Anxiety has been giving me a run for my money. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I’m used to dealing with my uber easily triggered flight and freeze response. But in the last year anxiety has been screaming at a high pitch for long periods of time in my body and my mind. It is UNCOMFORTABLE. Side note: Having an anxiety disorder it’s rather ironic I chose to be a self-employed public speaker.

Working for myself, which consists of on-going financial uncertainty, and doing the one thing people fear more than death. However, that isn’t driving my current state of dread and sweat. Among other things, menopause has kicked me in the butt.  Since I’ve entered that oh so lovely transition, anxiety has spiked more than I’ve ever experienced it. I didn’t know anxiety was a symptom of menopause. I didn’t know a lot of things about menopause. It’s not exactly a sexy cocktail party topic. Regardless, my husband has been suffering through it with me.

Anyway…the big ‘M’ and other life ‘stuff’ has ratcheted up my adrenals and kept my system revved up for far too long. My usual wellness tools haven’t been working as effectively either. To find some relief, I signed up for a 6-week ACT group course at our local mental health and substance use centre. An ACT group. Sounds like it would be right up my alley, yes? ACT. I’m an actor (or actress depending on your preference) right? Well it’s not that kind of acting group. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s developed from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (or CBT). Its basic premise is using mindfulness to become comfortable with (ie: accepting) your uncomfortable physical sensations and difficult thoughts and distressing emotions. Then use your core values to guide your actions so you can live the life you want.

What’s important to understand is that accepting them does not mean liking them. It means I give them room to ‘be’ without trying to change them. It was a mind stopper this one. Allow myself to be ok with feeling this intense anxiety? Not try to change it? Fix it? Fix me? One of the meditations recommended in the group was the 3-minute breathing space meditation. Three minutes of meditation. That I can do. At the outset it was wonderful. Each time after doing it, I felt peaceful, like a gentle parent holding me. But then weeks later, some proverbial crap hit the fan and I experienced unrelenting anxiety.

This 3-minute breathing space felt more like a 30-hour jail cell. I’d sit and immediately want out. Breathing, and allowing my anxiety, seemed only to magnify it. My heart beat faster, louder, or wait was that a skipped beat? No now all I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears and feel my stomach tighten – even more. I. AM. OFFICIALLY. GOING. CRAZY. Again!!! When the tail starting wagging the dog, and my anxiety overwhelmed me, this whole letting it be and noticing seemed like, well, a really bad idea. Until I listened to a podcast reminding me of one paramount ingredient I’d forgotten to include in my mindfulness practice.

A dear friend sent me a recording of a talk from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, and author of over 100 books. I’ve never been much of a fan of ‘Mr. Hanh’. Not that he isn’t wise, or walks his talk. He definitely is and he definitely does. It’s just that I’ve never quite jived with how he expressed his wisdom. Until this talk. Until, I guess, I needed it. Maybe it will help you. Using metaphor, he describes how mindfulness works. It broke open my heart and changed my practice.

Paraphrased from his dharma talk ‘You are Both Depression and Mindfulness’. This segment starts at around 18 minutes. “When depression manifests, we should invite mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness will recognize the energy of depression. There is no fighting between the two kinds of energy. Because the job of mindfulness is to just recognize things as they are. Then to embrace whatever is there in a very tender way, like a mother would embrace her child when the child suffers.” That is what got me. “The mother is working in the kitchen, but she hears the baby crying. She knows the baby suffers. She goes into the baby’s room and picks the baby up and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms. The energy of tenderness of the mother begins to penetrates into the body of the child. And after a few moments the child feels better. This also happens with the practice of mindfulness. With the practice of mindful breathing or walking we generate the energy of mindfulness. With this mindful energy we recognize the other energy (depression, anger etc.) and we can embrace the other energy with tenderness.

There’s no fighting. There’s only supporting, helping.” When I practice mindfulness, I simply watch what is going on inside of me. But instead of a clinical dispassionate watching, I add tenderness. The watching becomes an embrace of kindness. This way the sensations and thoughts are easier to stay with. A softening usually happens (not always, but often). This loving kindness I practice generating soothes those other energies within me. Like the wise ol’ Mr. Hanh said it would!

Try the 3-minute practice with the pointers from Thich Nhat Hanh yourself. Share your experience and thoughts. I always love hearing from you.

© Victoria Maxwell

Bird Nerd I am.

I’m a bird nerd. They make me happy. Just watching them hop around, flitting here and there, puts a goofy smile on my face. I really love watching the ones in those small wee groups, like juncos, sparrows and robins. Oh and chickadees! Who doesn’t like chickadees? They’re so plucky!

And how cool is that to be named after the sound you make! Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Wait that wouldn’t be so good for us humans, would it? The sounds we mostly make are burps and farts. Yes we talk, but our ‘organic’ noises aren’t our voices.

Anyway, moving on… I found this scientific tidbit about watching birds (see below to geek out on the research). It confirmed something I was already experiencing.

Simon Science Says: Just Add Birds!

