Warmest holiday wishes to all!
Posting some holiday lights to help ground you and keep you present in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
Eyes turned towards wonderful possibilities in 2023! Much love to all!
Mindfulness, cancer and the stuff in the space between your ears.
Warmest holiday wishes to all!
Posting some holiday lights to help ground you and keep you present in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
Eyes turned towards wonderful possibilities in 2023! Much love to all!
Ah, anxiety. I hate it but it’s such a fixture in my life, although it’s gotten better now that I’ve become more aware of the nuances of my reactions to stress.
That awareness was key, but it took a while for me to figure it out. I had been told to “feel what the response to anxiety feels like in my body”, but lemme tell ya, when you’re in the middle of being really stressed out, the only answer you can give is: “TERRIBLE!”
I think the way this suggestion has been posed is all wrong. It wasn’t until I started mindfulness meditation that I finally understood what was really the point of feeling into body sensations.
First of all, in case you’ve been fortunate enough to never experience severe anxiety, here’s how to imagine it: (1) turn on a really large blender, (2) stick your head in it. That’s about it. Then, when someone asks you to feel what body sensations you have, you answer, “Dunno, my brain is missing.”
Basically, in the midst of anxiety, there is so much that feels out of control that I don’t think it’s possible to lasso down sensations without having a person hold your hands, look into your eyes and say, “Okay, focus on me and do this…”
And that, my friends, is why scratching out even the slightest bit of space for yourself in a stressful situation, just so that you are not 100% caught up in the whirlwind, is so beneficial for getting yourself through it.
Just like you don’t wait until the day of your first marathon to start training for it, you need to prepare for the next tornadic episode of anxiety before you’re in it.
Become your own Professional Stress Manager. That takes practice, primarily when things are peaceful. Just like you don’t wait until the day of your first marathon to start training for it, you need to prepare for the next tornadic episode of anxiety before you’re in it.
Job One is bringing yourself out of the swirling thoughts in your head and that can be hard to do, since they are where your anxiety originates. That’s why you have to re-direct your attention to something outside your mind, and that’s where focusing on body sensations comes into play.
First, find yourself an anchor, like the oft-mentioned breath, and start with that. Focusing on the breath gives you a target for your attention when everything else feels crazy. There are a variety of sensations associated with breathing: the rush of air, expansion of the chest, expansion of the belly and whatever else is salient to you.
Pick one that makes sense. It is expected that you won’t be able to maintain your focus on it and your mind will wander off. That’s OK. In fact, the whole point of this is that you DO lose your focus. And once you realize that you have, bring your attention back to your breath.
And that’s it. That’s ALL of it. It doesn’t get more complicated than that.
And when you’ve achieved some sort of stability there, you’ve made yourself some space. Take advantage of that and bring your attention to other parts of your body, with one eye on your breath: is there a tingle in your fingertips? How about your toes? Are you clenching any muscles in your body and what happens if you try to release them?
Ask yourself, “How do I know I’m anxious?” What are the signs? Face feeling hot? Stomach bunched up? Cold feeling in the intestines? Tightness in the chest? Can I take a deeper breath and try to relieve that tightness? Can I send warmth into my gut? Try to define what anxiety means to you on a physical level. The more you do that, the more control you get on your reaction and the experience is not as frightening.
See, the idea is that you need that fingerhold in the crack between your stressor and your reaction to it so that you don’t get swept up in the lack of control. And establishing that will take some practice and time, but as with any exercise, each practice session will benefit you. And then best time to start is now.
I’ve posted several times about different counting techniques that I’ve used to help calm and ground myself (counting backwards, counting 100 breaths). It sounds like such a simple thing, but it is surprisingly effective.
Counting is one of those things that we naturally learn when we are very young, and because it’s so familiar to us, we can do it with ease as adults.
This ease comes in handy when our Monkey Mind is jumping around like mad, stewing over what has happened or fearing for what is to come. Counting gives it something to do so that its attention is drawn away from anxious thoughts.
In particular, I’ve found this to be useful at night when falling back to sleep has been hindered by that incessant buzz of thinking that won’t go away.
