Breeeeeeeathe (Adult Version)

My last post "Breeeeeeeathe" was all about understanding what happens to a child's brain during a meltdown, and how to cope. I offered the idealistic advice to stay calm when your child is having a meltdown because kids learn by example and modeling, but I'll be the first to admit that my colicky baby made me lose it more than once to the point that my dear mother paid for June and me to fly home for a week of TLC after getting a horrible case of the shingles. Parenthood is no joke, y'all. I was doing everything I could to keep my colicky baby from crying for three and a half months straight that I completely exhausted myself, hence the shingles. Now I'm back (hi!), re-engergized (thanks, mom), and ready to share with you what I've been reading about how to find calmness in the midst of stress, anger or chaos.

First, I find it helpful to understand what physiologically happens to your body when you are angry or stressed. In Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character he does such a great job of describing exactly what happens to your body when you get stressed, such a good job that I am going to simply type it up from the book rather than butchering the science: (disclaimer: this part is fascinating to me, but may be really boring, and not necessary to know, so skip down three paragraphs if you'd like.) “When a potential danger appears, the first line of defense is the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls unconscious biological processes like body temperature, hunger and thirst. The hypothalamus emits a chemical that triggers receptors in the pituitary gland; the pituitary releases signaling hormones that stimulate the adrenal glands; and the adrenal glands then send out stress hormones called glucocorticoids that switch on a host of specific defensive responses. Some of these responses we can recognize in ourselves as they happen: emotions like fear and anxiety, and physical reactions like increased heart rate, clammy skin, and a dry mouth. But many effects of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or how our bodies regulate stress) are less immediately apparent to us, even when we’re the ones experiencing them (Tough, p. 12). Our bodies were made to react to brief and acute stress like running from a predator, but we turn on these stress responses for months on end while we worry about mortgages, jobs, our children or who cut us off in traffic. “Scientists have discovered that this phenomenon is not merely inefficient but also highly destructive. Overloading the HPA axis, especially in infancy and childhood, produces all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects- physical, psychological and neurological (Tough, p. 12)”

“The tricky thing about this process is that it’s not actually the stress itself that messes us up. It’s the body’s reaction to the stress. The process of managing stress, which is labeled allostasis, is what creates wear and tear on the body. If the body’s stress-management systems are overworked, they eventually break down under the strain. This gradual process if called the allostatic load, and he says that you can observe its destructive effects throughout the body. For example, acute stress raises blood pressure to provide adequate blood flow to the muscles and organs that need to respond to a dangerous situation. That’s good. But, repeatedly elevated blood pressure leads to atherosclerotic plaque, which causes heart attacks. That’s not so good. Depending on what kind of stress you experience, the ideal response might come from one of any number of defense mechanisms. For example, if you’re about to receive a flesh wound, then it would be a good idea for your immune system to start producing antibodies. If you need to run away from an attacker, you want your heart rate and blood pressure to elevate. But, unfortunately, the HPA axis can’t distinguish between different types of threat. This means you often experiences stress responses that are not at all helpful (Tough, p. 13).

“To summarize, the HPA axis is a superdeluxe firehouse with a fleet of fancy, high-tech trucks, each with its own set of highly specialized tools and its own team of expertly trained firefighters. When the alarm bell rings, the firefighters don’t take the time to analyze exactly what the problem is, and figure out which truck might be most appropriate. Instead, all the trucks rush off to the fire together at top speed, sirens blaring. Like the HPA axis, they simply respond quickly with every tool they might need. This may be the right strategy for saving lives in fires, but if can also result in dozens of truck pulling up to put out a single smoldering trash can, or worse, responding to a false alarm” (Tough, p. 14).

So, clearly stress, anxiety and anger are bad for your body and overall heatlh, so what's the answer? 

Mindfulness. Yes, Mindfulness. First, watch this video.

I love this video that describes mindfulness, as the ability to know what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it, as a superpower. The mouse (?) in the video goes as far as saying that he thinks that mindfulness is the next big public health revolution. The video states that mindfulness as a superpower is noticing what is happening to your body, when you feel mad, stressed or pissed, but not necessarily acting on it, or responding wisely to those feelings. I couldn’t agree more that being cognizant enough to be able to use calming techniques like breathing, or self-talk, to overcome what physiologically happens to your body when you get angry or stressed is absolutely a superpower, one we probably think only Buddhist monks or extreme yogis are able to possess, right?

Nope.

I actually just experienced my first Mindfulness class by Dr. Lindsay Bira who works as a Clinical Health Psychologist teaching mindfulness to a whole range of people from veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to children who have trouble with emotional regulation. Mindfulness is simply accepting what feelings you're having: anger, stress, anxiety or even happiness, how those feelings make your body feel physically, and then deciding what you want to do with that.

I couldn't believe how much mindfulness I learned and practiced when I was preparing to have a natural birth. Obviously natural child birth was the worst pain I ever felt in my life X20 million. But, by practicing mindfulness, and having a team of amazing people around me, I did it. And that's because I told myself during each contraction that this pain was temporary, 1-1.5 minutes, and I focused on my breath, always counting as I breathed in, and out. But, as I wrote in my last post, the key is to practice calming strategies, breathing or self-talk, when you are calm so that you can access these self-reguatlion tools when you find yourself to be stressed, angry... or in labor. "By forming and practicing implementation plans, you can make your hot system reflexively trigger the desired response whenever the cue occurs. You can trick the hot system into reflexively and unconsciously doing the work for you. The hot system then lets you automatically act out the script you wan when you need it while your cool system rests, but unless you incorporate the resistance plan into the hot system, it is unlikely to be activated when you need it most (Mischel, p. 68). 

So, mindfulness. It's good stuff. See if there's a Dr. Lindsay Bira near you, or just YouTube it.