Note: The following are excerpts from Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before by Julie Smith.
Emotions are real and valid, but they are not facts. They are a guess. A perspective that we try on for size. An emotion is the brain’s attempt to make sense of the world so that you can meet your needs and survive. Given that what you feel is not a factual statement, neither are thoughts. That is partly why therapies like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can be so helpful to many people. It gives us practice at being able to step back from thoughts and feelings and see them for what they are – just one possible perspective. If we know that thoughts and feelings are not facts but they are causing us distress, it makes sense to check it out and see whether it is a true reflection of reality or whether an alternative would be more helpful. When we treat our current thoughts and emotions as facts, we allow them to determine our thoughts and actions of the future. Then life becomes a series of emotional reactions rather than informed choices.
So how do we stop buying into thoughts as if they are facts? We ask questions. Something that therapy gives us practice at is being curious about experiences in both our inner world and the world around us. Individuals sit down opposite me and start talking about the things they got wrong that week, and feelings they shouldn’t have had, stepping into the old habit of self-criticism and self-loathing. Then we shift our perspective to a bird’s-eye-view. We look at how those behaviours fit our formulation. We shift into curiosity, where there is no need for self-attack. So, whether it has been a great week or a hard one, we learn and grow. Holding curiosity allows us to look at our mistakes and learn, when they might otherwise be too painful to acknowledge. Holding curiosity brings with it a sense of hope and energy for the future. Whatever happens, we’re always learning.
I. Taking some time to practise slow breathing techniques is a great investment of time. It’s an anxiety management tool that works in the moment. You can do it anywhere, any time and nobody even needs to know you are doing it. One of my favourites is square breathing. Just follow the steps below.
Step 1. Focus your gaze on something square: a nearby window, door, picture frame or computer screen.
Step 2. Focus your eyes on the bottom left-hand corner and as you breathe in, count to 4 and trace your eyes up to the top corner.
Step 3. Hold your breath for 4 seconds as you trace your eyes across the top to the other corner.
Step 4. As you breathe out, trace your eyes down to the bottom corner, counting to 4 once again.
Step 5. Hold for 4 seconds as you move back to the bottom left corner to start again.
So, you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, out for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds. Focusing on something square can act as a guide and help you to keep your attention on the breathing, minimizing the chances of being distracted too soon. If you try it for a few minutes and feel like it’s not working yet, keep going. It takes some time for your body to respond.”
One extra tip is to practise this every day, at times when you don’t feel anxious. When something is well practised, it is much easier to use when you find yourself overwhelmed with fear.
II. Your breathing can directly impact on your heart rate and level of stress or calm. When you inhale, the diaphragm moves down, creating more space in the chest which allows the heart to expand further and the rate of the blood flow to slow down. When the brain receives the information about this, its job is to then send a signal to speed up the heart.
In contrast when you breathe out, the diaphragm moves up leaving a smaller space for the heart and so the blood passes through quicker. This causes your brain to send signals to slow your heart down. When outbreaths are longer and more forceful than inbreaths, this slows the heart rate and calms the body.
When the inbreaths are longer than the outbreaths, we become more alert and activated. Therefore, one of the most immediate ways to start calming your stress response is to make your exhales longer and more forceful than the inbreaths.
It’s worth noting that the aim when you are feeling overwhelmed with stress is not to go from agitated and worried to a relaxed and meditative state. When the world is demanding of us we want to be alert. As you use breathing techniques such as this one, you will notice that your mind’s ability to think more clearly and problem-solve becomes more available to you. In that sense, we are not trying to make it all go away and induce ultimate relaxation, but to put you in the best state possible in which you are able to use the advantages of the stress response (e.g. alertness) and bring down the intensity of the disadvantages (e.g. worry and overwhelm).
In therapy when we start to shine a light on the way forward and think about what we want, it’s not uncommon to hear ‘I just want to be happy.’ But the idea of happiness has been hijacked over the years by an elusive fairytale of constant pleasure and satisfaction with life. You don’t have to look far on social media to come across a wave of posts telling you to ‘be positive, stay happy, eliminate negativity from your life’. We are given the impression that happiness is the norm and anything outside of that could be a mental health problem. We are also sold the idea that if we can achieve material wealth, happiness will arrive and stick around.
But humans are not built to be in a constant happy state. We are built to respond to the challenges of survival. Emotions are a reflection of our physical state, our actions, beliefs and what is going on around us. All of those things are constantly changing. Therefore, a normal state is one that constantly changes too. In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris explains how emotions are like the weather. They are constantly moving and changing, sometimes predictably, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly. Emotions are always a part of our experience. But, just like the weather, some moments are pleasant and others are hard to endure. At other times, there is nothing distinct enough for us to easily describe. When we recognize the nature of human experience in this way, it becomes clear that anything being sold to us with the promise of happily ever after cannot live up to its promise if happy means the absence of any of the less pleasant emotions. We can live a happy and fulfilling life and still experience the full range of emotions that comes along with being human. Buying into the idea that happiness means constant positivity can leave us believing we have failed when we feel down. We feel like we are getting something wrong, or we feel afraid that we may have a mental health problem. Thinking in that way then makes that dark cloudy day even darker. Sometimes we are not happy because we are human and life is difficult a lot of the time.