“Where Am I?”

I have a problem. And if you’ve been reading this blog, that statement won’t surprise you.

My thoughts take me for a ride and it’s a wild one. I’ve gone from being perfectly calm one minute…and the next minute gesturing wildly, face screwed up, whisper-arguing with a person who is not there. I can feel agitation in my belly and an increase in breathing and heartrate.

The story takes off.

I have a solo argument with an invisible adversary. Sometimes it’s someone I know, rehashing past hurts; other times it’s an imaginary situation that my brain concocted, a fear of the future. Regardless, there is always some form of negative state change involved.

When my mind starts creating stories, it’s hard not to jump on board the train and get taken for a ride.

In the past, I would have barreled along like a runaway freight train, exhausting and unnerving myself. It became a habit, like an itch I needed to scratch. It was so hard to stop those thoughts once the train started rolling along.

Mindfulness changed that, but it took time to develop awareness. I learned to ask one very simple question of myself as soon I realize that I’m being swept away by that torrent of brain activity.

Three simple words: where am I?

This works like magic for me. It’s instant grounding.

That’s because the train screeches to a halt and I shake off the mental noise and look around myself. I’m usually somewhere alone. There’s often some far away street hum or something else not very intrusive. I feel where my body makes contact with whatever surface I’m on.

As soon as I poke my head out from the noise, I realize that I’m on the train. And I get off.

I am HERE. And in this moment, I am safe. Regardless of all the thoughts that suggest otherwise, I am safe.

It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems that will need solving or work that needs to be done. But all that noise that was panicking me just a bit ago? I am reminded that it doesn’t exist right now. And right now is the only moment that matters.

Three simple words. Man, if I’d known this years ago, I could have saved myself so much heartache. But at least I know now. And now, so do you.

Why I Stopped Believing in Ghosts

So, I have a confession to make.

Throughout my primary and middle school years, I thought I had powerful extra-sensory perception. Actually, it might have even been longer than that, although I’m embarassed to admit it.

I blame my older brother for this. We were in grade school and my grandma had just passed away. Due to the arrival of a number of relatives for the funeral, we were left alone to entertain ourselves. As we turned off the lights for sleep, he and I somehow got on the topic of extra-sensory perception and decided to test it out.

One of us would think of a number and the other would guess what it was. I guessed correctly, over and over again. I would “see” it through my closed eyes as I concentrated. I didn’t miss a single one and my brother was very impressed.

When I was young, my older brother convinced me that my mind had special powers. Well…he wasn’t exactly wrong.

I fell asleep that night believing that my dear grandmother had imparted me a special gift with her passing, and I felt that I had undisputable empirical evidence of it.

In reality, my claim was on shakey ground, but I had already convinced myself that there was something magical there. In fact, I began seeing “evidence” of it everywhere. These couldn’t have possibly been coincidences, could they? I started fearing that if I could see something as a possibility, it would actually happen. As a result, I fought to keep certain thoughts out of my mind. Avoidance, anyone?

Some years later my older brother admitted he had fibbed to me that night, that no matter what number I “saw”, he would pretend that was the number he was thinking about. He thought it would be funny.

But by then, the latent fear of my thoughts was ingrained in me, even though I knew that triggering event had been a lie. What was true, however, was that my mind had always been very powerful. In one instance, I experienced intense pain that I couldn’t explain, lasting several days. While I was vaguely aware that this pain disappeared upon the release of a stressor, I didn’t realize that it was psychosomatic –literally something my mind created that had been expressed in my body.

My mind also had the power to hijack my thoughts, amplifying negative feelings. I was anything but grounded. I managed to plow on, garnering notable academic achievements. But there was always a sense of fear in the background and since it ran unchecked, eventually it overtook me and pointed my life’s path in a direction quite different from that of my peers.

Wish I’d realized way back when that life could “magical” in its beauty without having to be supernatural and out of my control.

Lacking awareness of how my mind operated meant that I didn’t realize why I was making the decisions that I was. It took years, even decades, to understand that so many of the things I had feared originated in my mind, affecting my interpretation of whatever input I was receiving.

Now, after all these realizations and a number of painful lessons, my world is not as “magical” as it used to be, but I am better rooted and grounded. And that feels a lot better.

