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.

 

The attitude of gratitude – yes, yes, we’ve all heard how it’s a good thing. But what if it’s not always easy to feel, especially if you’re in the midst of a depression?

Oh yeah, I can quickly rattle off a list things and people I’m grateful for. You know do the ‘Oprah Winfrey’ thing. Apparently, every night she lists 5 things she’s grateful for in a journal. By the way, if I was Oprah, I’d be grateful too.

What I’m saying is, it can be challenging to really feel and sustain the glow of gratefulness. What does it mean to feel grateful? Feeling being the operative word.

I know the things I’m grateful for. I know I’m fortunate (extremely so in comparison to the vast majority of people on the planet) to have enough food, housing, clothes, warmth, friends, to name a few. But knowing my blessings, is different than feeling blessed.

Real gratitude, what I call ‘affective gratitude’ (affect as in emotion) goes deeper than intellectualizing and moves into a physical experience of gratitude or, more accurately, into appreciation. So how can I get out of my head and into my body to experience appreciation? 

I did what most people do when they don’t know something. I ‘googled’ it. Guess what? There is scientific research on gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons is the preeminent scientific expert on all things grateful.  Seriously – he’s like a gratitude scientist. That’s got to be an oxymoron. But no, he empirically studies gratitude: its benefits, power, how it’s cultivated. To watch one of his fascinating talks click here

His studies found that keeping a gratitude journal really does work. But for me, sometimes at least, it can fall flat. I wanted more than just the ability to list my blessings and redirect my thoughts. I wanted to learn ways into feeling more grateful.

Then I asked myself what does gratitude mean to me? What does it even feel like for me? Do I know how to recognize it?  

I allowed myself not to know what gratitude means, to have no idea what it even feels like and to go from there. The aim was to explore, not necessarily to find. I gave myself 100% permission to be completely inept at counting my blessings. And off I went.

First a note of hope: When I’m not feeling grateful, it’s like the switch to that cluster of gratitude kind of emotions has been turned off and the power to said switch has been hijacked. But that’s good. Really. Stay with me. Even though I’m not feeling grateful, the switch and the source to experiencing gratitude are still there. It means it’s not being accessed, not that it can’t be.

The following are the steps that help me find the actual experience of appreciation, even if only in small doses. See if they work for you:

1) Close your eyes. You probably already got this but don’t do this while you’re driving. Sit (or stand) somewhere when you have time on your own. It can be in your home, or while waiting for the bus even (I don’t recommend the grocery line, it can be a bit unnerving for the cashier and other shoppers). 

2) Take a deep breath in (and out in case you’re wondering). 

3) Say or visualize the word ‘gratitude’ or ‘appreciation’ in your mind. 

4) Focus on your body – watch, is there tension when you focus on one of those words? That’s ok. 

5) Breathe and relax a little deeper. 

6) Mentally review things, occurrences, people, places that you have experienced in the last 24 hours, the last week or two, or even the course of your life. Ask yourself, what or who do you feel gratitude for? This is the tricky and sneaky part: let your mind review items you ‘think’ you’re grateful for and then as you see the item in detail, see if that translates into inklings of gladness, some small bubble of positive emotions or sensations of comfort in your body. Note where those sensations are, what they are.

Example: My “affective gratitude point” is this canvas my husband recently painted for me. A block of pure orange that now hangs in my office. When I think about it, I feel thankful he painted it for me. I feel a little burble of joy, usually near my navel and spreading out to my ribs and chest, when I see it in my mind’s eye. I feel a goodness about it and my husband.  However, I also feel vulnerable. Vulnerability comes with offering thanks. I recognize I am cared for by him, which underscores my interdependence with him. I feel this fragility with him and with others in my life, if I am courageous enough to go there.  Vulnerability is one reason why feeling gratitude can be scary and a reason why we (okay I) sometimes avoid it. Envy, jealousy, bitterness – way easier.

