But First, Self-Compassion

If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself, you are not capable of developing compassion for others.

Dalai Lama

As we head deeper into the holiday season, it’s easy to get lost in the hustle of preparations, gift purchases and holiday parties. So often, a time that’s supposed to be “joyous”, “merry” and “bright” becomes dark and stressful as we face the high expectations that we hold for these remaining weeks of 2022.

It’s difficult to welcome the holidays with an open heart if we’re closed off to our own needs.

I think of self-compassion as a rope. If you’re standing at the edge of a lake and see someone in distress you can only throw a rope if you have enough coils on your end. If the rope you hold is too short, it won’t reach the person you’re trying to help. 

And so it is if you’re trying to show care for someone—how can you truly care for them if you don’t care for yourself? Will you even know what sincere care and compassion are?

Self-compassion: acceptance, kindness and the understanding that what you are experiencing is part of being human.

 But the bonus of self-compassion is that the rope you throw is magical — you never give it all away. The rope is endless. Compassion doesn’t hurt, and a compassionate heart opens you up to being more compassionate more easily.

Allowing yourself to have the “less-than-Hallmark” holiday spread, to admit that you’re not feeling particularly jolly, to acknowledge that you need a break from responsibilities…

Take some time to feel into where your tension lies. Stop and listen to yourself breathe. Accept your feelings without judgment. Say “no” to taking on extra responsibilities more often…and then help others in doing the same.

Be compassionate towards yourself and it will be easier to show compassion to everyone else.

How will I show compassion to myself today? By taking stock of what else I can reasonably get done…and therefore end this post right here.

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Ok, I know up there I said I was ending this self-compassion post…but before I go, consider the words of Kristin Neff, PhD, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas and a research pioneer on the topic: “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”

Dr. Neff breaks self-compassion down into three elements:
1. Mindfulness
2. Self-Kindness
3. Connectedness or Common Humanity

Read more about her work at https://self-compassion.org/

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.

Mindfulness 101: You Want Me To Do WHAT in the Middle of Anxiety?

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.”

If serenity is a clear day, this is anxiety.

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 stability and grounding.

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.

Showing Signs of Stress

One of the benefits of doing a yoga teacher training (YTT) is that there are some interesting side effects that go far past learning about yoga instruction.

It also involves a great deal of introspection, sometimes uncomfortable, but always valuable.

Signs of stress are pretty universal and usually unmistakable.

What I found curious about myself was how, when I was stressed, I exhibited loads of visible signs of stress even if I was aware that I was doing it. It was as if I didn’t want anyone to mistake me for not being stressed when I was.

This made me wonder, was it simply habit? Or was I being a drama queen? Stress does affect me deeply and anxiety is hard for me to shake. It’s possible that I feared not being believed that I was suffering.

Perhaps I needed people to care that I was not okay.

But I came across a recent research article about this that suggested an even deeper reason. UK researchers Whitehouse et al. (2022, Evol Hum Behav) conducted a study in which it appeared that individuals displaying signs of stress came across as more likeable and more likely to elicit support from those around us.

This is curious because often in nature, showing “weakness” may result in a greater chance of being attacked. But apparently it doesn’t work this way in human society. The researchers postulated that signs of stress suggested that the individual might be deemed friendly and not a threat.

I can attest to the fact that seeing someone displaying anxiety immediately triggers a strong empathic response in me, no matter who the person is or what they’ve done. Having suffered anxiety myself, I am immediately drawn into what the individual might be feeling, projecting my own feelings onto them.

Yeah…don’t be this.

And it is very true that I’ve often gone out of my way to look more friendly, less scary, particularly when it comes to people smaller and weaker than I am (I’m 5’11”). I have a drive to appear less threatening. However, this does not necessarily benefit me–does the term ‘doormat’sound familiar? When you lower yourself far lower than is even remotely necessary, you’re not doing anyone any favors.

This explains a lot about my own life and it underscores the importance of being aware of your behavior and why you engage in it. When you run on autopilot you risk reinforcing negative self-beliefs and even generating new ones. Self-awareness is the antidote to that.

So that is what I’ve been musing about. YTT provided me with space from which to reflect on the ways that I behave and feel in certain situations. In turn I can use that information to make much needed changes in my life and get myself unstuck. How about you?

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Original research article:
Whitehouse J, Milward SJ, Parker MO, Kavanagh E, Waller BM (2022). Signal value of stress behaviour. Evolution and Human Behavior; DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001

Reader-friendly version:
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/05/220515113229.htm

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.

Victims of Our Own Success: Premature Aging in Cancer Patients and What You Can Do About It

So this isn’t the kind of news you want to see. But there’s still hope…

A scientific journal article from 2017 (Cupit-Link et al., 2017, ESMO Open) describes the toll that cancer treatments can take on the patients subjected to them.

After being told you have cancer and deciding to proceed with the treatments that will offer you the best chance of survival…it’s disheartening to learn that many of those same treatments can accelerate aging, causing damage to your DNA, heart disease, hearing loss, cataracts, liver and kidney diseases, brittle bones, lowered immune response and other cancers (!) among other issues, depending on the type of cancer and treatment (see WebMD article).

