By Brittany –
How often do you find yourself stuck in a vicious cycle of your own thoughts? Or wrapped up in the frustration of your body failing you yet again? Or frustrated with all of the elements and events in your life that you so badly want to control, but are simply out of your control?
When these things happen, are you aware of the physical effect it has on your body? Next time something like this comes up, I challenge you to take a step back and observe where tension, pain or discomfort shows up in your body.
For me, my heart rate spikes instantly, I clench my jaw, my shoulders tense and my whole upper body goes into spasm. My pain and nausea go through the roof and I get super irritable.
The other day I was standing in my kitchen telling my roommate about a frustrating experience I was going through and he stopped me saying “B, are you cold?” I responded with, “No… why?” And then I realized, my body language was that of someone standing in a blizzard without any winter gear on.
My arms were crossed, my shoulders were hunched up towards my ears, my whole body was contracting inwards to protect my internal organs from the impending danger of my thoughts and anxiety of the situation I was describing. Even once I was aware of it and how my whole body was virtually seized up, it took a long time for my nervous system to calm down from that and my body began to relax again.
Biologically speaking, when we experience anxiety or stress, our bodies go into fight or flight mode. The blood drains from our extremities to protect our internal organs and our adrenaline spikes, because back in the day we needed to be prepared to fight off a lion or run for our lives from said lion. As we’ve evolved as a species, we no longer need to worry about lions wanting to eat us (at least not in most parts of North America anyway), but our body’s evolution hasn’t caught up to that yet, even after a few thousand years of adapting.
In working with my pain psychologist, we’ve been talking a lot about things continually coming up that are triggering for me, whether mentally, emotionally or physically. These things — such as the weather, financial stress, challenges at work, challenges in relationships, the cycles of the moon, my period, other people’s energy — these are things that for the most part are not in my control, but they drastically affect my mental and physical health.
So what can I do when these things happen? How can I calm my nervous system, that’s already on overdrive from living with daily migraine, down to a more manageable state without a professional’s intervention?
You see, as a yoga teacher, I’m very good at instructing breathing and meditation techniques. However, I’m not very good at remembering to do these things myself. So when my psychologist asked me what I could do to help calm my nervous system, I committed to 5-10 minutes a day of some form of meditation to use when these things come up, because SOMETHING will come up almost every day that’s not in my control.
I find a walking meditation the most helpful, when my body allows for such movement. I live 5 minutes from the beach, and I have yet to find anything that grounds me quite like that does.
Once I get to the beach I kick my shoes off and step into the sand. I squish the sand around my toes and feel my feet connect to the grounding power of the earth.
I then begin my gentle walk, noticing the warmth or coolness of the sand. I notice the feeling of the really soft grains of sand and the small pebbles that sometimes stick out. I notice how my feet land with each step and the ripple of energy up my legs. I feel the sunshine, calm air or breeze on my skin. I tune into the sounds of the birds chirping, the waves on the shore, the bugs buzzing about, the cyclists riding down the bike bath, the kids playing in the water, the cars driving down the street.
I notice my breath, inhaling a little slower and deeper to the bottom of my belly, and softly exhaling the warm breath out of my nose or mouth, feeling my lungs empty and belly deflate. I watch where my feet land, the colors of the water, the shades of green in the grass, the leaves gently rustling in the breeze. I give my jaw and shoulders permission to relax and feel the energy of the earth soothe my body, mind and soul.
I watch the thoughts bubble up, because the goal of meditation is not to silence the thoughts, it’s to observe them. When a thought comes up, I acknowledge it’s there and choose to release it with an exhale, tuning back into the senses around me which bring me back into the present moment.
We have 30,000 – 50,000 thoughts a day, it’s impossible to silence them. Instead of being pulled down a rabbit hole of how delicious that salad was for lunch yesterday, to how you miss having pie for breakfast at grandma’s house as a kid, to that awful thing your childhood best friend said to you 15 years ago, and now your feelings are hurt, you’re angry and on the verge of tears… but wait… how did you even get there? The initial thought was what you had for lunch yesterday…
We’ve all had spiraling thoughts like that, and those will always continue to happen because you’re a human being. Practice observing instead of attaching, and notice the difference that has in your body.
Some days walking on the beach, or doing any other sort of moving mediation like yoga, are not accessible to me because my body is too sore, tired or I forget that’s even an option I’ve given myself. If those situations arise, I do a breathing meditation.
I find a comfortable seat, rest my hands wherever is comfortable for me at that time and close my eyes. Inhaling through the nose for a count of 4, I feel my chest, rib cage and belly expand. Exhaling through the nose or the mouth for a count of count of 4 I feel the belly, rib cage and chest softly fall. Sometimes I do this for 3 breaths, sometimes I do this for 10 minutes. It’s up to you, but the breath is something that is accessible to you at any time, anywhere.
My other favorite is a breathing mantra meditation. Instead of counting, I link my inhales and exhales to a word or phrase. Inhale and repeat in your mind “Let,” exhale and repeat in your mind “Go,” or inhale “Re” exhale “Lax.”
Give any or all of these a try and notice how easily you can take back control of the present moment. Please leave any other techniques that work for you in the comments below!