You can't stop the river, but you can step out of the current.
Life can feel like a raging river: a strong current in a headlong rush downstream taking along whatever is in its path.
In our fast paced lives it is easy to get overwhelmed.
Many times we deal with the overwhelming feelings by distracting ourselves: with our phones, our to-do list, and even with alcohol or drugs.
Sometimes we look around and wonder to ourselves:
“What is wrong with me? Why am I so anxious?
Why can’t I handle things like I used to?”
I believe anxiety is a growing problem in our society.
In a TedX talk I watched recently, author Max Strom spoke about anxiety in particular and how we can learn to “Breathe to Heal.” The link for the video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Lb5L-VEm34&feature=share&app=desktop
In the video, Mr. Strom indicated an estimated 25% of adult American women, one in every four, is currently taking prescription anti-depressants. He noted nearly as many men are taking anti-depressants, as well.
Look around. Whether you’re at work, in a coffee shop, running the kids around, whatever.
One in four of the people around you is also feeling the strain of a world that is changing fast, a world that seems overwhelming and out of control. A world rushing along like a river, with you caught firmly in the rush.
Maybe that one in four statistic can provide some reassurance: we’re not alone in our feelings. It isn’t something wrong with us.
So many others are feeling the strain, too, no matter how well they hide it.
Life moves at lightning speed.
Technology alone changes at an astounding rate.
In my grandfather’s lifetime (1907-1991) he went from transportation in the infancy of automobiles to the space shuttle. In his own life, however, he was able to remain comfortably with a typewriter and an adding machine, though he may have graduated to a basic calculator by the last decade.
For many of us, however, technology advances at an increasingly exponential rate. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but hear me out. In my lifetime phones have gone from rotary dial to one in every pocket. The world is now at our fingertips….and it never shuts off.
And there’s the rub. The world never shuts off and it is ever-present thanks to the technology we have at our fingertips.
As Mr. Strom indicates in the TedX talk, we have the world’s knowledge literally in the palm of our hand, so why aren’t we happy? Why aren’t we ecstatic?
Because it never…stops….not for a moment.
The river’s flow never stops. It keeps rushing along with us caught in the current.
So what happens? We never get the rest we need.
In the animal kingdom when a predator approaches a zebra at the watering hole, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action. The zebra instantly experiences a rush of stress hormones--cortisol and adrenaline--priming the zebra to fight or flight.
Sprinting off across the savanna, the zebra utilizes those stress chemicals in his dash to safety. Once the zebra successfully eludes his predator, his body is clear of the stress hormones and he can settle back into eating, drinking, sleeping: the rest and digest part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
That’s not how it works for us “socially advanced” humans.
Instead of leaping into fight or flight when faced with the many stressors in our lives, we most frequently resort to stuff and rebuff.
We push down our frustration and anger, paste a smile on our face, swallow the bitter taste of the stress hormones coursing through our veins, and push through.
We do what we need to do in order to behave in a socially acceptable manner. And those chemicals continue to course around in our system with little opportunity to dissipate because we did not use them for what they were designed to do.
So what can we do to stem the rising tide of anxiety in our lives?
“I can’t stop the fast pace of life!” you say.
“I can’t stop the rushing torrent of things to do, places to go, responsibilities, lists, appointments…”
No. You can’t.
Life is like a rushing river. It is strong, and can be swift and daunting.
But you don’t have to stop the river.
You only have to step out of the current.
How can you do that? How can you step out of the current?
Mr. Strom and many others offer the hope of effective, research-backed practices, including breath work, mindfulness and yoga. Mr. Strom suggests the first and foremost of these is the breath work.
Breathing is something that is always with you. You do it without thinking. In fact, you’re doing it now! My guess, however, is your breathing is not something you notice very often. And that is where the practice comes in.
Mr. Strom mentioned a 2015 study conducted by researchers at Harvard and Brigham Young Universities which demonstrated measurable and lasting improvements for veterans experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Participants were engaged in an 8-week long study which included once weekly 90 minute Kundalini Yoga (including breathing and mindfulness) and a 15 minute daily practice.
You can find the study here: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/22856942/4558444.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed August 25, 2017).
When compared to the control group, the study group experienced significantly greater improvements in anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, perceived stress and other measures. In other words, participation in an activity in which the veterans learned to connect mind and body, through breathing, mindfulness, and yoga, overall experienced sustained relief from their symptoms.
In his TedX talk, Mr. Strom noted the benefit of approaching mindfulness training in a “first things first” manner. He suggests the first step in learning mindfulness is the breath work.
Here is an exercise that you can do right now, wherever you are.
This is referred to as 4-7-8 breathing.
What you do is to first breathe in to a count of four.
Then hold your breath to the count of 7.
Finally, exhale to the count of 8.
I recommend repeating this practice for several minutes. And I recommend repeating it several times a day.
Not just when you’re feeling stressed, but at different times so you can begin to train your body to relax with the 4-7-8 breathing practice.
Consistency is the key.
Use technology to your advantage by setting an alarm on the phone you carry with you.
Use this as an opportunity to invest in you!
Learning and practicing breath work is the first step in taking back your life.
Remember, you don’t have to stop the river. You just have to step out of the current.