Calm down with measured breathing

What can you do if you’ve been severely traumatized? What can you do if you’re having a panic attack? What can you do if you’re so angry you want to break things? A first step is measured breathing.

While working with young people in East Palo Alto, California, one of the most most violent cities in America, I learned how to use measured breathing to provide a first line of support for children who had been in violent and abusive situations. An example was one young man who had been woken in the night by gunfire outside his house. He dived onto the floor and lay still while bullets tore through the walls and whistled over his head.

When terrifying things happen, our bodies switch into fight, flight, freeze mode, shutting down all unnecessary functionality, such as digestion and cell repair. This mode is enabled by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that works automatically. Breathing becomes shallow and fast, blood flows to muscles, and heart rate increases. The brain operates in a mode where it is far more reactive, with the emotional areas taking control.

When we are relaxed, our bodies switch into recovery mode, enabling functions that work more slowly, such as digestion and cell repair, which are needed to prepare the body for the rare crises. This mode is enabled by the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Breathing becomes deep and slow, blood flows to the internal organs, and heart rate decreases.

Humans are animals that have learned how to consciously regulate our actions. We override our autonomic nervous systems with beliefs and habits, and we create imaginary dangers and crises with our imagination and our ability to think about things in the future and the past. Because of this, most of us suffer from an over-activation of the sympathetic branch, resulting in tension, poor digestion, anxiety, high blood pressure, poor cell repair, and even explosive anger and panic attacks that are terrifying in themselves.

Just as you can enable your sympathetic branch by taking fast, shallow breaths, you can activate your parasympathetic branch by taking slow, deep breaths. This is measured breathing, which I show you how to do in this video. Most people, most of the time, will find that doing a few rounds of measured breathing will result in a significant reduction in anxiety, anger, and general activation, leading to a pleasant calmness.

Every time you practice measured breathing, you are creating an oasis of calm in which your body-mind can heal and grow. You will experience physical healing and also psychological healing through this practice.

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) Basic Recipe

I have been using Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) for the past six years, for myself, for my friends, and for my clients. It is one of the most powerful tools I know of for desensitizing emotionally charged thoughts and memories and increasing the amount of time spent in a state of empowered contentment. The video below shows how I use the EFT “basic recipe” to progressively desensitize each aspect of a problem.

The points tapped, one on each of the 14 acupuncture meridians, are:

  1. the side of one hand;
  2. the middle end of one eybrow;
  3. the outside of one eye socket;
  4. the bone directly beneath one eye;
  5. the philtrum between the nose and the top lip;
  6. the indent below the bottom lip and above the chin;
  7. the middle end of one collar bone;
  8. one inch directly beneath one nipple, on the torso;
  9. four inches beneath the armpit on one side of the torso;
  10. the up-thumb corner of one thumb nail, on the side closest to the middle when the hands are joined in prayer;
  11. the up-finger corner of one index finger nail, on the side closest to the middle when the hands are stretch out palms down;
  12. the up-finger corner of one middle finger nail, on the side closest to the middle when the hands are stretched out palms down;
  13. the up-finger corner of one little finger nail, on the side closest to the middle when the hands are stretched out palms down; and
  14. the indent on the back of one hand between the tendons of the little finger and the ring finger.

To learn more about EFT, visit EFT Universe.

I don’t understand what’s happening

I met a friend last night for dinner. On the way to dinner she said, “There’s something wrong. You’re not as happy as usual.” I asked when she first noticed that I was behaving differently and she told me that it was just since I collected her.

In the past I might have directed my irritation or unhappiness at her, feeling criticized, but instead I have learned to assume that people have good intentions, which is usually the case. So I considered what might be wrong, and, not knowing, I said, “I don’t understand what’s happening.” I then pondered what might be the problem and I remembered that I had been thinking about a couple of issues in my life just before I collected her.

I said, “I think it might be something to do with” these issues, and explained the situation and what I was worried about. By the time we got to the restaurant, I had expressed to her how I felt about these things, and she had validated my feelings and given me support and encouragement.

We went into the restaurant and had a great time. When we were returning home, she said, “I just realized that you returned to your normal happy, content self.” I asked her when that happened. She said that it was when we entered the restaurant, after I had shared about the thing that was bothering me. We then talked about how my conversation with her was the basis of simple Rogerian psychotherapy, and both marveled at how powerful it is for improving mood.

Even as she was playing the role of an effective therapist, in reality a good friend, I was playing the role of an effective client, in reality a friend who is willing to be vulnerable, to accept feedback, to accept help, and to risk rejection, all in the name of not perpetuating my own suffering or replicating it in other people.

As I write this, I am reminded of an similar episode a few weeks ago when she arrived complaining about perceived unfair treatment at work, something that didn’t usually bother her. After I listened to her and acknowledged and validated her feelings, she then realized that what she was really upset about was something much more personal and painful. She cried about that, something she rarely does, and then her mood lifted and she was her usual happy, playful self.

What are you really angry about?

I was cross-country skiing yesterday when a family came close to me, a mother, father, and two small kids. I heard the woman saying to the man that she was having trouble with the snow-shoes, finding it hard to walk down a slope. The man berated her for not doing it right, speaking to her very harshly.

A short while later, a woman arrived with two huskies. One of the dogs ran up and licked the snot from my nose as I tightened one of my boots. While I was doing that, the man arrived on the trail behind me while his wife and children came around a corner on an adjacent trail. One of the husky dogs ran up to one of the children and the man yelled at its owner, “Will you take control of your dogs!” The dog owner responded, “They’re gentle.” He said, “I don’t care! You people always say that! You should get your dog under control!” He kept speaking very aggressively to the dog owner, who was apologizing. Then he walked up the hill complaining to one of the kids about dog owners while his wife and the other kid trailed along behind.

I felt really sorry for him because I used to do that kind of thing a lot, and I still do sometimes. He had spoiled his day with his suffering and he had caused suffering to other people. I’m pretty sure that he was not really upset about his wife’s snow-shoeing ability, or about dogs being enthusiastic about kids. There was something else that as bothering him; he was upset about something that he was probably not admitting to himself, let alone his wife. I thought about saying to him, “This isn’t really about the dogs, is it?” But I know from experience that he would have just attacked me. Then, when we later crossed their path, I considered telling him that sometimes things like that upset me too and that I found it’s usually about somethings else, something more important to me.

A bigger shame is that until he acknowledges the deeper truth it will persist, and whatever the material circumstance is in his life that it is connected to will also be more likely to persist; he will not have the emotional resources and clarity to cause things to change to be more in alignment with his wishes.

Build capacity

Yesterday I went from sea level to 10,000 feet and spent several hours cross-country skiing. Even though I was not acclimatized, I did not get altitude sickness or get particularly out of breath or tired, even though I kept falling over and having to get out of deep powder. I was able to do this because I have been going to the gym three times a week for the past year and doing intense weight-training. High up in the snow, I could use the excess capacity in my body to handle the adverse conditions.

It’s a good idea to build capacity so that you can weather difficult circumstances. It’s not just physical capacity that is important: build emotional capacity by practicing equanimity through meditation; build social capacity by nurturing friendships; build financial capacity by generating wealth and the ability to generate wealth; and build intellectual capacity by reading, thinking, and solving difficult problems.