What about “ghosts”?

When I live in the present, I am safe and secure. Those unexplainable occurences that I attributed to otherworldly origins have become much more explainable. And I’m well-aware of how my mind has twisted meaningless common things into terrible foreboding ones.

There are quite enough frightening things in the material world (cancer, wars, having my email account hacked…) that there’s no need to search the paranormal world for their cause.

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A 2021 survey of 1000 Americans revealed that 2 out of 5 people believe in ghosts. I am not here to contradict their beliefs, and frankly, when I talk of “ghosts” I don’t mean spooks. At the same time, I learned the hard way that my mind wasn’t always reflecting 100% truth. I was compelled to take inventory of what was bouncing around in my noggin and decided that, while I can’t neatly explain everything going on around me, it’s harmful to let my thoughts run wild.

Two Simple Tips for Grounding Before Work

I wanted to share two little things that I do with my work setup to help ground me at the start of my day.

First, consider what’s in front of your eyes after your computer boots up? Choose a computer wallpaper to anchor you. Pick a calming scene, one that’s meaningful enough to tweak your emotional state. This is going to be different and personal for everyone. It might be random nature scenes, photos of people you care about, photos from places that you’ve visited, abstract images that you find peace-inducing and the like.

I have this image as my computer wallpaper and imagine how nice it would be to pet her when things at work get rough.

As an example, I currently have the head of a beautiful black panther poking out through lush green leaves as my background. The photo is highly detailed and when I look close at it, I am drawn in by the soft fur around her face, I imagine what it would feel like to scratch her behind the ears and “boop” her on the nose, even imagine her purring in whatever way panthers purr. This wallpaper allows me to slip away into big cat fantasies for a few seconds when I need a break, using all my senses to imagine what it would be like to interact with her.

It’s not just about finding the right image, however. While I currently use this panther as my grounding and relaxation anchor, if I go through a particularly stressful period of time where there’s a lot of anxiety at work, I will change the background to something different after the stress subsides.

Why? Humans tend to be visual creatures and we make strong associations that we’re not always aware of. If you’ve been looking at the same image while you’re close to having panic attacks, it’s time to change the image. Trust me on this one–it has to do with associative learning (think Pavlov’s dogs, except without the salivation).

I did this after going through cancer treatment. Done with chemo? Changed the background. Finished up radiation and herceptin? Changed the background. As much as I liked the backgrounds I was using, it felt great to get something fresh up on my monitors. It felt like a new start and I really needed that.

The second tip I have is equally simple and has the added benefit of being helpful in terms of computer security .

Find a phrase that makes you feel good? Turn it into the passphrase that you type every morning!

Change your password to a passphrase that inspires you or calms you. How would it feel to recite an affirmation or words of encouragement when you log into your work computer every morning? Make it so. It could be an expression of self-worth (iAM-D3$ervinG0fLoVe), a reminder to stretch (r0llY*ur$hou1d3rs) or any other positive phrase (th1s2$hallP@ss-Justbr3@the). It might be that little thing you need to give your day a teensy push in a positive direction.

For additional cyber-protection, stick in a word from another language –perhaps the sanskrit version of your favorite yoga pose?

The above tips are not earth-shatteringly novel concepts, but they are remarkably effective. Give them a try and see if they make your day a little more bearable.

Breathing into Limbs: A Grounding Visualization

I’m perpetually on the lookout for different ways to ground myself.

When things get tough and I feel my anxiety rising, I’ve gotten better at pausing and pulling a grounding technique out of my “mental tool bag” before the feelings become too intense.

One that I came up with recently works quiet well, especially if you can take a quick break and find a quiet corner.

As I breathe, I visualize my breath inflating my limbs, filling them with relaxation.

The idea behind this one is that you take a few deep breaths to help slow your breathing down, and then start imagining that your breath is going down into one arm, inflating it.

I’ve visualized it in two ways. The first being breathing into the arm as if it were a balloon that inflates in all directions, all the way down to the fingertips, until it’s completely full. I imagine it glowing from within.

