“Detached”: Time-Out in Third-Person

As an addendum to my post where I wrote about using third-person language in meditation to help keep distance between yourself and your thoughts, I wanted to revisit this method for everyday life.

While in that post I alluded to using third-person descriptions on stressful days, it’s really worth emphasizing the utility of creating space throughout the day.

To sum up that post, I mentioned a mindfulness technique suggested by meditation teacher Jeff Warren in which when we find ourselves being swept away in thought, we describe what’s happening in “third-person” language and play the role of an observer.

Observe…make space…gain perspective.

But as I said in that post, why limit that to meditation sessions? In fact, you could argue that it is even more important to bring that type of gentle detachment to the things that ordinarily set us off in our daily lives, whether it be with family, at work or anywhere.

I would say that so much of my anxiety has stemmed from an inability to maintain perspective about the trigger. Noticing when I’m getting carried away and then describing the situation as something that is happening to another person — similar to the way a newcaster might report on an event in a calm, informative manner — helps loosen its grip on me.

The ability to step back and detach from the situation is kind of the name of the game in terms of reducing stress levels, isn’t it?

By narrating the circumstances around your stressors, we make space: “FranticShanti felt a little ill when she saw that the letter in her mailbox was from her landlady. She expected this to be about a rent increase…and she was right. Another $200 per month.”

Third-person language gives us the space we need to tackle our stressors without getting pulled into them.

That telling offers some space. It doesn’t change the situation, simply presents what’s happening in an unemotional manner. Then following up with some trouble-shooting helps soothe my agitation: “This will require a review of her finances, but as she calculated with last year’s rent increase, she can still absorb this additional amount. Things will probably be okay. She takes some deep breaths and feels into her hands and feet.”

Not only can you calmly describe the situation, but you can describe yourself engaging in self-soothing techniques as you work out your next steps.

It is quite effective in slowing down racing thoughts, particularly if you’re in a place where you can speak out load, as hearing yourself describing things can be even more grounding.

As with other simple grounding techniques, this may seem a little contrived or simplistic, but it might be just enough to bring you out of your head and into the here and now — cool, calm and collected.

Such a Fragile Life

I’m not going to post the post I’d written for today.

Something else came up and it really made me think about how we are teetering on a slim ledge between “everything’s ok” and “the end is near”.

Last Wednesday, I cut the inside of the roof of my mouth in the soft palate. Or maybe it was a burn? I didn’t pay much attention to it because this happens from time to time, it’s not that big a deal and it seems to heal quickly.

Except this time it didn’t. Granted, I ignored it a tad too much and wasn’t as careful as I should have been about what I was eating. I felt loose skin rub off around that area.

In a second, everything can change. [Note: this is not my car.]

It started hurting more and eating became more painful. At night, my mouth dries out even when I’m sleeping with closed lips. My tongue feels like sandpaper against my palate and because of where the wound was, my tongue was irritating it.

Friday, I realized that if I spoke a lot without a break, my tongue would abrade that sore area even more. Saturday, I told myself that I should be doing warm salt water rinses, but kept forgetting to do so.

Sunday, my head hurt upon waking although the area felt kind of better? But when I tried eating and drinking as normal (albeit avoiding that side of the mouth), the pain seemed worse.

Or maybe it was my perception of that pain? For me, it’s so hard to tell. I vacillate between ignoring a dangerous situation and imagining the possible worst; it feels like I could talk myself into/out of anything.

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had been aware of the lump in my breast for six months, but kept telling myself not to freak out and that it would probably go away on its own.

Maybe it’s really bad, maybe it’s not bad at all…I dunno…

Spoiler: it didn’t, and although the tumor was still Stage I-sized when I finally went to the doctor half a year later, it had already invaded the tissue outside the milk duct in which it originated. [To be fair to myself, there was more to that decision, which I won’t go into here. I wasn’t a total idiot about it.]

And then after completing all of my chemo rounds, one of my fingernails looked like it had a bubble underneath it…which I ignored for several days (actually, it became impossible to ignore because the pain was increasing), figuring I’d wait because it was probably just my nail coming off, which sometimes happens with chemo.

Except that it wasn’t. It was an infection. But instead of going to the ER immediately, I waited another night because it was the weekend and I figured I’d call my oncologist in the morning.

