Neagley: Remembering to Breathe

Dec 6, 2013

The holidays have a way of adding layer upon layer of stress to our already busy schedules. We want our celebrations to be ever more meaningful. This may mean following the rules of simplicity or achieving spiritual insight. And i t’s important to show keen awareness of the ever-changing interests of beloved family members. Who is off salt, off sugar, a localvore, a vegetarian? Who likes meat and potatoes? And then there’s the spending. It’s no wonder that the holidays are stressful.

And if we’re on pins and needles, worrying about all the things that could go wrong or dwelling on the things that did go wrong last year, how can we possibly find enjoyment?

Enter mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us that much of our stress, pain and suffering comes from being pulled away from the present moment, by regrets about the past, worries about the future and judgments about the present. He defines mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment and without judgment.

Current neuroscience explains that taking as little as ten minutes a day to quiet the mind can help us reduce stress and regulate our emotional fight or flight reactions to stress. One of the oldest parts of the brain, the amygdala, can become quite reactive to fear and other emotions. That’s useful when coming upon a bear in the woods. However, when someone threatens us with a hurtful remark, fight reactions tend to make the situation worse. Or flight reactions, like substance abuse, can harm our personal well being.

Mindfulness skills help us pause and re-calibrate, allowing a newer part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, to kick in. It thickens with a regular calming practice, and becomes more capable of subduing the amygdala’s reactivity. Over time we can become less reactive and more responsive…by seeking kinder words or resisting avenues of escape.

To practice mindfulness, sit upright in a chair with feet on the floor; palms on the thighs, eyes closed… or open, in a downward gaze. Begin by focusing on the breath entering the nostrils. Notice coolness at first then warmth toward the back of the throat. Stay focused on the breath. If thoughts or sounds intrude , simply notice them, without judgment, then turn attention back to the breath. Inhale and exhale. Deepen the breath to the chest or heart area. Simply notice. If the mind wanders, bring attention back to the breath. Now breathe to the diaphragm. Notice the rib cage expand and contract. Simply be with the breath. Now inhale to the belly. Focus attention on the breath. Notice the pause between the inhale and the exhale. Pay attention to the exhale. Just this. No judgment. Just this.