The treatments that can save our lives from cancer may hasten our demise from age-related factors.

This is a problem resulting, ironically, from the success of treatments and extended lifespan of cancer survivors. Back when cancer was deadly with a low survival rate, no one was too concerned about the state in which survivors were left in; simply surviving the cancer was enough. Now that people are beating their cancers at greater rates, quality of life has become a much bigger issue.

While the most striking detriments are seen in childhood cancer survivors, accelerated aging occurs in most former cancer patients.

Doctors and researchers are taking note. At the time of this scientific article’s publishing in Dec 2017, there was already discussion on how to “de-escalate” cancer treatments as a way to decrease the amount of cellular damage to patients.

On a personal level, I chose an effective drug for my HER2+ breast cancer (Herceptin) over a more effective drug (Perjeta) that carried a risk of greater cardiotoxicity. I made that decision because although I was terrified of cancer, I was also afraid of what lasting effects the drug would have on me once the treatments were over.

Cancer treatments are strong but healthy living can help mitigate their negative effects.

But even if you didn’t have the opportunity to make such a choice, there’s still something that you can do. The authors of that 2017 paper noted that cancer survivors can take back some control over their health by adopting or continuing those healthy lifestyle habits that should sound familiar by now: not smoking, limiting alcohol, exercising regularly and eating a healthful diet.

To that, I would also add, managing your stress levels, the importance of which has been demonstrated on a cellular level, and getting optimal amounts of sleep.

Improving longevity is a hot field for research as scientists work to determine what aspects of one’s lifestyle show the greatest promise in keeping the body young. This topic is complex and new data is coming in on a regular basis, so I won’t delve into details here, but it stands to reason that being sedentary and eating a high-sugar, high-processed diet is not going to do you any favors.

Just as cancer treatments may have a negative effect on overall health, you can win back some lost ground by making healthy, informed decisions on diet and exercise. No one wants to limit their cancer treatment options, so this is one form of insurance that you can give yourself. No matter what else happens, a healthy lifestyle will benefit your quality of life. And that is an improvement that is yours to keep.

The Snow Globe: A Mindful Visualization

Since it’s winter in the US and we’re starting to get the first blankets of white around the country, I thought it’d be fun to use snow as a visualization.

While it doesn’t snow where I live now, I grew up in New England and remember the peacefulness of calm, snowy nights when I stood out on the second floor balcony in the midst of snowfall, listening to the gentle “pat-pat” of snowflakes as they landed on the ground.

When we’re at our busiest, life can feel like a blur.

I draw on those memories when I think of snow globes. Yes, they’ve often been associated with chintzy souvenirs, but there’s really something quite magical about that little underwater world.

They are also quite beautiful representations of the process of settling down.

Shake a snow globe and watch the glitter spin furiously about, swirling like mad with little sense of a pattern. Those are the thoughts of a busy pre-occupied mind, overwhelmed with responsibities and expectations. For some of us this may be what our current life is like. Or perhaps we’re going through a particularly stressful time and feel as though we’re unable to slow down and catch our breath.

Perhaps we ourselves are adding to the chaos by unintentionally shaking things even more, allowing our monkey minds to run with stressful thoughts. With so much “noise” we can’t see through the water. Everything is a blur. We have a hard time collecting our thoughts.

When we stop shaking the globe and put it down…it will continue to swirl for a while and we may feel like we’re getting “nowhere” by trying to relax. But if we trust in ourselves, trust in impermanence–nothing lasts forever–slowly things will start calming down. The agitation will diminish.

Just as the “snow” will begin to settle down, so too will our busy thoughts and our busy lives. The glitter will float through the water more slowly, and the view will become clearer. A few more breaths, a few more moments of patience. The currents inside the globe lose momentum and the snow will gently blanket the bottom until, eventually, everything is still.

No sign of the tempest that once took place. Just silent peace and quiet breaths.

Until the moment the globe is shaken again.

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The trick, of course, is to learn how to find peace as the glitter water swirls madly about. Once we can do that, the storm may rage, but we will enjoy bliss.

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.

Counting Backwards to Sleep

I’m still experiencing weird sleep disruptions. Many nights I’ll be up for an extended time during the wee hours of the morning.

This isn’t conducive to being bright and alert during the day, so I’m devising a game plan for limiting the length of these nighttime interruptions.

My newest strategy is a variant of a counting practice that I heard over the radio years ago, and it goes like this:

Imagine a clean whiteboard. In one hand you’re holding a dry-erase marker in your favorite color, in the other a cloth or eraser.

Your imaginary nighttime whiteboard won’t have a reflection like mine, but you get the idea. The numbers are familiar but you might need to think a bit about how to form them in reverse.

Write “100” in large numbers, but do it backwards so it looks like a mirror image. Channel your inner da Vinci. 🙂

Your board may be brighter and the numbers more perfect than mine. Perhaps you’ll choose a different color. All that matters is that you focus on forming the numbers in reverse.

Then erase the number and write “99”, again reversed. Erase it again.

Keep counting down. Don’t rush. Think about how your hand should move to scribe the backwards numbers. Breathe deeply. When you erase, erase carefully and completely.