7) If you can’t seem to put your finger on a sense of appreciation, keep going. Keep exploring. Continue gently reviewing. Notice any resistance in your body, take a breath, then return to nudging out appreciation possibilities.  Start with things that you like, that even might seem trivial – trust me they’re not. Could be as simple as a piece of music you heard. Even in the midst of dark depression, push yourself, just a little, to lean into the places you think you might feel appreciation. When I’m in the thick of a depression, when all things seem forever bleak, it’s the feel of my duvet against my skin that I’m grateful for. One, because I’m spending more time in bed and two, if I give thanks to a comforter, it won’t ask for anything in return. It’s a duvet after all. It’s doing what duvets do best, keeping me warm. 

8) When you do hit upon something that gives you a sense of gratitude, notice what it is like: the emotion, sensations, the changes in your body. Do you relax a bit, or feel a sense of comfort? Do you notice your stream of negative thoughts stop for a split second? Be with that, for as long as you like or as long as you can tolerate.  

9) Take a breath, wiggle your toes (to get your bearings) and open your eyes. And give yourself a pat on the back. You just went into unknown territory – alone.  

I do this little practice either in the morning or as I tuck in to go to sleep, sometimes both and sometimes in the middle of the day. Because, even when it comes to something as ‘spiritual’ as gratitude, I need to make it concrete too. I need to make it a practice. I aim to find 5 things that I FEEL grateful for, not just know I’m grateful for. I started with 1, then 2, now 5 – give or take. Oprah can’t be all bad, right?

Like any other skill, it takes practice and a bit of effort to develop it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I’ve discovered, surprise of all surprises, when I focus (for 5 minutes even) on finding the feeling of grateful (‘affective’ gratitude) for one person, or thing or happenstance, my world shifts, just a tiny bit and I feel better, even if momentarily.   

Try it and see what happens. Leave a comment below to let me know. I need to hear other people’s experiences, or non-experiences as the case may be with gratitude. Thank-you! No really. I mean that. Thanks.   

© Victoria Maxwell

Before you go all nuclear on me saying ‘how dare you make fun of people with psychiatric disorders!’, check my two previous posts about my rules for finding the humor in mental illness: rules for finding the humour in mental illness and 13 One-Liners About Being Crazy. Mean-spiritedness, degradation are NOT my M.O.s

The two most important tenets in my rulebook:

    1. If you don’t have mental illness, it ain’t your rodeo to ride in. I live with multiple mental health issues. It’s up to me if I want to joke about them or not. If you have mental illness, you have the same choice.
    2. I don’t make fun of people with mental illness. Yes, I may make fun of myself, but mostly I discover the humor in the situations I find myself in because I have mental illness.

Why bother finding the comedy in pain? The overarching reason: for me, it is healing.  I hope you have some giggles as you read these and as you giggle I hope you heal (just a smidgen).

Ok here goes. Warning: some corny, really corny jokes ahead.

  1. Mental illness runs in my family. Which is sort of weird, because my parents weren’t very athletic.
  2. I’ve never had paranoid delusions. Somebody told me I did, but I know they’re lying.
  3. I’m lucky, I have very little side effects from my medications. They can fit right into my pocket.
  4. In the beginning my eating disorder meant I had dessert before my entrée. But then it got serious and developed into compulsive overeating – as opposed to apathetic overeating.
  5. Hallucinations are when people see things that aren’t there. I totally understand that.  An ex-psychiatrist of mine had them. I know for a fact, she never saw me. I don’t know what she was seeing, but she definitely didn’t see me!
  6. I’m on Zoloft and Epival and many other planets.
  7. I have psychotic breaks – my car stops at all delusions.
  8. I have an anxiety disorder…which means my anxiety orders dis and dat.
  9. I’ve faced mental illness. Stuck my tongue out at it, shook my fist at it and finally gave it the finger.
  10. What does it mean when people say “I don’t believe in drugs for mental illness”?  ‘Cause they seem pretty real to me. I think those people might have a delusional disorder.
  11. It makes perfect sense mental illness runs in my family. I’d run too if I had a family like mine.
  12. Where do they get these names for psychiatric drugs? No wonder we don’t like taking them. They sound like a bad storyline from a Star Trek sequel. You know: Captain Zoloft and his commander in chief Colonel Paxil are involved in negotiations with the Prozac Nation and the Lithium Liberation Army.
  13. I still have psychotic breaks from time to time – which are very different than coffee breaks. You don’t get paid for psychotic breaks.

