For many of us the countdown to the Christmas holidays has begun. The traffic is congesting, the queues are growing and expectations for that break are taking shape in our minds. For some this is a much-loved time of year. But for others, it's one of the most challenging - financially and emotionally not at all merry and bright. No matter which side of this fence you tend toward, here are some tips for staying mindful during this time of the year:
Let me know how it goes!
You know that moment at the end of a long day when you've come home from work, you get to sit down in a comfortable chair, and let yourself relax? You take a long breath, a sigh of relief, lingering into your exhale.
This lingering breath at the point of letting go is no coincidence. The breath and the nervous system are intimately intertwined. We know that deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (a system that allows for rest and overall healing). In contrast, the fight or flight response of the sympathetic system becomes engaged in a highly charged situation. And in today's world, it seems we're asked to be "switched on" more than we get to switch off. This means that the sympathetic nervous system remains at a heightened level of alertness for longer and longer periods of time. Stress hormones like cortisol continually flood the body. And we see mental health issues like anxiety and depression on the rise.
An anxious mind = anxious body. A cyclical pattern of stress becomes the new norm: anxious thoughts trigger a spike in the nervous system, shallow breath, release of more stress hormones, decreased heart rate variability* (see below), less sleep, and an overall sense of less resilience until everything seems to get on your nerves, right?
All this begs the question - when do we get to reset? And how do we reset?
Here's your breath. Have you met it yet?
Try this 5 minute meditation to befriend your breath (in any position that's comfortable for you).
This simple exercise, done once a day, or even several times a day (whenever you catch yourself feeling tense, stressed out, or out of physical and emotional alignment in some way), is a very powerful way of resetting the nervous system. Your breath is like a doorway into the energetic system of the body - it's prana, so attending to breath is a direct way of working with the energy of the body. All that's required is that you take an interest in it - spend time with your breath as you would a friend over a five minute coffee break.
What we pay attention to grows, so start attending to your breath by meeting all the sensations it creates within. This allows you to step out of the cycle of switched on, anxious thinking/anxious body into your natural baseline of ease and well-being.
Let me know how it goes!
*Heart rate variability (HRV) is the measure of variation between heart beat intervals. A greater HRV is associated with increased vagal nerve tone and overall emotional/psychological resilience and adaptability in life.
I keep seeing an article from Scientific American pop up in my Facebook feed. The title says it all - "Negative Emotions are Key to Well-Being". And here we are (in the southern hemisphere), moving into autumn when thoughts have a tendency, perhaps, to become a bit darker, emotions a bit heavier - not coincidentally morphing in this way as summer fades away.
Speaking from experience, fall and winter can be particularly challenging times of year for those who tend toward depression and for those who live with them. Over decades with chronic depression, I have often heard comments like these from people in my life: "Cheer up. You have so much to be thankful and happy for." Another favourite is something along the lines of, " Just think positively. It will get better soon." This advice, although well-intentioned, has a way of sending a different message to the listener - "You're feeling this way in life because you're not positive or grateful enough." And so it becomes just another way that you feel you've failed and that you aren't good enough. Here's another "F" on your life's report card.
There can be tremendous pressure from friends, family and society as a whole to be positive. There seems to be a consensus that only positive thoughts are OK and only happiness is acceptable. Think about it, don't we want to help those who feel depressed by showing them how to be positive again or by showing them they have so much to live for? In other words, by changing how they are in some way? We've somehow bought into the idea in our Western world that the negative is not to be tolerated, that it needs to be dealt with and buried once and for all. Perfection is synonymous with happiness. And it shows up in the small things, like having to put on a smile in public because only a smile will do. Or in the way that: "How are you?" must be followed by "I'm great. Thanks."
We all buy into it. We all want to be happy. This is normal human nature and there's nothing wrong with it. There's also nothing wrong with wanting the best for those we love. But, as this article is suggesting, we need to feel all of it - the dark and the light, the smooth and the rough, in order to really be here fully. We don't have to make these so called negative thoughts and emotions go away. What I have found to be far more potent is the ability to sit with and welcome all emotion, all thought, regardless of the ego's tendency to prefer one over another. When I can be with ALL of this, feel all of this, experience all of life's ups and downs as the Presence it which it arises - then I am truly empowered. I am not overcome. Life is simply living itself through me, and I find that there is room here for the totality of it, just as it is.