The technique that I’ve used over the last few weeks weaves a counting pattern like this:
Become aware of your body lying in bed. Try to soften the most obvious places of tension (for me, neck and shoulders) and turn your attention to your breath.
Begin by focusing on your inhales of your breaths and counting them, up to ten. Then, switch your focus to your exhales, counting each one up to ten. And again, switch back to focusing on the inhales, continuing this way
The combination of counting up to ten and focusing on either the inhales or exhales provides enough of a distraction from your thoughts, but requires some gentle attention to keep on track. The switching of focus invites your mind to return to the breath.
I’ve found ten to be a very good number; however, five would also work. Whatever you prefer. This might require experimentation to see what is best for you. For example, counting to two might work better for some people during waking hours when there is naturally more stimulation around.
As you establish a pattern with your breath, extend your exhales regardless of where your focus is. This helps slow both your breath and heartrate.
Again, this technique works because counting to ten is simple and unstimulating, allowing the mind to lull itself into a calmer state. When I find myself missing ten and instead counting into the teens without switching my inhale-exhale focus, I know that I’m beginning to drift off. I gently stay with it, but sleep is nearby.
I’ve posted previously about the sensations I’ve experienced in the midst of anxiety, as if the stressor is right in my face, raw and unescapable.
Combatting this feeling has been my number one priority, since anxiety overtakes me before I even know it, triggering my fight-or-flight response. Once my sympathetic nervous system gets going, getting it “back in the box” can be difficult, possibly taking days, depending on the intensity of the stressor.
My current strategy is to create protective distance for myself in a very simple way. And it consists of visualizing an expansion of the space around my body.
It goes something like this: Imagine you are inside a deflated balloon. If you are experiencing tighteness in your head or chest, this serves as an effective analogy, particularly if your balloon is constricting you. Without letting your mind be consumed by the tightness, allow yourself to acknowledge the stressor that surrounds you.
Then, taking a deep breath in, exhale through pursed lips and inflate that space around you. Imagine how it feels to expand the balloon and release that clinging sensation. Feel the fresh air moving against your skin as the space around you continues to broaden.
Maybe you begin with the area around your head first, as if creating a bubble around it allows oxygen to flow freely, then move the expansion towards the torso, protecting and releasing the heart, lungs and other vital organs.
Or perhaps begin with the chest if that’s where the constriction feels greatest. Anxiety can squeeze your breath, so focus on mentally removing that weight from your sternum and ribs, visualizing an expansion of the free space around your chest with a deliberate slowing of breath. This takes some work, a back-and-forth between imagining space expanding around you and your breath taking advantage of the room that it has.
If your chest is mired too deeply in anxiety, turn your attention to your extremities, starting with the feet and hands, getting a foothold there and allowing the sensation of space to move slowly towards the center of your body.
The idea is to E-X-P-A-N-D the space around you, dispelling the feeling of closeness and suffocation that results in the wild urge to flee. Note that this is not avoidance of the stressful situation. You are acknowledging its existence…and then creating room so that your brain has space and time in which to think, to know that it’s protected from words and sensations and fearful possibilities. To know that it’s safe in the “now”.
Try this the next time you have a quiet moment. As with many of these techniques, it is helpful to practice in times of calm, to feel into what that sensation of space feels like. The more we practice, the clearer and more familiar that sensation becomes, and we can draw upon that feeling during stressful times.
The thing about cancer is that the news hits you hard at once.
And it’s not like you get time to get used to it, because the diagnosis is LOADED. All those scary things that you’ve ever associated with the “big C” rush at you and there’s no real way to protect yourself.
It would be terrifying for anyone, but those of us currently in mid-life grew up at a time when cancer treatment was not as refined or targeted as it is now: visions abound of hospital beds, bald heads, bodies wasting away, vomiting, hopelessness. Most cancers were frequently fatal and diagnosis was the beginning of the end.
As we’re trying to process what this all means for us, for our future and for our families, others try to prop us up with cheers of, “Be a badass!” “Stay strong!” “You’ll beat this!” “You’re a fighter!”
