In the movies, when a character gets caught up in a fast-moving river, heading for a waterfall or a whirlpool, they reach out for something to hold on to that will keep them in one place and help them get to safety. A tree branch, strong, steady, dependable, for example.
When you’re caught up in the torrent of your emotions, you need to reach out for something that you can hold onto to keep you steady.
Lately, I’ve been up to my neck in such a torrent, experiencing emotions I have not felt since before I got sober over 4 years ago. Previously, of course, I would have reached out for alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana to ‘manage’ my emotions. Now, that option isn’t available to me, so I have had to actually feel them.
While I have not always handled these newly felt emotions particularly well, and I have acted in ways I now regret, it has been good to experience them and not feel that pull to numb.
A moment of deep annoyance that I wasn’t able to drown my sorrows in a bottle of red wine a couple of weeks ago could have been dangerous. Those sorts of thoughts lead to relapse with frightening ease.
Fortunately, it didn’t develop into anything more, and I was able to let that thought go. I know that the few moments of numbness I might have felt would not have been worth the way I would have felt the following day. Shame, a sense of failure, a hangover and a return to complete self-loathing would not have been good additions to the maelstrom of emotions I am already processing.
And, drunk Esther was very good at making bad situations even worse. I would have been left with even more, and worse, regrets than I already have.
Tools to calm the torrent
These days, I have other ‘tree branches’ that I can turn to when I am experiencing overwhelming emotions. While I am infuriatingly good at overthinking, past and future dwelling, and endless self recrimination, I have some more helpful tools as well.
Because I am human, and very fallible, I have not always been practising the tools I teach. ‘Physician, heal thyself’ can be translated to ‘Yoga teacher, remember to breathe’. But when I do open my tool box, I am always profoundly grateful for these tools.
Writing is one. Just writing these words is helping me. When we write, we are able to process current and past emotions in ways that thinking and speaking isn’t always able to do. I have written lots of words in the last couple of weeks. Some have just been for me. Some should have stayed just for me. And some are for you. All have helped to clear my mind and work through my feelings.
Writing about your feelings helps you to see what you actually feel. It helps to sort the fear and trauma based thinking from the real feelings. It can give you closure when you can’t get it from anywhere else. It can give clarity of thought when all seems overwhelmingly confusing.
I love to take long walks in the Welsh hills. I am training to do a 26 mile hike in June. I am a dog mamma. Long walks are a necessity, but they are also one of my favourite self care tools. When I am out in nature, I can think more clearly. I can breathe more deeply. I can let go of worries and be in the beauty of the present moment.
But the biggest, and most powerful branch I have been clinging onto through this last couple of weeks is my breath.
I have known for a long time that the breath is a powerful grounding, healing, and soothing thing. It does so much more for us than merely keep us alive.
I credit my sobriety very much on learning the Pranayama, breath practices, I was taught during Yoga teacher training. It got me sober, and it keeps me there.
As a Yoga teacher, I get to practice Yoga asana a lot in my classes. Over the last couple of weeks, my own practice has focused a lot more on sitting with my breath.
I have been performing postures that have helped me to breathe more deeply. I have been sitting and focusing on my breath for long periods. I have been consciously breathing deeply, particularly when I notice that I feel overwhelmed by my emotions. This is a powerful practice for many reasons.
Commonly known as meditation, the practice of sitting and being fully present with your breath has many benefits known by the Yogis for millennia. It is increasingly recognised by scientific study in the 21st Century.
The breath and the emotions are intimately connected. We know this intuitively.
When a friend is upset, we may tell them to ‘take a deep breath and count to 10’ to give themselves the space to calm their emotions, or remind someone to breathe when they get over excited. When I used to drink, I would talk about ‘drowning my sorrows’. When a body drowns, it is because the lungs are filled with liquid and it cannot take in oxygen. When we’re stressed, we talk about feeling like we can’t breathe.
Max Strom, in his book ‘A Life Worth Breathing’, talks about the idea that the time when most people start smoking is during the teenage years. This is a time of intensely confusing and overwhelming emotional charge, and a cigarette can soothe this overwhelm for a moment.
I personally started smoking at 17 as a rebellion against my smoking hating boyfriend. Whenever we had an argument, I would go and have a cigarette. I suspect, with hindsight, that on some level I was hoping he would catch me and end the relationship. I was unhappy in the relationship but afraid to end it myself. Asthmatic since childhood, this was a tremendous act of self harm, and one that set me on a path of self destruction that was halted when, at 41, I learned to breathe.
