burn areas.  Yet here we are, having to rely on our internal filtering systems to be able to absorb the air that we humans depend on.  Those of us with weaker systems or respiratory ailments have an even harder time getting what they need from the air.  And those living closer to the fires themselves are in real danger from the many problems the heat and smoke can cause.

All of this serves to highlight both the fragility and amazing resilience of we human beings.  These conditions also remind us of the importance of the true necessities of life.  We may be able to live without our houses and our cars, but we can’t live under water and we can’t live without air. This is true for ALL human beings.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, what language you speak, where your parents come from or any of the other ways in which we each think we are different from each other.  The basic necessities of life are great equalizers.   They are also things we derive directly from the earth and the sun.  We may think we can be independent and self-sufficient, but are all dependent on the gifts of the planet.  And we are all subject to the whims and uncertainties of the atmosphere that surrounds us.

As humans, we have specific requirements for survival.  We all need nourishment.  Although water is essential to our survival, no human can live under water for long without accommodations.  Which further reminds us that we all need to breathe.  We take these things for granted, allowing ourselves to get caught up in our small concerns and petty grievances.  Some of us even have the hubris to believe that they are somehow more deserving of the basics of life than others.  True, we each have our own unique qualities, but there are so many ways in which we are all in the same boat (pun intended!) just trying to survive and make the most of our short, mysterious and perplexing lives.

Being directly in the path of the smoke, I could not help but reflect in particular on the importance of each breath.  Breathing is so instinctive that we usually don’t even think about it until something interferes with it.  Yet inhaling breath is the first experience we have when we come into this world and exhaling is the final experience we have when we leave it.  Every breath in between is hugely valuable and worthy of celebration.  Yoga and Pilates teach us to focus on the breath and its relationship to movement in particular, but also to our health and well-being in general.  In fact, Joseph Pilates theorized that because most of us, to our detriment, breathe too shallowly.  We neglect to exhale fully leaving as much as 30% of our intake of air sitting at the bottom of our lungs.  Take a moment to think about that. This could mean that you’ve had some of the same stale air inside you for years.  No wonder we have lung diseases!  In fact, it’s a wonder we don’t see more of them.

On a more positive note, here’s another concept of breath that I’ve heard in different ways from several sources including yogic breathing specialist Leslie Kaminoff and native plant specialist Michael Stuart Ani.  Earth’s atmosphere has been circulating wind and water all over the planet since its inception. These elements carry with them minute traces of everything that exists on Earth.  This means that the breath of all living things has also been circulating for all of existence.  We are, therefore, connected to our ancestors – and to each other – through our breath.  This concept can be extended to reveal that each of us contains all of us and every human life that has ever existed.  Wow!  What a concept!

In yoga classes we often incorporate various breathing practices as part of the experience.  These serve as a reminder that although many of our bodily functions are not easily controlled (e.g., heart beat, cellular functions, nerve impulses, etc.) breathing is one essential bodily function that we can control to some extent.  For example, we can change the length of our inhales and exhales.  Some people can even train their bodies to go for extended periods of time without breathing.  But there is always a limit.  Humans like to test their limits to see how far they can be pushed, but there is always still a limit.  We might last a few days or weeks without food or water, but we won’t last very long without breath.

So next time you are in a yoga class and find yourself resisting the breathing practices, or forgetting to breathe in a Pilates class, try to remember and treasure the value of each breath.  This is also something you can try if you’re feeling stressed.  Bring your attention to your breathing.  It is said that focusing on your exhales can be calming.  Just letting yourself recognize each breath can help bring your mind back from whatever brink it is perched on. Breath is life and without breath there is no life.  Breathe gratefully.