If you like this post, sign up here to receive my newsletter. You’ll also get my handy dandy ‘7 Steps to Escape Perfectionism, Anxiety and Depression’ e-guide as a thank you gift!

© Victoria Maxwell

As an HR manager you already know mental health issues are taking a toll in your workplace. But you may be at odds as to how to effectively and comfortably address them. How do you get comfortable talking about mental health issues in the workplace? You need concrete tools to help staff feel comfortable reaching out for help and skills to offer co-workers so they’re equipped to support a colleague.

The good news is you can do this with relatively little financial investment.

It’s a process, takes commitment and consistency, but creating exceptionally healthy workplaces always do. And I bet, as an HR expert, you’re already passionate about creating positive changes for the people and organisation you support.

People do and can recover from mental illnesses with timely and appropriate treatment. People, like myself, return to living rich, full lives and have satisfying and productive careers. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. I was extremely depressed and even suicidal for a time. But, with the right support, and that meant the right support at work, I returned to be a productive employee and eventually opened my own thriving business.  

You are part of the solution.

Below are three resources that will help. Begin to implement some of the following and your workplace ecology will positively shift. You’ll see staff flourish, along with the bottom line.   

1. The Wizards of O.A.R.S. (Observe, Approach, Refer, Support) free e-guide.

I created this e-guide to help individuals become comfortable when wanting to support an employee or co-worker. It’s a step-by-step framework of what to do when a colleague may be dealing with a mental health issue. Read it and see if it brings more confidence to your conversations about mental health issues in your workplace.

Oars bring balance, stability and direction to a boat. So too can people give support and guidance to those around them who may be facing mental health issues. The following is for non-urgent situations. If you feel the individual is at risk of harming themselves or others, immediate care should be sought at the nearest emergency ward. Download the guide for a detailed description of each step and more tips.

Observe – changes in behavior, length present

Approach + Listen– discuss concerns in terms of behaviour. Focus on actions

  • I’ve observed that or I see that… (ie: you’re not joining us for lunch any more or you’ve been missing meetings or you’ve had more accidents lately)
  • I’m concerned… (ie: you don’t seem like yourself or you seem to have less energy than usual…)
  • How can we support you at work to help improve things for you or What can we do to improve things at work for you?
  • Then…LISTEN (Active listening skills are needed – Here’s a short video that gives tips on this particular kind of listening)

Refer – to resources in the workplace and/or community  (i.e. EAP, counselling, support groups, etc.) Also please visit the resource page to download a Mental Health Resource Guide for additional tools.

Support – as best as you can. Use active listening skills (see above).

2. Proactively supports employees’ mental health by implementing some of the evidence-based guidelines of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada has endorsed these standards as a way of working towards and positively affecting the mental health of your most valued investment: your workers.

Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace materials can be found here.

3. Check out Mental Health First Aid programs, hereLike physical first aid courses, they teach how to confidently help someone dealing with a mental health issue or crisis until the appropriate support arrives.

As a human resource manager, you juggle many responsibilities. You have the power to influence the work environment and the health and productivity of the staff. Use your power for good and create a legacy that includes creating a mentally flourishing workforce.

If you’d like a customized interactive workshop based around it, please contact me at victoria@victoriamaxwell.com

© Victoria Maxwell