Why Everyone Tells You to ‘Just Breathe’: And why you should listen

Picture this: you’re getting ready for an international flight. Maybe you’re finally flying home to see family or maybe there’s an important work conference you’ve been tagged to attend. You’re not the best flyer, so you’re already feeling a little anxious about the whole thing. You’ve attempted to prepare as best you can, packing the night before and ensuring that all your essential documents are readily accessible. You call a cab to bring you to the airport, allocating plenty of time to get there, check-in, get through security and even hit the bathroom and grab a snack before needing to board.

The cab miraculously arrives on time and off you go, mentally running through all your check-lists again and again. You feel somewhat relieved in knowing that at this point, you’ve done as much preparation as you can, so now it’s just go-time. That’s when you notice your cab slowing down. You peer out the window to see a field of red brake lights and exhaust pipes. 

What the…?

You pull out your phone. Google maps showed no traffic before you left, but now, to your horror, you watch as it becomes orange, then red. Well shit.

You feel your pulse quicken and your breathing becomes more shallow. Your whole body becomes tense. You suggest to the taxi driver that maybe he could take an alternative route but the car is smackdab in the middle of traffic, and there’s no way he’s moving without all the other cars around him moving first.

Your mind is racing in 1000 different directions. What if we can’t get out of this? What if I miss my flight? What if there aren’t any other flights leaving today? Even if I make the flight, what if my baggage doesn’t? If I can’t get out the next day is my trip ruined? Should I call the airline now and see if I can shift my seat? Should I get out now and try to walk to a different street? Surely it would be faster to walk at this point. Do I cancel the trip? Agh! What do I do?! Why does this always happen to me?!

Want to know what you should do?

It’s fairly straight forward. One of the most common anxiety/stress-relieving suggestions there is.

Ready for it?

Just Breathe.

What? That’s it? That’s Bogus!! That doesn’t fix anything!

You’re right. Breathing doesn’t necessarily fix anything. It won’t magically get rid of traffic and it won’t hold your flight for you. But it will do something I consider fairly magical.

Breathing gives YOU control over which part of your nervous system you want activated. Are you about to face down a lion and need to summon all your body’s resources? Great, then start huffing and puffing. The sympathetic nervous system (aka, fight/flight) is up and running and will direct all energy towards survival.

No lion? Then it’s time to manually take over and get your nervous system to cool its jets. 

Start by focusing on taking long, slow exhales.

Exhaling in general is associated with a slight drop in heart rate, and it brings your parasympathetic nervous system online. Not only will this make you feel calmer and more relaxed, but in this state your brain is taken out of problem-focused tunnel-vision mode and is able to operate more holistically. You can see opportunities instead of just limitations. You’re better able to accept whatever life throws at you, even if that means a missed flight.

Perhaps you see breath work as a bunch of woowoo fluff, and if so, I don’t begrudge you one bit. But the science is there. And for me, there is something validating in knowing that I have some control over how my body is reacting.

Try this at home (or anywhere): Start by breathing normally, whatever that may be for you. Count out your inhale, then attempt to make your exhale a little bit longer. With each breath cycle, try to slow yourself down a little bit more, even pausing at the top and bottom of each breath. 

After doing this for a couple of minutes, what changes do you notice in your body?

Where to Begin When You’re At a Loss

“I don’t know what to do anymore”

“I’m desperate to stop this”.

“I’m miserable. I can’t stand this.”

“I can’t handle this anymore. It’s getting worse. I’m getting worse.”

“I don’t want to be like this anymore. But what can I do?”

“I hate this. I hate myself. I’m never going to get better.”

As a therapist, I typically interact with people when they’re in a low place. Unsurprisingly, folks don’t typically seek out therapy when things are going great and just want a mental health check-up (though I do wish this was more often the case). Instead, I’m usually a last resort. Something in life is not going well and despite your efforts to ignore or change things, you’re still just stuck.

That helpless and hopeless feeling is one that I am intimately familiar with, both from witnessing it in the life of my clients and experiencing it in my own personal life. You feel as if you’ve tried everything. Nothing has worked. If you don’t do anything, you’ll be stuck this way forever. But imagining having to live this way for any longer is enough to drive you into panic. You don’t WANT to live this way forever.