So between juggling the cancer news and the “hang tough” messages from those around us, everything gets overwhelming. Our oncologist lays out a treatment plan and suddenly we need to learn a different language. Tumor types, chemo drugs, clinical terms, side effects.
I distinctly remember wanting to hide under my bed and wait for it to go away. There was so much I needed to do and I didn’t know how to get through it all. It seemed like an immense amount of work for one person.
And then it hit me. All I needed to do was show up.
I didn’t need to be the warrior that everyone was pushing me to be. The mere fact that I was going to my appointments on my scheduled day was enough. I wasn’t going to win a prize for being the best “infusee” or for absorbing the most radiation the fastest.
I didn’t have to fight. All I needed to do was endure and allow. To accept what was going on and move through it. And to breathe.
I brought my office work with me to my first infusion. I was going to be there for at least 5 hours so I figured I should use the time “wisely”. I fired up my laptop but soon the Benadryl that I was given to prevent adverse reactions kicked in and brought on drowsiness.
Suffice it to say I might have answered an email here or there, but did little else. The same thing happened during the next infusion, and the one after that. Eventually I realized that the wisest way I could spend my time was by giving myself permission to rest and ride out the treatments.
When infusion day rolled around, I learned to put aside my work duties and family responsibilities, and simply be. It was such an uncomplicated concept, the benefits of which rippled out beyond my treatment. Why did it take cancer to teach me that?
Disclosure: I was approached by Unwind‘s developer to review their breathing app and offered a free upgrade. I appreciated the suggestion to try Unwind because these days I’m all about breathwork. In addition, upon reading about the app in the iPhone App Store, I was impressed with both the concept and the developer’s sincere responsiveness to user comments. You can find it in there App Store here.
I’ve been using the Unwind app for a number of weeks now. It is a lovely breath-focused app with a number of unique features that I love, customizable and easy to use.
Unwind offers three breath exercises, all of which I which I recognized as science-backed for specific purposes: (1) the “Start fresh” pattern (6 counts in, 3 counts out) which brings oxygen into the body and energizes you; (2) the “Relax & unwind” pattern, great for a relaxation break during the day (4 counts in, hold for 4 counts, 4 counts out, hold for 4 counts); (3) the “Sleep better” pattern, perfect for deep relaxation before bed (4 counts in, for 7 counts, 8 counts out).
The user can pair these patterns with a specific ambiance. An ambiance is a themed background soundscape, and Unwind offers a broad range with options such as Rainforest, Rain on Umbrella, Village Backyard, Open Air Cafe, Japanese Pagoda…including unique ones that I haven’t found in similar apps such as Deep Space, Swimming with Whales, Castle and City Skyline with Ocean. At last count, there were 33, so there’s a flavor for every mood.
Each ambiance has a visual associated with it, and I really like the way the breath is represented in Unwind. In other apps, the breath is often shown as a ball, but in Unwind, it’s the selected ambiance’s landscape, with a foreground and background layer rising and lowering with the inhalation and exhalation. The images are uncomplicated and not distracting, but easily recognizable. There are also additional visual cues: a circle that represents time elapsed in a session and a line that represents breath “hold” time.
Sometimes I play an ambiance by itself, allowing my imagination to create my own imagery, or simply to use it as background sounds while I’m working or drifting off to sleep.
You can chose between a male and female voice for inhalation/exhalation guidance: “Seth” or “Emma”. I’ve tried both and found that I’m more drawn to Emma’s voice, but I appreciate the ability to switch between the two. Also, it seems like there’s a slight change in voice inflection between some of the guidance cues, so even though the spoken words are the same, it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to a robot. That’s nice attention to detail!
Another lovely customization is the ability to adjust the breath lengths for each of the breathing exercises. While the established counts are research-supported, if, for example, the 7-count hold happens to be too long for you, you can adjust it. This means that you have the ability to completely personalize your breathing patterns, a valuable feature that I don’t usually find in apps like this. Of course, you can also choose the total length of each breathing session.