That night was worse than any night of my life. I barely slept because my hand was on fire and in the morning there was red line running down from my finger into my wrist.

At that point, I was probably closer to death than I had been throughout my entire cancer experience.

My point is, I was able to “reason away” any immediate responses and ignore striking red flags for fear of blowing things out of proportion. I didn’t want to look like a hypochondriac. It was hard for me to fathom that the situation was as dangerous as it ended up being.

Here for only who knows how long…

But our lives are really so fragile. After going through cancer, I realized that something could be going on inside my body, silently, that could change me irreparably — even kill me — within a very short period of time. And it could be happening right now.

What a tenuous hold we have on our existence here. How often do we forget that? And why aren’t we more careful with ourselves?

Such a short tenure on this Earth. Where do we put our energy? Too many spend so much time being horrible to each other and the world around us. And most of us don’t appreciate what we have until it’s too late. Some of us never appreciate it at all.

Take a deep breath, hug the ones you love (that should include yourself) and enjoy this moment.

I’m going to go rinse with salt water…

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A little update: I made a doctor’s appointment for early tomorrow morning, after which I realized — through diligent image googling — that I probably had a massive canker sore. It’s not likely to kill me but it’s doing a good job making me miserable.

And if I’m wrong and it’s something worse…then that’ll be next week’s post.

Creating Space with Third-Person Language

I’ve had some up-and-down weeks this year and have been working on making space in my head to lessen the impact of anxious thoughts.

I recently heard a wonderful suggestion by meditation teacher Jeff Warren (via his Daily Trip on the Calm app) about creating more mental room for yourself. He encourages describing what’s happening in the third person when thoughts come up during meditation.

Like many suggestions to help with mindfulness, this seems surprisingly simple, but so far I and everyone else I’ve recommended it to have found it to be very effective.

Making space is good for more than avoiding viruses…

It goes like this: I am sitting in meditation focused on my breath (or any other chosen anchor) and a thought pops into my mind. I say to myself, “There goes FranticShanti thinking about X topic again”.

Suddenly I feel a *whoosh* as I’m pulled back out of that scenario. And instead, I’m observing myself having that thought. Hearing myself describe the situation as a bystander has a calming effect and creates a sensation of safety and distance.

I’m still staying present and noticing what’s going on around me, but recognizing that this thought is happening to the person who is known as me — instead of allowing myself to get sucked into it, along with all the associated emotions — expands the amount of mental space I have.

It’s kind of like looking through a window at a situation instead of being there in the room with it. Not nearly as scary or immersive.

Looking at things through a protective buffer makes even scary situations less threatening.

Likewise, throughout the day, describing a stressful situation in third person helps us remember that there is always space around us that can serve as a buffer from unsettling thoughts. It can even help us handle anxiety-provoking situations as it also provides an opportunity to describe a potential ‘solution’, as if you were to give a friend some advice on how to deal with it.

Imagine saying, “[Your name] just realized that there’s a deadline they forgot about, so they’re reshuffling their schedule to accommodate the task.” That’s much more productive and grounding than screaming, “AAAAAAAAIIIIIIIEEEEE!!!” in your head.

So, I’ve started using this in everyday interactions when I feel myself getting swept away by worries. It’s been an effective way of bringing myself back into the present, to what is real and actually here, and it serves to reframe what is going on in my life.

This sort of method brings stressors down to a manageable level, allowing for perspective. And we can all use a bit of that.

Just One Day

If you had one day to live, how would you live it?

I pondered this question last week as I was trying to calm myself down before teaching my first official public yoga class, while also juggling emotions about certain events at home over which I had no control. Read that as: anxiety.

And in the midst of this all-too-familiar emotional turmoil I felt myself being consumed by my thoughts. And yet, if I had only one day left on this earth, I can’t image that I’d let myself get mired in everyday worries. My perspective would immediately snap into a megawide view of everything that exists in the world.

Never was I so aware of every palm tree…

It would be easier to see the beauty everywhere. Consider this: when I returned to Southern California after four bitterly cold years in a Northern climate, I noticed every.single.palm tree. I was so aware of everything that I had missed during my years away and appreciated every ray of warm sunshine. Other cares temporarily fell away as I was filled with gratitude to be back.

