After the initial sour tears and lurching in my belly, I lay in bed, wipe the dampness off my face and take a deep breath. And this is all I do for a few moments.
Breathe in. And out.
Through the nose and out of the mouth.
It sounds so simple, I know… but it’s powerful.
I watch those feelings rise and fall like ocean tides. I ride the wave.
No more gasping or grasping. I put my hand on my stomach and continue to center my attention around the breathing and all of its sensations. And even if it’s just a little bit, I start to relax.
It’s called Being Mindful of An Emotion
Mindfulness of Emotion is a skill which springs from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, an intensive form of cognitive therapy which emphasizes Mindfulness and borrows principles from Zen Buddhist philosophy.
Deep Breathing restores oxygen to the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that makes rational decisions.
When these negative thoughts come up, especially when we have a history of physical, sexual or emotional trauma, naturally, our physiology will change: the breathing hastens, heart races and so do thoughts.
Our brain is literally stuck in a Fight, Flight or Freeze state. And often, when we try to distract or avoid these feelings, they only get bigger. A looming behemoth casts a shadow over our lives.
In my most stressed moments, I relive all the times people have put me down.
“I dare you to rip your hair out,” the inner demons egg me on, “go ahead”.
Or don’t, I remind myself with a racing heart and chaos for thoughts.
“Breathe” I tell myself. “Just breathe.”
I lay in bed, put my hand on my chest and again, watch the rise and fall of my breath.
Already, a shift in my perception begins.
Where do we find answers?
A big part of my day job as Recovery Counselor, includes running Wellness groups which include Mindfulness and Chair Yoga. We often touch upon approaching our negative feelings with openness and curiosity.
Maybe some of this has happened to you.
Maybe you’ve had intrusive thoughts, haunting you like specters — echoes from another long-dead or recent era in your life.
The problem is when we avoid these negative thoughts, we’re not actually dealing with them. And while they may sit on the periphery of our conscious minds, they’re not going anywhere. It’s more weight and the only constructive action left we may need to do is approach what hurts.
I would never claim it’s easy, especially if you have a complicated history in your emotional life, such as going through a major life event or past trauma.
Een when things are totally different — we may have a better job, better home, in better shape, better relationships — further along than ever in recovery — these ghosts may still arise anyway.
My demons like to remind me, “we’re not going away that fast. You think you’re doing so great now, but just remember — we’re here. We live inside your brain and we’re here to stay. We’re with you till the end…”
In some ways, they’re right.
I can’t get rid of them… Not totally.
I can breathe.
… I can use my coping skills.
I had a great therapist once, who reminded me that being mindful of our emotions is the single most important skill to take from the Dialectical Behavior therapy. He described this tool as the culmination of all previous skills.
If you have a desire to approach, your relationship with suffering will begin to shift at a fundamental level. Facing your demons (even it’s just sometimes) changes who you are and how you relate to the world.
Our most critical and negative thoughts often spring from people who had their own issues and decided to use us to work them out.
The important point is no one I know treats me this way anymore. It took me quite some time to learn to stick up for myself, but I guess, better late than never.
I wish it didn’t take so long.
And if I can use my writing to help other people break the cycles of their own demons sooner, then at least I was responsible for some good in the world — however humble.
What does this mean if you’re in Recovery?
Recovery, of course, doesn’t mean you never have bad days. It means you’ve grown up enough to know yourself and your triggers.
I know when I need to use different skills for whatever situation. If I’m totally losing my shit, I could call someone I’m close to and or use a stronger skill, like intense exercise or distraction, to offset my body chemistry — relaxing my nervous system and making it more possible to regulate myself.
However odd my internal life may seem to some people, the tricky, little seed of irony is: that the very compulsion that drives me into despair or rage is the same that drives me to states of bliss, serenity and inspiration. It’s a whole other kind of wave, the same that drives me to the page - spilling words.
The same demons who haunt me, inspire me to write — however begrudging the the relationship is.
The emotional wreckage of my twenties is illuminating my thirties with insights.
Nestled in these hellish thorns and demon whispers are seedlings of ideas. I intend to grab them as I always have, knowing that I may get sliced and scraped, but that’s why we have First Aid.