Falling in the Hole, and How to Get Out

My close friends and I have taken to calling it, “falling in the hole.” That feeling of walking along in your life and then, whoops, finding yourself unexpectedly in the hole of depression or anxiety complete with confusion about how you got there or how to get out. Falling in the hole can look like difficulty getting out of bed and completing anything other than necessary tasks, cancelling social plans due to feelings of insecurity, avoiding the very elements of your life that give you more meaning, and finding yourself unexplainably irritable or sensitive toward friends and partners. Falling in the hole is a bit different falling from falling of the horse, as I discussed in my last post. Falling in the hole is a less profound experience that lasts for a few hours or a few days at most.

Having fallen in the hole countless times in my life, as well as helping many others – both friends and clients out of their respective holes – I have a few ideas about how to gain the most from these experiences while having them impact your life the least.

Try to Pin-Point What You Slipped On – the very nature of falling in the hole means there’s likely some confusion about how you got there. What on earth happened? Just yesterday you were glowing with stability. But if you look more closely, there are usually clues. Despite what some people think, emotions do not materialize out of thin air. Neither are emotions facts – they don’t always make sense, and aren’t always helpful. But they do always have a cause, and they do have the function of communicating something potentially important to use. Take time to listen. Think back over the past hours or days and see if you can notice a moment that in hindsight, caused you unease. It could be an upcoming work deadline, the success of a friend that has you thinking about failures, or an unusually disturbing nightmare. Still unsure? Journaling is a great way to help. Just write whatever comes to mind. Even if it seems unrelated at first, something may pop up.IMG_0419

Accept That It Could Be Biological or Historical – emotions always have causes, but sometimes the causes are very chemical in nature. After all, our beautifully complex brains are an electric circuit of synapses firing at will. Pre-menstrual Syndrome is a very real experience for many women caused by the plummet of estrogen and rise of progesterone in the days leading up to a period. Or maybe you’ve been exercise-deprived, eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol, or not getting enough sleep. Sometimes our circuitry gets re-fired by a historical trigger – something that happens in our present reminds us, even on an unconscious level, of something that happened in our past. It could be as simple as an anniversary of important events, or even watching a mother scold her child the way you were scolded such that shame rises to your face and yet you can’t connect the dots as to why.

Problem Solve It If You Can – if you can figure out the likely culprits to your situation, then take some time to problem-solve. That’s one reason we have emotions – to spring us into action! To set boundaries, escape dangers, take steps to creating more fulfilling lives. This could be a quick fix in some instances – such as letting a partner know it is important to celebrate your birthday after all, or setting aside some extra time to get ahead on that work project.

Try “Opposite Action” If You Can’t – in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a treatment for mood dysregulation championed by Marsha Linehan, there is a skill called Opposite Action. It’s one of my favorite skills. In brief, it goes a little something like this: feeling depressed with urges to isolate? Act the opposite – get out of bed, get active, get social. Feeling anxious with urges to avoid people or situations that you know will not bring you harm? Approach those people and situations anyway, with as much confidence as you can muster. Feeling really angry at your partner for minor irritations? Rather than attack, gently avoid until you can calm down or even act kindly toward him/her. The idea is not to suppress your emotion, but to still act opposite to it, such that the actions themselves help you regulate again. This only works in situations where your emotion doesn’t fit the facts (your friends aren’t likely to reject you) or where the intensity of your emotion is a little extreme (your partner hurt your feelings but didn’t mean to).IMG_0420

It’s Okay To Take a Day Off – don’t be too hard on yourself if you just can’t get out of the hole immediately. Sometimes our minds or bodies need a break, and falling in the hole is a way to get that break. Allow for some down time, some tears, some worries, some self-care, and some sleep. Just don’t stay stuck for too long. If you find you repeatedly can’t get out of the hole day after day, that’s a good indication that you may need some assistance from others – either professionals or those wise ones in your tribe.