Finally, after each session, you have the opportunity to select a little emoticon that represents your mood, and there’s space to write your thoughts, should you want to jot down a few notes.
Because I feel that mindfulness, relaxation and breathwork should be accessible to all and not limited to those who are able to pay, I held off on the upgrade that I was given to me so that I could try out the free version first. My experience was not diminished at all, and that was really important to me.
Eventually, I did upgrade, which gave me access to the entire list of ambiances, which otherwise are locked. However, even in the free version, you can access some (or all — sorry, I upgraded before I found out!) additional ambiances by maintaining your practice streak, which is a lovely perk. Upgrading also enables you see all your past sessions and notes. But there is no subscription, which sets Unwind apart from other apps of its kind. There’s only a flat, one-time fee (at this writing, $5.99). I really appreciate that and would have happily paid it myself!
The bottom line is that I love this breathing app! Its obvious that the developer put a lot of thought into it, with a definite focus on the needs of the user. Unwind is the ideal complement to the other meditation apps that I use, and perfect for whatever breathwork I want to do. Because most of the features are accessible without the upgrade, I recommend trying this out to see if it works for you. If you do decide to upgrade, it’s a small investment for immediate access to all the ambiances and logged notes, and in my mind, well worth it.
Oak is among the simplest meditation apps that I’ve tried. While it’s not as stripped down as The Breathing App, it really covers all one would need for a meditation practice.
I love the aesthetics — the app has a soothing watercolor-like look to it that reminds me of a quiet, overcast morning, before the rest of the world has awoken. Navigation is very simple as there are only three basic elements to choose from: meditate, breathe and sleep. However, they’re quite enough.
Meditate offers three meditation options, all customizable in duration, instructor voice (male/female), background sounds and warm up (for those wanting to settle in before meditating). The three types of meditations are (1) Mindful, learning to focus on the breath; (2) Loving Kindness, cultivating compassion and empathy both for yourself and others; and (3) Unguided, with the choice of interval bells instead of spoken cues.
Again, very uncomplicated and accessible. Both the male and female voices have that certain “something” that makes them soothing and easy on the ears. While Oak doesn’t have the expansive meditation libraries that some apps provide, for many meditators what Oak offers will be quite enough, and the ability to customize the meditations creates far more permutations than one might expect.
Breathe is the section of this app that I personally use the most. It consists of three types of breathing exercises: (1) Deep Calm, which has been advocated by Dr. Andrew Weil and has a 4-second inhale, 7-second hold and 8-second exhale; (2) Box breathing, which is a square “box” of inhale-hold-exhale-hold, each segment being 4 seconds long; and (3) Awake, which is a 6-second inhale followed by a brief 2-second exhale.
The number of breaths per “set” for each of these exercises differs, and you are limited to the number of totals sets you can do at a given time. However, this is probably a good idea because it’s important to take breaks when doing prescribed breathing in these ways. Think of it as insurance against passing out.
Sleep offers (1) Relaxing Sounds and (2) Guided Breath. Again, there are options for the background sounds and duration. I enjoy using the sound “elevate” at work, not for sleep (!) but to offer gentle music to even out the frustrations that may complicate my day.
There is also a 10-session course on Mantra Meditation. While I was able to unlock it for free, this may be a temporary benefit (perhaps due to COVID-19?) because the App Store makes mention of the course being available for a small fee. Keep that in mind for the future.
I had not been using a mantra for meditation, but this class helped me choose one and added another dimension to my meditation practice. The narrator’s voice was perfect for this type of lesson. The class is downloadable which leaves you no excuse not to meditate on your next plane flight. Note that I haven’t completed the entire course yet, so I cannot yet comment on its benefits as a whole.
Finally, Oak tracks your progress, including minutes meditated and number of breaths taken. It also shows the number of people meditating and breathing with you. And of course, it shows you your streaks. So, if there were something that I felt I need to gripe about with this app, it would be that it encourages me to focus on streaks. I can get pretty obsessive and competitive about these things, and unfortunately, Oak doesn’t let me turn them off.