But what are you supposed to do?

This is one of the most common scenarios I see in my office. Life has become awful. Change needs to happen. But the how is often a big grey fuzzy space. My clients come to me hoping that I can show them the how.

But therein lies the trap.

The most common mistake I see in people attempting to address their own issues is that they focus on the wrong questions.

For example, someone who is struggling with binge-eating will ask themselves repeatedly – “How can I stop bingeing?” or “What am I doing wrong?” The brain, handy little organ that it is, perks up and starts searching for answers: You could fast. You could cut out all sugar/carbs. You could drink water when you feel the urge. You could binge on carrots instead of cookies. You could distract yourself. You could go for a walk. You could clean out your kitchen of binge foods. You could just use sheer willpower. Just say NO.

You could do all of these things and more. Maybe you’d find some success. But chances are, the binges will still happen. Why?

Because before you do anything else, you need to understand your WHY

Why do you want to give up bingeing?

The ‘why’ represents your overall motivation for a change, and no intentional change will happen without it.

You may be thinking, “Are you kidding me? Of COURSE I want to change!! I’m miserable right now!” That may be true, and yet, despite the misery you’re in, something has kept you where you are now and prevented you from taking the necessary steps forward. Often times, there is a part of us, sometimes a small part, sometimes a large part, who is resistant to the very idea of change. Things may be miserable right now, but at least they’re familiar, and familiar means comfortable. In motivational interviewing language (a common therapy modality), this would be called a Double Approach/Avoidance conflict. The more you try to change, the more enticing it is to stay the same. But the more you stay the same, the more you realize you need to change.

This does not mean that you’re destined to stay stuck forever. This means that ambivalence towards change, any change, is normal. It also can give you a way forward. Give yourself a chance to explore what you’re really wanting from a change, and maybe also what reluctance you have.

If you, like me, tend towards skepticism, you may scoffing at the idea that any part of you wants to keep things how they are. So I challenge you – the next time you go to use one of these problematic behaviors you wish you could change, what prevents you from doing so?

What in-the-moment reasons do you give yourself for why you can’t change?

Digging into your thoughts: What’s driving your inner dialogue?

Thoughts Upon Thoughts

“She’s more flexible, but I’m doing the pose better”.

I noticed the comparison in the midst of a yoga class (and yes, there is yoga in Uganda). Why am I doing this, I thought. Here I am, trying to be zen and focused on my own journey, and yet my head still automatically targets other people as a way to judge my worthiness.

Thankfully, I’m at a point in my life, where while I still find myself making comparisons to and judgements about others, those comparisons don’t automatically drag me into a downward spiral of self-loathing. Mindfulness teaches us to notice our experience. To notice the thoughts, acknowledge them, but let them go. Observing in this way offers us insight into our brain’s innerworkings.

Using some of my therapy skills, I decided to explore what all of this was about. I could debate my thoughts. Challenge them as not being truthful and pretend I hold the opinion of some entity other than me. But in this case, that doesn’t quite work for me. I mean, the thoughts wasn’t wrong. The woman is more flexible than I am. 

So I follow the thought further. Why does it matter if she’s more flexible? She may be better than me in one way, but I’m better than her in another, more significant way. Okay, but again, why does this matter? Dig further. If I looked at the person next to me in class and saw that she was more flexible AND nailed the posture, what then? It would indicate that I’m less than. I’m not good enough. I won’t ever be good enough. There is something inherently lacking about me.

OOfta. That gets heavy quickly. And yet, there it is. This belief stuffed way down into my core.

There is something inherently lacking about ME.

All day, every day our heads bombard us with thoughts. Sometimes those thoughts are helpful: Don’t forget to go to the store. I need to call my mom today. I wonder if the subway would be faster today. Those apples are more expensive than they were last week. They’re part of the day to day chatter of our brains as they navigate the world. And then, in the midst of those thoughts, other more nefarious characters arise. You WOULD forget to go to the store. Now there’s no toilet paper you dimbulb! I can’t believe you said that to your mom. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t talk to you for a week. Why did you decide to take the subway today?! Now you’re going to be late and probably get fired!