The second entails imagining the breath filling the arm in the way that a fern leaf unfolds. The expansion starts at the shoulder, then upper arm, elbow, lower arm, wrist, hand and finally fingers. As the arm fills with the inhalation, it brightens. This visualization is best when your breathing has already slowed considerably, as it may take a longer breath for your entire limb to sense the serial expansion down to your fingertips.

If my breathing has slowed enough, I imagine the breath entering my limb gradually, just like a fern leaf gently unfurls, part by part.

Either way, I wiggle my fingers at the end of the in-breath, and then as I exhale, the fingers fall still again and the breath exits my arm as it arrived.

Then I do the same with my other arm, followed by one leg and then the other.

On days that I’m really rushed, I might only have time for one limb, particularly if I’m sitting at my desk at work. But that’s okay. Even that short bit is better than letting stress run away with me. That little pause may be exactly what I need.

If this “extremity inflation” sounds too complicated in the heat of the moment, I urge you to try it when you’re lying in bed with your eyes closed. Then you can focus on the sensation of expansion and get familiar with it, so that when you need to call upon it in a stressful situation, you’ll have an easier time bringing up that imagery.

My limbs glow as the breath brings brightness into them.

What I particularly like about this visualization is that it’s a touch more complex, and therefore requires more attention from you. The inhalation all the way to the wiggling fingers makes it more difficult to be thinking about other things. So while it may demand more, I feel that it also delivers more, since everything else decreases to a dull roar in the background as you visualize the air rush in and inflate your body.

And of course, there are different variations of this that you can play with, such as expanding your entire body.

If you are able to practice with this, or even duck out to the bathroom for a few moments of eyes-closed peace, I think you’ll find it a lovely way to give your nervous system a needed break.

Don’t Overpink It

If you have been living under a rock or have pink color blindness, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.

I know I shouldn’t disparage the color pink (after all, my hair is currently pink), but there is a downside to all of this “pinking.” Actually there are two.

Awareness is important, but has the inundation of pink made the month lose it’s meaning?

First, after some point, there’s so much pink that it starts becoming meaningless. Whereas it used to be loads of fun for pre-adolescent boys to go around with “save the boobies” t-shirts in the name of cancer awareness, and then make a social media stink about it when their school sends them home to change, I’m not really seeing that kind of enthusiasm anymore. Kind of like when something that was cool and forbidden becomes legal…it loses its luster.

Which is not to say that breast-saving have gone out of style. A quick search of local events in my area does result in a number of fund-raising events. After all, we are still being diagnosed with breast cancer and in ever-greater numbers. But maybe it’s because of the pandemic, maybe it’s because of my current state of mind, I’m not hearing much about spreading the word of breast cancer prevention (not simply screenings) anymore.

But there’s another part of the pinkness that I’ve struggled with. And that’s the pink everything around this time of the year. I mean, if we want people to be aware, I guess they’re aware. But those of us who have lived the diagnosis may need to turn our awareness elsewhere.

That may sound ungrateful of me because all that awareness has translated into dollars for research, potentially at the expense of other cancers. And even though I will tout breast cancer awareness at this time of the year, it also stings.

I’ve lost friends to breast cancer. And I lost a year to breast cancer treatment, not to mention a good amount of my direction in life. Yes, I’m recalibrating, but no, things are not back to “normal”. Cancer still means people and things that are gone and will not return.

Consider taking your breast cancer friend out for coffee…with no pink in sight.

At times all this pink feels like loud cheerleaders shaking pink pom-poms in my face. And for many cancer patients and survivors, being constantly reminded that it’s BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH can be overwhelming. We may need to ground ourselves in where we are right now, being present and grateful for each minute and away from all the pink noise.

So I agree that with 1 in 8 women being diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives, and the mortality rate still unacceptably high, it’s definitely important to spread the word about risk factors and urge that women do the oh-so-critical self-exams and not forgo screenings.

But it’s also a great opportunity to reach out to a friend or relative who’s a patient or survivor and offer to take them out for coffee or a walk…and let them forget what month it is.

Surviving Another Ride in the Tube

During my last oncologist appointment, I was told it was time for a chest MRI.

The last time I had one of those, I was barely holding it together–it had been a couple of weeks since my breast cancer diagnosis an dI was in an emotionally fragile state.

But that was four and a half years ago. This time, I was fine. I thought.