As you count down, don’t breeze past the erasure. Make sure you allow your imagination to clean off all markings of the previous numbers before you start writing the next ones.

You probably won’t get to zero. The first two nights I did this, I didn’t make it past 80. It doesn’t always work so well, but when it does, it’s soothing and sleep-inducing.

Why does it put you to sleep? First, you’re not doing anything very complex and therefore this shouldn’t be putting you into a greater state of wakefulness; in fact, counting down is kind of boring. You’re giving your full focus to this task so there are fewer opportunities for intrusive thoughts to interrupt. If they do, return your focus to the numbers. Do this each time your mind wanders. And while the task is easy enough, it does require you to pause and consider how to move your hand, since you’re doing the opposite of what you usually do to write a number.

The counting task requires enough attention that you shift your focus away from thoughts that may be keeping you up, but is gentle enough to lull you into a calmer state that helps bring on sleep.

If imagining a whiteboard doesn’t work for you in the middle of the night, there are other counting variations that would work as well:

Starting from 100, simply count backwards by threes (no imaginary writing required). If 100 seems too optimistically small a number from which to start, use 300 or even 1000. If counting down by threes seems too complex, try twos. Go slow.

Really good at addition? Try calculating the Fibonacci Sequence, a series of numbers where the next number is the sum of the two preceeding it. Start from zero, add one and then keep going: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… unfortunately, this can get out of control quickly (I usually lose track somewhere in the three-digit numbers). But intrepid math fans might be able to get far enough to refocus themselves to the present and enter a calmer state.

Does the idea of math cause you stress? Then just count your breaths, start from 100 and going backwards, slowing down the breathing as you go, imagining the numbers count down with each inhale. This works particularly well if you focus on releasing all your muscles with each exhale.

A specific strategy may not work every time, but the overall idea is the same: something that requires a little brain focus with minimal excitation or strain (so that you can lazily shift your focus and keep your mind gently occupied). Do not rush through these; the magic lies in the process. There is nothing to achieve here. You’re simply boring yourself to sleep.

Try any of these the next time you find yourself awake with a racing mind and let me know how it goes.

And Here We Go Again…

If there is a time that I’m going to feel anxiety, there’s a good chance it’ll be during my yearly mammogram. This year it came around the same time that my oncologist gave me permission to stop letrozole (and there was stress preceeding that appointment), but also great fear associated with my perceived cardiac arrhythmias, for which I have several visits with a cardiologist lined up.

Sometimes it feels like the stressors keep coming and coming.

To top that off, a family stressor followed on its heels, which I won’t go into but one that portends difficulties in the future. This last anxiety-provoking event used the previous stressors as a springboard and exploded into something even bigger. I was primed for anxiety and it took me for a ride until I found the traction to dig my heels in and slow down.

The worst part is, none of this stuff will simply go away.

Often, when people speak of anxiety-provoking events, they’re described as stressful things like a tense meeting with the boss or college finals or tight work deadlines. Admittedly these are all nerve-wracking, but they are also time-limited.

Then we have something like cancer.

I remember listening to a talk about anxiety where the lecturer tried to give the audience perspective about what was really going on, and he asked: what’s the worst thing that could happen? “You’re not going to die,” he assured us. And it’s true: let’s say that you fail all your final exams, but you’ll survive, even if you have to retake the classes.

Cancer survivors can attest to the fact that we suffer a different flavor of anxiety. There is no deadline on our stresses. They are thick and cling to us, like caramel sauce on the inside of a coffee cup, thinned by the passage of time, but leaving a film on our lives. Our hope is to get past the two-year mark, then five. Ten, if we’re so lucky.

Often, we hear about the success of treatments only to realize that the success is based on the majority of patients lasting until the end of the study, which might have been only five years.

Having someone tell you that you have a 95% chance of surviving five years is, well, underwhelming, especially for those of us who had premenopausal breast cancer. I mean, yeah, I HOPE I can last five years.

When you are here now, negativity fades to the background. Even if only for a little while.

So, what to do? If there were ever a time to practice non-attachment, this is it. For some of us (present company included), it is excruciatingly difficulty to release expectations–I want, even NEED, to be assured that everything will be okay and then rest easy with that.

But I promise you, clinging to the desire for things to be different only causes suffering. It also robs you of the joy of what you are experiencing right NOW–a beautiful sunrise, the softness of a pet’s fur, the richness of a cup of coffee, the coziness of a warm blanket. We are so wrapped up in fears of what the future holds that we miss the magic of what is before us.

Now is the only moment that exists, so truly, it’s the only moment that is real and certain.

Everything else is either history or what we concoct in our minds.

So this time of the year, I have to sit back and sense the Earth under my feet, feeling into how it supports me. This is what it feels like to be here now. No matter how many times I remind myself of this, I know I’ll have to do it again when the next stressor hits. That’s okay.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve written about anxiety and it certainly won’t be the last. But practicing mindfulness, every time I go through this experience, I reign in my emotions a little earlier and start feeling better a little faster. When I look back at what happened I realize I’m making progress, and that’s what really matters.