If I had only one day to enjoy the world, I hope that I wouldn’t spend it lamenting over little things. I would sit with my face to the sun, smell the breeze, take deep breaths and appreciate the here and now. Accepting that I had only 24 hours, I imagine that I wouldn’t be ruminating about something a co-worker said to me in passing or how I really should be cleaning the bathroom more often.

So interesting that it would take facing the end of my days to begin truly appreciating them.

So how about this (and this was what I meditated on last week in the midst of nervous feelings), why not imagine the feelings of that last precious day every single day? Stop and feel into my feet on the ground and the air in my lungs. There is so much wonder all around us and what a pity that it takes a drastic event to experience a perspective shift.

It feels so glorious to be alive.

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Don’t get me wrong, the shock of knowing that your end is near could be devastating. So if you’d like to use this idea as a meditation prompt, perhaps consider if you were on vacation in a paradise-like location and if your plane were leaving in a day, how would you enjoy your remaining time there?

Fighting My Way Out of a Paper Bag: An Analogy

I wanted to share a little technique that I’ve been using to give myself perspective. It’s quite simple: I have a small brown paper bag pinned to the wall above my desk.

The bag is there to remind me that most of the things that are upsetting me or stressing me or just taking up headspace in the moment are transient issues that fit into that paper bag. The REST of my world remains outside that bag and unbothered by whatever is going on in there.

The trick for me is to not get sucked into that brown bag. When that happens, and it does, I’m suddenly whirling around with all the daily stressors and emergencies-of-now, and that’s all I see. My entire experience becomes those anxiety-provoking elements and my stress levels skyrocket.

When stress levels are high, it’s easy to get sucked into a space of high anxiety where you see only those stressors, forgetting that the rest of the world is outside.

It takes a lot more effort to fight my way back out of there than to stay outside in the first place.

At the same time, it’s so easy to follow all those stressors right into that bag. For me, that’s the path of least resistance, even a habit.

But when I lean back and take in the entire picture–the time-limited nature of what’s bothering me and the fact that in a couple of weeks it’ll be gone–my view broadens and I am reminded of what else is going around me right now, in this moment.

Right here, where I feel my feet planted on the ground. I smell the scent of lemon wafting up from my diffuser. I’m aware of sounds from the street below and sunshine coming in through my window.

Perspective. All of these things tumbling around inside the bag will pass. And, yes, perhaps more importantly, new ones will bubble up and take their place. I can’t stop that and I have to accept it. But I can take a deep breath and stay in the bright light of the day instead of darkness of that little bag.

Remember: You’re in the Driver’s Seat

Since we’re halfway through October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – this is a good opportunity to remind everyone who’s had a cancer diagnosis that you’re still in control.

That might be very different from what you’re feeling. The whole thing with cancer is the sense that your life is out of control. Even your most faithful ally, your body, seems to be out to get you, growing a tumor behind your back.

Does it feel like someone else is controlling everything in your life?

That’s to say nothing of how your weekly schedule gets highjacked with oncological appointments, radiation treatments and days recovering from chemo. Then there’s the onslaught of new medical terms, the many pills that you’re supposed to take, even the practically unpronounceable chemotherapy drug names (what kind of a suffix is “-ib”???).

If anything, this might feel like the most out-of-control time of your life. When you’re slapped with a difficult treatment plan, you want it all to stop, but your oncologist tells you, “we won’t let you skip an infusion or stop taking your medication.”

That sense of being forced to do something (especially when it’s unpleasant) can open the floodgates to a deluge of anxiety on top of the fear and frustration that you might already feel about your cancer treatment. No one wants to feel like they have no say in a matter that affects them so deeply and personally.

This life is yours…and so are decisions about your cancer treatment.

But remember this: you always have a choice. Even though your medical team might not be phrasing it that way, you are still in control.

Perhaps this tiny acknowledgement may relax some of that perceived pressure and actually make it easier to continue. Your cancer treatment choices remain yours to make, so allow that realization to help you to step back, get perspective and weigh your options. When you demand space for yourself, you have room to think and it’s easier to act in your own best interest.

So, breathe. You’re still calling all the shots.

And, hey, medical team: maybe stop being so pushy and remind those cancer patients that they get to make the decisions about their treatment and their lives. It would go a long way towards helping your patients feel better about their treatment plans, like they’re part of the team instead of a prisoner of their situation.