In case you’re never experienced one, the bilateral chest MRI is not particularly comfy. You lie face-down, your breasts hang between two open slots beneath you and your arms are outstretched in a “superman” pose.

I was a bit taller than they expected…things didn’t completely fit.

And you hold that for a specified length of time. I seem to recall almost an hour last time in 2017, but this time it was only a half hour. Which is good, since I had a hard time getting comfortable–based on how the MRI bed was set up, they hadn’t expected me to be quite so tall.

And since I needed “contrast” in my MRI, I was hooked up to an IV for infusing gadolinium. But the veins on my right arm (which is the only one I’m supposed to use) have seen a lot of wear and tear. Yes, they bulge and look nice and juicy. But it’s a lie. Only after some false starts–the first vein the nurse tried was a bust–did we get the IV going.

The MRI machine looked shiny and competently high-tech. I got to listen to spa music through headphones, which is kind of funny, since it’s like being at a spa where they also bang pots and jackhammer while you’re getting your treatment. In case you’re not aware: MRIs are LOUD.

Ironically, there’s something quite positive about that: the percussive nature of the noise has an almost lulling effect–if you let it. This worked quite well with my strategy of meditating throughout the procedure. Breathing was not particularly comfortable because of pressure on my ribcage (again, due to my height and positioning on the bed), so I chose not to focus on it.

The dressing room was cute, but I couldn’t help feeling so alone in it.

Instead, there were many other bodily sensations that I could pay attention to. At times, I could “feel” the MRI in my hips and spine. I focused on the weight of my body on that bed and on releasing tension whereever I sensed it. Compared to the previous chest MRI, I felt a sense of grounding.

But there were little cracks in my composure. I took a picture of the cute little dressing room where I changed and left my clothing. It was lightly decorated with homey touches. At the same time, it looked so empty: my gown on one chair, my belongings on another. Briefly, I felt small and alone.

After unsuccessful attempts, the IV was connected, and I remembered the feeling of expecting that things were just gonna hurt.

After I got home I removed my bandages from the IV arm and looked at the crook of my elbow, and it reminded me of all the pokes that I’ve endured. All the discomfort that I learned to expect and not question if it was necessary, because it always was. And I fought back feelings of helplessness.

It’s not all bad. This time, I had a better grip on things. I wasn’t even thinking about the MRI the next morning when I went grocery shopping, until…

…I saw a call come through from my oncologist’s office. And suddenly my heart started racing. It was a pure knee-jerk reaction. The voice on the other end told me that the MRI looked normal and my oncologist would see me at my next scheduled appointment next year.

It took a bit for my heart to calm down. I hadn’t been worrying about the results, certainly hadn’t expected anything bad, but wow, when that phone rang, it was as if my brain yelled at me, “Time to PANIC!”

This ride in the tube had a happy ending. But there’s no mistaking all the anxiety bubbling under the surface. Try as I might, I am always going to associate these procedures with fear and possible death. Memories of what happened a few years ago are not going anywhere.

And that’s okay. Because even though my reactions to those memories may still be stressful, I can accept that this will be the case and not expect them to be otherwise. And that acceptance is one of the most valuable skills that I’ve learned.

After My Last Oncologist Visit, I Fell Off A Cliff

I had an oncologist appointment last Thursday that marked four years of being done with chemo for breast cancer.

During my previous onc visit in February, I had been a mess: depressed, stressed and miserable with joint pain and a feeling that my endocrine therapy was taking away from me more than it was giving me. At that point, he let me stop the aromatase inhibitors.

Now, half a year later, I felt so different. My blood pressure was 118/83, much lower than the 130s and 140s systolic numbers I was hitting after stepping into the exam room on previous visits. I was peaceful and more hopeful.

We discussed all sorts of “survivor” things. The joint pain had mostly resolved itself and was no longer a hindrance to exercise, one of the things most important to me. My libido could have been higher and my short-term memory was often lacking, but he felt that could also be attributable to working and sleeping in the same room for the past year and a half, coupled with menopause.

Finally, my doctor noted that it was time for another chest MRI. Not the most comfortable of scans, but I’d done it once, I could do it again.

I would love a pet, even if it means having to clean fur out of my keyboard.