Watch birds – any kind – from a window, in a garden or around your neighbourhood. Doing so is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety & stress, according to a study from the University of Exeter in England.1

Everyday I work at my desk in my home office. I’ve purposely positioned it near a window that overlooks our back porch and old growth trees. Each morning I dribble a little bird seed on the railing. The aforementioned juncos, and others, enthusiastically gobble it up. See photo. Each time they jostle, doing their version of bird sumo wrestling to get access to the best feeding point, I smile. I feel like they’re my feathered co-workers. I don’t have to do anything except watch. I get this happy, present-moment-kind-of-feeling seeing them. Life feels simple and that feels good.

Try it out and see if you get the same benefit.

What does Simon Science Really Say?

According to a University of Exeter study which involved hundreds of people from both urban and rural settings, being able to see birds from windows, and on a daily basis around their neighborhoods, was associated with reduced rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

Drawing from the ‘attention-restoration theory’ which posits that being in nature, and even simply watching nature, promotes healing and lessens stress, researchers explored the potential benefit of nature to improve mood.

The researchers found no correlation between the species of birds seen, but instead the number, indicating that seeing common birds such as robins, crows and blackbirds on a regular basis is a key factor.

Evidence shows it’s not about identifying bird types, but instead, interacting with birds.

The UK Health Spectator rightly cautioned that “while the correlation between mood and nature was highly significant….(doesn’t explain) the cause of the relationship. For example, do happier people actively seek nature more or does a lack of exposure to nature lead to higher rates of depression, or is there some other factor?”2

As a fairly low effort and no-cost tactic that potentially could reduce anxiety and depression and boost mental wellness, it’s worth a shot, I’d say.

Do you already do this? What’s your experience? If you haven’t, try it out and see if you get any benefit. Email me or comment below and tell me!

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

1 https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/2/147/2900179

2 https://health.spectator.co.uk/just-looking-at-birds-may-help-to-keep-you-happier/

For the past month, I’ve been practicing a breathing meditation my Chi Kung teacher, Renate, gave me.

Each time, I’m amazed how calm, relaxed and alert I feel after about 5 minutes of this controlled deep breathing. Like really peaceful. And for someone who’s recently been as anxious as a hummingbird on cocaine, this is pretty cool.

Then just last week I went to see my GP, Dr. Yee, to get my medications renewed. While there, she also reminded me about Box Breathing (also called 4 square or tactical breathing).

“Tell me about it again.” I said.

“Pretty simple. Breathe in through your nose for 4, hold for 4, exhale through your nose for 4, hold for 4. And repeat it a few times. There’s good evidence it kicks your parasympathetic nervous system into gear and you’ll feel relaxed.”

Huh? A little light bulb went on for me. That’s almost identical to my 9 Breathings Tibetan Meditation.

I got home and went on ‘the google’ (as my husband and I like to call it).

Box Breathing, or controlled deep breathing, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ system) and regulates the autonomic nervous system.

In other words, it helps get me out of the stress response when my anxiety is high, my trauma is triggered or I’m heading into a challenging work project even.

It’s called tactical breathing because, get this… Navy Seals are trained to use it. 1 Special forces, law enforcement and first responders use it when there’s a crisis or a threat is perceived. When their stress response is activated they need something that will bring them back to calm, and clear their head, so they can act effectively.

You’re probably quite familiar with the fight or flight response, yes? Or the lesser known “fight, flight or freeze” response. Heart rate increases, adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, eyes dilate, muscles tense and senses sharpen.

Military personnel, even athletes, learn box breathing to calm their system so they can think more clearly and operate effectively in high stress situations.

Who knew ancient yogis and Navy Seals shared a common practice to reduce anxiety?

The Mayo clinic has found deep breathing effectively helps with PTSD, generalized anxiety, depression, even insomnia and pain management.2, 3 It’s also been shown to decrease the release rate of cortisol, trigger the release of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals and eliminate toxins by bringing more oxygen into the bloodstream. 4

Box Breathing in a nutshell:

After some practice, it can be used anywhere, anytime if you’re feeling stressed, say before giving a presentation, about to have a difficult conversation, if you feel a panic attack coming on or feel yourself triggered.  Do this while seated comfortably.

  1. Close your eyes or soften your gaze. Inhale through the nose for a count of 4 until your lungs and belly are full.
  2. Hold for a count of 4. Try not to clench your jaw or muscles.
  3. Exhale through the nose for 4, emptying your lungs and belly.
  4. Hold for 4.
  5. Repeat at least 3 times or as much as you like.

Tip: If counting to 4 is too difficult, use a count of 3. If it’s too easy, increase to what feels right. As you get practiced, increase the length of the breath and hold.

My meditation includes additional elements: hand and finger postures (mudras) and visualization with colour, but the basic framework is the same. As are the results: clarity and calm.

I highly recommend using this practice when you feel generally stressed, or for more acute stress if a traumatic memory has triggered reactivity or panic.

Try it yourself or share it with your clients. Tell me if you found it effective. I’ll be practicing most mornings as part of my meditation and prayer practice (and if my computer crashes or I can’t find my cell phone! 😊).

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

1. https://thepreppingguide.com/box-breathing/

2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321805.php

3. https://ritualize.com/box-breathing-military-secret/

4. https://unbeatablemind.com/7-tangible-benefits-of-breathing-exercises/

Watch Mark Divine, former Navy Seal, teach his version in this video here.