Monday, December 15, 2014

Power of the Pause

Photo credit: Porsupah
When I sit with my dogs and they stare into my eyes, seeming to will me to understand their needs, I sometimes wonder what they think of us humans, and what they would tell us if they could give us advice. My guess is that they would ask, "Why are you so stressed? Humans are at the top of the food chain, with no natural predators, enough food and plenty of shelter. Why are you so worried all the time?"

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)affecting 18% of the adult population. The problem is that our minds have evolved to the point that they can identify threats that are there, have been there and might be there at some point, but our nervous system responds to all these threats as real, no matter which verbe tense they belong to: present, past or possible future.

I see this most often when my students who have been diagnosed with cancer finish their treatment and are deemed "in remission." Some of them tell me that they suddenly feel unsure, like cancer is stalking them and that any moment their bodies will betray them and cancer will begin to grow again. They walk around with a cloud hovering over them, darkening any moments of happiness with the thought, "how long?"

In reality, it is the mind that is doing the stalking, not cancer.

Catastrophic thoughts beget more catastrophic thoughts. Our minds react like a hamster on an exercise wheel: repeating variations of the same worrisome ideas over and over and never resolving any of the threats. We humans may be on the top of the food chain, but our minds have become our natural predators.

Whenever anyone asks me about mental health treatments, I make my personal opinion clear: I believe in normalizing brain chemistry. For some, that can be accompllished without the presence of medications, but for others, medication is required to bring the brain back into balance, or else the hamster will never even know about the wheel, let alone have the awareness to step off of it.

Once the brain chemistry is normalized, skillful awareness practices must begin for real change to happen.

In yoga philosophy, we learn about the three gunas, or fundamental operating principles. These gunas are called rajas, tamas and sattva. In very simplified terms, rajas is associated with promoting action, change, excitment and passion; tamas is associated with resistance, darkness and idifference; and sattva is associated with promoting harmony, intelligence and balance.

The problem is that we live in a culture that glorifies rajasic lifestyles: work hard, play hard, do more, be more are the messages that innundate our society. We even have the popular quote, "I'll rest when I'm dead." This lifestyle keeps the hamster on the wheel, rather than helping it change the pattern.

So is more rest the answer? For someone with anxiety, the nervous system is said to be in a state of hyperarousal (on the hamster wheel, looking for threats), so rest will not come easy. Finding that balancing practice - the sattvic lifestyle - is vital. Observing and balancing all the sensory inputs can be helpful: food, entertainment, sound, smells, etc., to help balance the nervous system. Yoga offers us many tools to find harmony in our body chemistry, but the simplest tool is the breath.

Photo credit: Driton Avdyli
As a student of my breath, I have found many different states of mind are reflected in my breathing, like the ripples on the surface of a lake. They give me clues to what is going on below. If I stir up the surface, I also stir up the lake. But if I can be patient and let the ripples settle, there is a better chance that what is below will settle. My primary tool to overcoming the predatory pattern of anxious thoughts is breath awareness. No matter how rapidly I breathe, there is always a pause at the top and bottom of my breath; it may be split-second, but it's there.

In my most fearful moments, I tell myself, "You're not dying... You're breathing... Feel that? There is a pause - find it... There... Find it again... There."
When I'm reaching for that next sweet thing to compensate for discomfort, I ask myself, "Is "Have you paused and checked in? Is this really what you want? Wait for the answer... there."
During the dark stories that my mind tells myself, I question, "Is this true? Wait... Does it still feel true after that pause?"

The pause offers me the ability to tap into a more balanced, sattvic state, where I can be less prey to my thoughts. That pause has power.