It was not until around noon of the next day that I suddenly plunged off a cliff. I was talking to my daughter and randomly mentioned my willingness to look after any pets she might have in the future when she’s living on her own, were she to travel for work, because where we lived now we weren’t allowed to have pets…

…and I was slammed by a massive wave of sadness and regret.

My thoughts zoomed back to my first chest MRI, stripped to the waist, lying on my belly, arms stretched over my head, frightened and painfully vulnerable. All my focus was on breast cancer and what other horrible realities the MRI would reveal. All I could think of was surviving my upcoming treatments.

That MRI meant that my life was on hold. There would be no progress in my career for the foreseeable future, and no chance of moving into a bigger place, one that would allow us to get a cat (note: I’m a dog person, but I would have been happy with a cat!). Animals have always been a part of my life, but our apartment rules prohibited them. I yearned for the chance to have a pet again. It seemed such a small thing to ask, but even that wasn’t available to us now.

That brief discussion with my daughter underscored a profound feeling of loss and despair. Cancer had robbed me of a lot of things in my life that others took for granted.

This was my view before I realized I didn’t have to sit there.

And as I sat there in the depths, I forgot that time does not stand still, things are always changing, nothing is permanent…and I have inside me everything I need to climb out.

Curiously enough, I had recently attended a talk on managing anxiety aimed at cancer patients and survivors. The counselor who presented the information was herself a breast cancer survivor and she told us a story of doing a follow-up chest MRI, which she found very stressful. Afterwards, she was asked by one of the cancer nurses what sorts of mental tools she had used while in the MRI tube to calm herself down. At that point, she realized that even though she taught these techniques to her patients on a daily basis, she had completely forgotten to use them herself!

I had been sitting in the darkness for a few minutes when I remembered her story. Most importantly, I remembered that I didn’t have to feel this way, that it served no practical purpose and that I wanted be happier. The only reason I felt like this was because these emotional plunges had been a habit of mine.

So I twisted a rope out of all those grounding techiques that I’ve posted about and pulled myself up.

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True, I still didn’t have a cat. But I was able to take a deep breath and realize that at least I had a future. And that future might contain a cat.

Grounding Through Mental Tracing

I’ve written before many times about different “grounding” techniques. Grounding is what helps move us out of the chatter in our heads and brings us into the present moment, where we can pause and realize that we are safe. It helps put space between our ourselves and both fears about the future and regrets about the past that may unnecessarily cloud our minds.

On days like those, I need to fine-tune my focus. This calls for a grounding technique that won’t be as easy to derail.

Body scans are some of my favorite grounding and calming go-tos. But recently, I was introduced to tracing the outline of the hand with your mind, a focus on just one part of the body. I tried this and found that it worked brilliantly!

As kids, we traced our hands to help us draw; now, it can help us stay present.

Just like when, as a child, you started a drawing using the outline of your hand by placing it on a piece of paper and tracing the around your fingers with a pencil, you can do the same thing mentally. Imagine the sensation of a point of pressure (say, an invisible crayon) moving up your wrist to the outside of your pinkie, around the fingertip, and down the other side into the hollow between the fingers…and doing the same as it moves up and down each finger until it ends up on the outside of the thumb and travels back down the wrist.

What makes this so effective for me is that it is a simple visualization that requires a bit more concentration, and yet it is still uncomplicated. That means that it gives my monkey mind a little extra to focus on, but not so much that it becomes a struggle.

Try it next time you need grounding and want to trying something different.

Grounding though Contact Points

Lately I’ve been speaking with people who are having a hard time dealing with anxiety, so I thought it would be worthwhile to dive deeper into grounding methods.

For me, hands down, strong neutral physical sensations (with “neutral” being the operative term here) are by far the best ways to pull my head out of swirling thoughts and get back to where I am now on the Earth.

Buttocks and feet are great focal points for drawing attention away from rapid breathing or heartrate.

Currently, I’m focusing on touch points: those places on your body where you are making contact with any surface. This is highly effective because it is well-suited for any situation. You don’t necessarily need to be in a particular position, nor do you need a quiet space. So if you’re in the middle of an exam, sitting in your boss’ office, standing at a podium or walking down the hallway of a hospital, this grounding method can shift you back to the present moment.

