I’m going to challenge you to hold your breath for as long as you can.

C'mon humor me. Hold your breath for a moment.

Still going?

 A little longer.

 And even more. Come on you can go further.

 Just two more seconds.  And two more….

Now let go.

What happened? 

You probably noticed a pressure in your body, head and chest. Perhaps there was a slight headache forming and a feeling of panic rising.  A pounding heart.  Narrowed vision. 

These are akin to some of the familiar symptoms of stress you may have noticed at one time or other.  

The point of doing that little exercise was twofold:

1. To remind yourself just how intricately your mental experience is linked to your body experience.

2.To remind you about the simple importance of breathing, something we do so automatically that we start to take it for granted. And then we don’t notice when we are leaning on the override switch to this precious involuntary process way too often.

Because when life pinches us, we naturally contract against it. Bracing for threat, we hold our breath in, and paradoxically we end up pinching ourselves more and more as a result, breathing less, when we could actually use a bit more oxygen to help us with the problems we are facing.

Oxygen is food for the brain. However we are often working with much less than we need to manage the kinds of complicated scenarios life throws at us when we are pushing ourselves to the limit, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, here in the busy sea to sky corridor.

Breathing is an involuntary process, yet we can override the program- cutting our breaths short, holding in to brace ourselves. Also, when we are resisting breathing, we are unconsciously resisting living, as though this will help us to ward off life’s mounting challenges. However, as usual, the only way out is through.

Related to this topic, here’s a tool to help reset your default around holding your breath when dealing with stress/ uncomfortable emotions.

“Let go” breath

  • On your inhale, allow your experience to exist. Open your awareness to register what is happening in your experience in that moment. To support non-judgmental compassion that allows you to actually make real contact with your experience, say or think the word “Let”.

  • On your exhale, very slowly allow the breath to squeeze from your lungs with mindful contact, and release whatever information of your experience that you have gathered on the inhale. Say to yourself “Go” as you allow it to pass through you.

  • And repeat- Inhale:“Let”, Exhale: “Go”

Repeat as many times as needed to calm your nervous system and make contact with your present moment experience.

Use this tool whenever you notice yourself contracting against the stress and pain of life, and it will assist you to break your problems into smaller, more manageable pieces.

How to untangle from self judgment

When we are caught in self- judgment and self-hate, the more primitive parts of our brain get activated. That means we often find ourselves in state of fight, flight or freeze and our red alert system is constantly on the lookout for danger or threat. This is even more likely when we dealing with cumulative stress impacts or if you have had negative messaging imprinted from developmental trauma.

So here is a tool from Tara Brach, Ph.D, which will help you get unstuck from patterns of self loathing that can creep up when your brain is stressed. It’s an opportunity to be there as the loving parent for yourself even when that seems impossible.

3 Steps for letting go of self judgment

1. Learning to observe your own thoughts

2. Mindfully sense your own feelings

3. Offer gestures of care to your inner self

Each of these are important for our transforming our sense of who we are. That’s why the 3 processes are so important:

Each of the above steps activates the more recently evolved parts of our brain, the frontal cortex and the neural pathways responsible for reason, empathy and compassion. These processes move us from the survival physiology that gets triggered in stress: “fight, flight, freeze”, to a state described as “tend and befriend”.

Through these three processes we are literally evolving ourselves to relate to our inner life from a more whole, caring and intelligent perspective. We are also more available to receive support and connect with others.

Here is a breakdown of the processes in more detail:

1. Learning to observe your own thoughts

a. Simply being a witness to your thoughts: step back and observe what is moving through your mind

2. Mindfully sense your own feelings (and allow them to be just as they are)

a. Pay attention to what is underneath the judgments

b. Name the feelings. 

Labeling activates frontal cortex and shifts out of limbic system, thus emotions have less capacity to take over and possess us. We become more like the ocean, with more room for the waves.

c. Let the feelings move through you.

When we resist emotions, that’s when our own inner conflict poisons our relationship with self and others.

d. If noticing pain, acknowledge the truth: that this is suffering.

You can even say “ouch”, “this hurts” or “this is suffering”.  When we can acknowledge suffering we have set the grounds for genuine compassion, allows us to feel caring towards ourselves.

3. Offer gestures of care to your inner self

--put hand on heart and offer words of care to the hurting place

--picture waves of caring coming into your heart

--imagine a warm blanket comforting the pain

--or what ever gesture seems appropriate to you

Now take a moment to practice this skill.  Like anything, it might seem strange at first, but with regular practice in the moment, or in a dedicated timeframe each day, it can help you shift towards a more compassionate and spacious inner life, rather than a self-harmful one.

A therapist that you feel comfortable with can also be an excellent support in shifting these patterns- remember you don’t have to do it alone.

Drawn from “Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Budda”, www.tarabrach.com