There is a deep connection between the nervous system and the breath. When we enter the stress response, the breath becomes shallow and fast. This was a great help as we evolved and we faced daily threats to life. It is not so helpful now when we are stressed due to problems of 21st century living. The problems most of us face in our daily lives require us to think clearly and creatively to solve problems. Stress shuts down the part of our brain that enables us to do that, and leaves us with only the emotions to act as advisors.
And if there is one thing I have learned through the many mistakes I have made in the last couple of weeks, it is that emotions are not the best advisers you can have. Like a corporate lobbyist who wants to persuade a government of a decision that is not in the national interest, your emotions will only show you the evidence that backs up their case.
So if fear is in charge, you will only see the situation from the perspective of fear. You will forget about all the times that fear was nowhere to be seen and not a factor. Sometimes we need fear to guide our decisions. If you have been hurt in the past, it is natural for fear to rise in a similar situation. Deep trauma may need professional help to resolve. And if you are facing a life threatening situation, then of course fear needs to lead the escape mission. But it isn’t always helpful. Sometimes you need to take a breath, allow the fear to subside and look more objectively at a situation.
Sitting with your breath, giving yourself space to breathe, to be in the present moment, to soothe the nervous system and let go of the emotional charge will allow you to find peace in. the moment.
It will bring you into a state of relaxed awareness of your emotions, rather than being driven by them. You may well find that your mind wants to keep coming back to the thoughts, the worries, the endless attempts at resolution. This is mind doing it’s thing. Your only job is to notice the wandering thoughts, acknowledge that they are there, and come back to your breath.
Your breath can create space for release and letting go. In his wonderful book Letting Go Of The Person You Used To Be, Lama Surya Das talks about the way that on each in breath, we breathe in the person we are becoming in that moment, and as we exhale, we release the old moment. A constant cycle of becoming and letting go. Living and growing through the breath.
Beginning to breathe
If you don’t already have a daily practice of connecting with your breath, I do highly recommend it. There are so many benefits to the practice, not only for emotional wellbeing, but for physical, spiritual, and mental health, as well as cognitive abilities. I will look at these in more detail in later blog posts.
It can seem daunting to sit and try to focus on your breath if you have never done it before. To begin, you don’t need to spend a long time doing it. You don’t need to try to ‘empty your mind’. You simply need to be.
Find a comfortable sitting position where you can keep your back straight. Don’t do this sitting on the sofa, as you will slouch. Sit on the floor, on a cushion, or on a hard backed chair.
Decide how long you are going to sit for. In the beginning, this could be 2 minutes. It isn’t about the length of time, it is about the practice. Trying to start with a long practice will feel overwhelming and you may not be able to stick with it.
Set a timer, leave your devices out of the room (or on airplane mode if your device is your timer)
Sit with your back straight and your eyes closed, and simply breathe. Notice the quality of the breath. Are you breathing fast or slow? Are the breaths shallow or deep? Do you take even breaths, or are they erratic in length? Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth?
Are you breathing right?
There is no right or wrong here, no judgement to be made. This is simply about connecting your mind and body together through the breath.
You may notice that the breath changes as you observe it. Often when I talk about the breath, people tell me that their breath slows down without them even being conscious of slowing it. If that happens, great. If it doesn’t, great. All you need to do is be with your breath as it is right now.
You will notice that the minute you try to focus on your breath, your mind throws up a million thoughts a minute for you to become distracted by. This is completely normal. It absolutely does not mean that you are doing it wrong. These thoughts are the tools you will use to train your mind to focus.
When you notice that your mind is wandering, simply acknowledge the thought, let it go, and return to the breath. The thought may still be lurking in your mind, but the trick is not to follow it. If you do notice that you have started following a thought story, that is ok. You may find that you have planned this evening’s dinner and hadn’t realised you were doing it. That’s ok. Once you do notice, come back to the breath.
It’s called a practice for a reason
While taking a deep breath and counting to 10 in the moment can help in that moment, the gifts your breath can offer are more powerful if you practice, and make it a regular practice.
If you can spend just 5 minutes a day sitting with your breath, you will reap numerous rewards. As you get more comfortable with the practice, you can increase the amount of time you spend sitting. You can do it more than once a day, and you can choose the time that is most convenient and beneficial for you.
In the 5 Minute Breath Challenge, I invite you to join me on a 10 day journey to begin making this practice a part of your life.
You will be provided with a video and audio guide to help you into the practice, and you will receive daily emails to inspire, motivate and remind you to practice. You can join my free Facebook group where you will be able to connect with other people like you who are at the start of their journey, and others who have a more established practice that you can learn from.
Will this be the day you exhale the old, and breathe in the new?
Join the 5 Minute Breath Challenge today and see what can happen!