The idea is to focus on the sensation of pressure. My suggestion would be to bring your attention to whereever on your body you can sense that contact with a surface, giving preference to places further from areas that might be reinforcing anxiety, such as the chest region and a rapidly beating heart. So, hands, feet and buttocks would be good candidates. If you’re walking, then pay attention to the change in pressure of your steps as you put your foot down and lift it again.

Feel into these body parts, sensing how the pressure feels against them. You can also bring in sensations such as tingling and temperature. Like an investigator, experiencing these sensations as if for the first time, get curious about their quality. If needed, squeeze the muscles, but then make sure to relax them too, so that you’re not clenching. Then see if you notice a difference in sensation.

Try it right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

You don’t need a special place to practice grounding yourself. Where you are right now is perfect.

Did you try it? And did you feel anything? The type of sensation doesn’t matter here. The main goal is to get out of your head, which may be in overdrive. Paying attention to what your body is doing RIGHT NOW helps move you away from thoughts of dread and gives you a handle on your reactions.

Important: as with all calming techniques, this takes practice. It is not a one-time thing that you try, nor is it a pill that you pop and everything settles down. The more you practice this, especially when you’re in a peaceful surroundings, the better you will get at shifting your focus during times of anxiety. Just as with a formal meditation practice, it is consistency that will improve your focus and thereby your abilities.

The added benefit to practice is that you will realize you *can* do it, that it *does* work, and you will build confidence in yourself that you can handle it. So in an anxious moment, you’ll be able to say, “I got this” and bring yourself to a more manageable place.

Grounding Through the Fingertips: Hand Steepling

Note: this is another grounding technique, by which I mean a way to retain focus on what is happening in the “now” rather than getting lost in memories of the past, which we cannot change, or succumbing to fears about what may happen in the future. It’s not a woo-woo magical technique. It’s merely being mindful about what is currently taking place so that you can respond appropriately and maintain your composure.

During acute stress, we need to bring ourselves back to the present quickly. By doing so, we are able to clear our heads of the “what-ifs” and “you shouldas” that cloud our thoughts at those times.

But what’s the fastest way to do that? For me, it’s definitely focusing on the fingertips. Each fingertip has approximately 3,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the body (except the most intimate). When you touch something, all those nerves start firing.

You can take advantage of this sensitivity to ground yourself.

Channel Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and put your fingertips together.

This is what I do: I “steeple” my fingers (thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger, etc.) as if I were Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock contemplating a complex situation. The fingertip pressure immediately commands attention from my fearful mind in the same way that a boss displaying that hand gesture would command an employee’s attention. Taking deeper breaths, I rub my fingertips against each other in a circular motion. The movement enables the nerve endings on the fingertips to keep firing as the sensation continues. Or I can bounce my fingertips off each other, or keep them together but flex the fingers to create a pulsing motion.

Closing my eyes accentuates the emphasis on sensation and makes maintaining focus on it easier.

Yes, this seems so simple, but it’s also quite effective. By placing our focus on the fingertips, we take our attention away from more reactive parts of the body like the chest area, where the heart might be beating fast and ribcage expanding and contracting with rapid breathing. Feeling into those areas might only serve to reinforce the heightened emotions that we’re experiencing.

The hands lie further away from that commotion, and that distance between the chest and our fingertip sensations enables us, if even for a short while, to get some perspective. Think of it as the anxiety not being “in your face”.

We can use body sensations as anchors to help stabilize us through anxious times.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, all I “see” is that sensation of fingertip to fingertip, as if it’s the only thing that exists. I can play with this, imagining that I’m holding something between my hands, and that the sensation I feel is actually the feeling of that object against my fingers. It can be a pane of glass or even a beach ball. It all depends on what my brain is willing to accept at the moment. It’s a relaxing mental exercise.

As with many things related to mindfulness, it’s helpful to practice this fingertip pose when we’re in a relaxed and meditative state to connect the sensation to a feeling of calm, enabling it to serve as an anchor when our emotional seas are rough. The more we practice, the stronger that association, and the more effective the grounding response when we use this technique in the midst of anxiety.

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Fun fact: body language experts consider steepled fingers to be an expression of confidence. That might be the little boost you need when you’re navigating a stressful event!