Launching into Space: A Visualization for Creating Distance

In my continuing quest to find ways to calm myself and soften anxious thoughts, I often resort to visualizations. They are effective in putting the breaks on distressing thought patterns, creating space and encouraging a broader perspective.

My clinical counselor offered the visualization I’m introducing here. It works similarly to “thought container“, which is a visualization in which you create a container for your stressful thoughts, put them in there, lock the container up and place it on a shelf.

You decide how you’d like your rocket to look. Serious and foreboding or cute and shiny?

However, this one goes a step further. For this visualization, imagine a shiny space capsule on a launch pad, of whatever style and era that suits you. Gather up your troubling thoughts and send them towards the capsule, marching them up the ramp and in through the door. You can wave good-bye as the thoughts enter and settle into comfy seats, safely belted in.

Your thoughts are not “bad”. They simply elicit negative reactions in your body. And right now you want to loosen their grip on you.

When all those stressful images are inside, close the airlock/door. It’s up to you how that’s going to look. Perhaps it’s a high-tech electronic door that shuts and locks remotely so you don’t have to be close by. Or maybe it looks like a massive bulkhead, with a wheel that you yourself physically crank shut and secure so that you can be sure that nothing slips out.

When the capsule is secured. Start the countdown to launch. Or just press a button and shoot it off into space immediately. You have full control here.

But here’s the thing: this is a visualization to create distance, not to completely eradicate those thoughts. Because that’s impossible. They will not simply disappear. However, you can give yourself a little break from them, which is what this lauch is about.

Your stressors are still there, but it’s easier to learn to deal with them from down here. Give yourself some space.

Where does the capsule go? To the Moon. It will rocket off the Earth and land on our satellite neighbor. Point your telescope at the Moon at night and you’ll see the capsule, knowing that those thoughts are there but far enough away that they don’t torment you. You’re not trying to forget about them completely. Instead, practice dealing with them where they’re not an in-your-face threat.

In this way, you don’t repress or avoid, you give yourself breathing space and the opportunity for calm.

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I admit that if you’ve been particularly beleaguered by stressors, it would be very tempting to treat the rocket like a clay pigeon and blast the whole thing to bits…and maybe there’s a great idea for a video game there. But truly, it may be easiest to handle them by releasing the thoughts into the ether.

Yes, they’ll be back. And so will the chance to take a deep breath and send them off again.

Cancer, “Why Me?” and Mustard Seeds: The Path to Acceptance

At some point in a cancer patient’s life, there are certain questions that tend to come up. The most likely one of these is why we were singled out to have such a serious calamity befall us.

I went through a long period of this. I mean, loooong. The early posts of this blog are filled with agonized questions about why cancer hit me even when, by all accounts, it shouldn’t have. I posted about not having risk factors and blah blah blah. I kept going around and around and around on this, stuck on a hamster wheel that wouldn’t stop.

I clung to the same ride, unhappy but not wanting to get off.

Allow me to stress: cancer is a serious illness. That is not to be taken lightly. Most of us, regardless of lifestyle, experience profound shock with our cancer diagnosis. It may seem that life is cruel and unfair (well, it is) and that we didn’t deserve to get cancer (well, we didn’t).

I struggled with anger and frustration for years. It’s both embarrassing and freeing to admit that.

Acceptance is a process. I thought I’d accepted my situation a couple of years ago, but in retrospect, I hadn’t. Some days I felt holy and zen-like, floating on my own little cloud, but it was a sham. I’d have glimpses of acceptance and then a wave of anger and resentment would wash over me and I’d be pissed off for another week.

I thought God hated me. A purportedly loving and merciful being allowed this to happen. It was hard to not think of cancer as a blow against my value as a person because of how I interpreted my situation.

It wasn’t until I stepped outside the confines of that type of thinking that I gained a different perspective. I posted about re-writing my life (basically, viewing the same experiences through a different, more positive lens) which provided a glimpse of another way to assess what had happened. And when I heard the retelling of an ancient Buddhist tale I finally understood what it meant.

Never seen mustard seeds? Here they are. Kisa, however, came up empty-handed.