On the other hand, tracking your progress is what allows you to gather badges while developing your meditation and breathing practice, so for anyone who’s interested in seeing visual reminders of their progress, this is a plus.
All things considered, this is a lovely app that you’re not likely to outgrow quickly. With the exception of possibly being charged for the course, everything else is absolutely FREE, which evokes the spirit of mindfulness being accessible to all. It also makes it completely risk-free to download and try for yourself. While I haven’t used Oak quite as much as I have other apps, I really do enjoy it and highly recommend it.
In my last post, I mentioned yogi Eddie Stern’s breathing app. If there were ever an app that exemplified the beautiful simplicity of mindfulness, this is is!
There are several things that make this mobile app perfect: (1) it does one thing and does it well, (2) it is uncomplicated, and (3) it’s absolutely free, with no in-app purchases.
This app is designed to help guide you in breathing. It is based on the concept of resonance frequency breathing, which is deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing, between about 4-7 breaths a minute, depending on the individual — true resonance is considered to be six breaths a minute. Resonance breathing, “where oscillations in heart rate (HR) and breathing synchronize” (Pagaduan et al., 2019), has been shown to improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is “a key marker of health, mood, and adaptation” (Steffen et al., 2017). You may be familiar with HRV if you’re in training for a sport.
As Eddie Stern describes in his app and on his website, “by breathing at resonance, we enter into an even balance between the two branches of our autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic…and the parasympathetic…” The sympathetic is known as “fight-or-flight” and parasympathetic as “rest-and-digest”, and in our everyday lives, we tend to spend too much time with the sympathetic nervous system in charge.
The Breathing App helps us balance out the two systems via resonance breathing. There are several elements to this app: (1) an informational page, with instructions on setting up and using the app, including info on the science and creators; (2) the breathing ball, which helps you visualize the breath; and (3) the sound breath guide, which provides a tone that guides your inhales and exhales.
You set the timer from 1 to 30 minutes, choose your inhale:exhale ratio (2:3 or 4:4 [for kids]; 4:6, 5:5, 6:6 [true resonance] or 5:7), and decide whether you’ll watch the ball or look at a starry sky, with or without the sound.
And that’s it.
There’s nothing to buy and practicing with it is simple. Of all the mindfulness/meditation apps that I use, this is one of my favorites and I use it to augment my yoga practice. Give it a try!
Fun fact: some well-known names are credited as participating in the development of this app, including Deepak Chopra and musician Moby!
Given that there’s a lot of divisiveness and polarization in the United States right now, I’m looking for the humanity in my country. Most of the time I feel rather ineffectual, and I have wanted to make small difference in the life of a stranger.
My opportunity came in the form of a news story (mine, Time online, but this has been posted by a wide variety of sources): Maj. Bill White is a 104-year-old veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima who spends much of his time scrapbooking. He mentioned to the interviewer that he’d enjoy getting Valentine’s Day cards, which he promises to keep on his bookshelves, the same ones where his Purple Heart sits.
Now, while I’m decidedly not a fan of war and wish that we lived in a world where the military was not necessary, I have respect for people who are willing to give of themselves, no matter what the venue. But what moved me the most was the spark that this elderly man had. When he sang the Marines’ Hymn (see video), his voice was clear and unwavering. He still had so much life in him at age 104.
And his secret for living so long? “Just keep breathing.”
I will be sending him a Valentine’s Day card. If you would like to do the same, here’s the address:
ATTN: Hold for Maj Bill White, USMC (Ret)
The Oaks at Inglewood
6725 Inglewood Ave.
Stockton, CA 95207
And if not to Maj. White, perhaps there’s another deserving individual whom you could surprise this Valentine’s Day with a cheery greeting? I encourage you to do so. There’s still enough time.
And just keep breathing.
I AM STRONG
Sometimes I get frightened and that’s okay
Sometimes I feel vulnerable and that’s okay
Sometimes I cry and that’s okay
Because although the past feels heavy
and the future is unsure
I am here NOW
And today feels like a