Do you see the running theme in the second batch of thoughts? I do: YOU SUCK! YOU’RE THE WORST! But let’s be honest. Your thoughts can get way harsher than what I just described. They’re straight ruthless. They’ll tear you apart in microseconds because they know just what to say to target your most vulnerable insecurities. And the crazy part? WE BELIEVE THEM!

I’ve had conversations with clients who, without a hint of sarcasm, will say that they are clearly the worst person that has ever lived. At some point in their life they have acquired this message, and not only decided it was true, but decided that it was a belief worth defending. 

Fortunately, beliefs can be changed. Because I’ve been doing my own inner work for awhile, when those little beliefs pop up now, I’m generally able to tell them to screw off.

Which of your beliefs do you wish you could tell to screw off? What do you wish your thoughts would tell you instead?

Welcome Home!

So you’ve made the decision to move away from home. Congratulations! Welcome to adventure, excitement and interesting, new friends from exotic places! 

Orrrr not.

Now reality has hit. And you’re in this new place. And it looks different. And it sounds different. And it definitely smells different. And you don’t know where anything is. You don’t know anyone. And if you have any hopes of actually making a friend in this new place, you’re doomed to sludge through the superficial chit-chat about the weather or where you’re from for the next several weeks (or months, or years) before any real relationships begin.

I’d like to think I adapt to new places fairly well. I usually give myself a time frame – 90 days for example – in which I could expect things to be weird and awkward and lonely. After that timeframe, I knew I would start to feel more settled. I’d know where to go to buy food. I’d have an idea of how to get around. Maybe I’d even have the makings of a few friends. But adapting well doesn’t necessarily make the adaptation process easy or even enjoyable. 

Encountering newness at every turn becomes exhausting. What you used to be able to do on autopilot now requires significant mental and emotional energy. 

I may be on my own in this, but back in the States, I generally love going grocery shopping. I enjoy checking out new ingredients, formulating potential meals in my head, and making sure my pantry and spice cabinet are well-stocked. The first time I went grocery shopping in Uganda? It was almost panic-inducing. Not because the store was particularly chaotic, but because nothing was what I was used to. The store layout didn’t make sense to me. An attendant had to pre-weigh all of my produce prior to check-out. Half the products were labeled in a language other than English or even if it was in English, they’d use different terminology. The milk came in bags (??). Not to mention the mental arithmetic of converting currencies to figure out if you’re being fleeced. 

It certainly makes me less inclined to go grocery shopping.

And yet, this is it. This is home for the next however many years. And that means figuring out the little things (and the big things) and moving on with life. It means making the effort, day by day to learn. It means constantly pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone again and again and again so that with time, and maybe a little luck, your comfort zone expands, and this new places actually starts to feel like not just a home, but your home. 

But what if that doesn’t happen? 

What if instead of feeling exhilarating or adventurous, this new life feels claustrophobic or boring? What if your comfort zone starts to constrict instead of expand? And those daily reminders that you’re in a foreign place begin to squeeze in all around you? You attempt to make the most of things, but those people, places, and behaviors that used to keep you tethered back at home are hard to find here – or worse, nonexistent. You find yourself becoming more insulated. You start resorting to old (or new!) behaviors that you know are not great for you, but become essential if you just want to get through each day. You feel trapped. You feel alone. Now what?

You could:

  1. Call it. Say enough with this whole expat life and return home. There’s no shame in trying something new and deciding that this isn’t for you. But, depending on your family/work/school situation, you may not be able to pull up anchor whenever you see fit. You may be stuck here for awhile, in which case you could:
  1. Just keep swimming. Maybe it will get better on it’s own. Maybe you only have a few years left of this place and you think you can probably survive until it’s time to move. Not the most empowering of scenarios, but it’s a strategy. It could work. But then again, maybe you think in your head that there’s NO WAY you can manage this for X more years. Something has got to change:
  1. Make a change. Something is obviously not working for you. You can choose to attribute your misery to the location, and maybe it plays a huge role in your overall well-being, but there are likely other factors contributing to how you’re feeling. Are you taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, financially, and spiritually? Which area is being neglected? Maybe one, maybe all. So pick one, let’s do something about it.

What’s one area of your expat life that currently isn’t working for you? How is it contributing to your overall well-being (or lack thereof) and how would you want it to be different?

Need a little extra accountability? Drop me a line with your answer. I personally read every reply and respond back!

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