What was that tale? It was “Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed”. In brief, Kisa Gotami’s young son dies and she is so distraught–not understanding why she would deserve such a painful experience–that she goes to the Buddha in hopes that he can bring the son back from the dead.

The Buddha agrees to revive her son if she can bring him mustard seeds from households where no one has died. Of course, she cannot because death touches all living creatures. She is comforted by the realization that her sorrow is shared and understood by everyone in the community and she finds acceptance of her loss .

Another way of looking at this is that we all suffer. For me, it’s a reminder that while a cancer diagnosis is life-threatening, there are few (if any) humans on this Earth who have not experienced some form of loss or grief at some point in their lives. Yes, some of us bear a far greater burden than others–grave inequities exist. But they also bring profound opportunities for growth.

And while I (and I expect most cancer patients/survivors) would have preferred to experience this personal growth through means other than cancer, being able to be here in this moment, having turned the corner, is one of the most beautiful gifts I could ever receive.

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Two points need to be made here:

Point #1: Burdens are distributed unequally. Socioeconomic, racial and other disparities further tip the scales, making outcomes from a disease like cancer even worse. As a society, we haven’t come close to rebalancing this. Acceptance is easier for some than for others; no one has a right to preach to anyone else.

Point #2: It’s been over five years since my initial cancer diagnosis, and even longer that I’ve been worrying about it. As I mentioned above, it took a LONG time to get to this point of acceptance. Knowing this, I would never rush a new cancer patient to get here. Acceptance must come organically, and yes, sometimes never does. Cancer breaks hearts and no one experiences it in the same way. Be patient.

Perspective: The Broom that Sweeps the Mind

Last week, I had a good reminder about the importance of maintaining perspective.

It had been a stressful few days at work. At the height of it I found myself in a problematic situation, trying to “fix” an issue that wasn’t my responsibility by sending a quick email. I would have done better to pause, but I was in “go-go-go” mode, driven by anxiety that the situation was causing.

Afterwards, I found myself obsessing about what had happened and how I had reacted. So even though I had initially felt that my email response was the best course of action, by evening I was convinced that it was the worst. This opened the door to allow in unrelated doubts about myself. That frustration carried into my nightly meditation, and ultimately, into fitful dreams.

In a few seconds, a perspective shift changes your entire view of things.

The next morning, I felt marginally better. But it wasn’t until I checked my text messages that my perspective shifted. I received photos of my father, leg in a cast, at the local hospital’s emergency room. Reason? Cracked tibia bone and deep vein thrombosis.

In an eyeblink, I forgot about what had happened with work. I needed to get more information about my father’s predicament.

As news of exactly what had happened filtered down to me (it was a much more controlled situation than I had initially understood it to be), I went into the office with a different mindset. The work stress that had been top-of-mind and in-my-face was now way over there in the back of the room.

FYI, my father is fine and the trip to the ER was actually a follow up from the previous day’s visit to his doctor where they discovered the fracture and the blood clot. The doc had encouraged the ER trip to get quicker access to an orthopedist. My dad is in good spirits and my mother (a former nurse) has been tasked with administering the clot-dissolving injections.

But the shift in perspective that morning reminded me so much of a similar shift several years ago: prior to my cancer diagnosis I had been experiencing a lot of anxiety at work…but once I learned that the lump in my breast was cancer, everything else fell away. It was as if the roar of work stress suddenly became muffled and all I heard was my beating heart, my health, the important stuff.

When I had cancer, the things that used to bother me, stopped. I knew then what was really important.

I distinctly remember that as I was going through my cancer treatments, in all the concern about what was happening in my body, I experienced the least amount of anxiety about anything going on at work that I’d ever had at that job. It felt like I could handle anything that they threw at me.

Perspective. That’s what I had as I sat in the infusion room. And that’s what I regained last week.

How curious that the shift in perspective was so simple to achieve. All I needed was to remember what was really and truly important and everything changed within a few seconds.

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“Simple” is not necessarily “easy”. We have so many things coming at us in the course of the day and we try to triage them as quickly as we can. It’s expected that we will make “little mistakes” and give more weight to the problem right in front of us–those things that are immediate. But with practice, we can realize that most of those are transient and the important stuff is what deserves our deepest attention and appreciation.

And even the “important stuff” needs to be swept out once in a while.

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!