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

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Gratitude: The Cure for What Ails You

I come to the page this morning to share something that’s been on my heart and mind, a practice that is my no. 1 go-to for moments of frustration, anxiety, inertia, and even hopelessness. Even when mindfulness seems like too much energy to muster and I am stuck in a place where my mind refuses to grant me a moment’s peace, I can always count on gratitude to help me take that next step forward in a healthy direction.

I practice Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with kids and teens, teaching the skills of mindfulness and coping on a near-daily basis to those whose brains can barely grasp much less practice the concepts, and to those whose hearts and minds have been harmed in ways unfathomable. Yet I keep teaching it, because at the heart of this behavioral treatment, there is a depth of wisdom, a philosophy even, that can powerfully change lives. One aspect of this treatment is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing concepts at the same time – “I am doing the best I can and I can do better.” As well as shifting perspective, back and forth between the forest (life goals) and trees (mindfulness). Gratitude is an excellent way to quickly shift perspective. In the midst of feeling there’s too much of this and not enough of that, you stop and recognize what already is and how absolutely perfect the present moment can be.IMG_1785

For some, taking a moment to reflect on gratitude may come quite easy. You stop and think, “My family, my job, my health.” For others, perhaps those in great pain and loneliness, it may be more difficult. Yet I am here to tell you that one doesn’t have to search far to find something or someone to be grateful for. Even with my most pained clients, all it takes is some gentle nudging to get them on their feet and smelling the roses of gratitude. It doesn’t cure a problem. It is not an ever-lasting happiness pill to pop. But in that moment, it can give you the oomph you need to take the next step toward your healthy life.

I invite you to take a few moments right now and consider at least 10 things you are grateful for in this present moment. Things that do not need to come to fruition in order for you to be grateful, but what you are grateful for right now. If you’re having a difficult time getting started, start with the basics: you have met enough of your basic needs to be here right now (food, shelter), you can read, you at least have the desire to desire more for yourself (you want to want, which is a start). As you gain in ability to open your heart in this way, consider even more specific and “simpler” things: the exact gift of the bird song outside your morning window, the freedom of feeling the earth beneath your bare feet, sipping your favorite tea from your favorite mug, and as I always say, the sweet summer perfection of strawberry rhubarb pie.

My 10 Things

1. getting to sleep late right in the middle of the bed, surrounded by pillows and the dabbling of morning light
2. looking back and seeing how I always get back on the horse, no matter how hopeless that may have seemed at times
3. fresh berries – blue, black, rasp, or straw
4. in the midst of summer, everything is gorgeous green – and the flowers!
5. these clothes that cover me, often softly
6. these feet that take me where I ask, usually without complaint
7. the Internet – seriously. So much knowledge, so many connections right at my fingertips
8. just how often I remember my dreams, the glimpses into my deeper struggles and knowing
9. human touch on a daily basis, hugs are profound
10. the cardinals, blue jays, squirrels and chipmunks who make it worth being outside despite the mosquitoes

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All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

From Do to Be: 12 Mindfulness Activities

After writing about mindfulness recently and suggesting 3 steps to create a more mindful life, it occurred to me that sometimes we need something more concrete in order to learn new skills. In this post I offer 12 simple mindfulness exercises to jump-start your mindful life!

1. Sitting at Your Desk: Take a few moments at your desk to pause and really experience the moment. How does your chair feel against your skin or fit against your bones? What smells can you detect? Is there music playing? What can you see without getting up to move? The point of this exercise is not to relax or even necessarily enjoy your surroundings (though that may be the outcome!). It’s to become aware of this place where you probably spend large amounts of time. What is this place – your desk? How does it feel to be sitting here?

2. Eating Breakfast: Instead of rushing out the door with a granola bar and a smoothie, set your alarm 10-15 minutes earlier and take time to eat breakfast before you leave for your day. Sit down with your meal, and focus your attention on the colors, tastes, and textures – even the life behind your food. Such as, this is an orange, but it is also of the sun, earth, rain, the farmers who nurtured the tree, etc. If you are able, you can experience the oneness of life and death in the eating – even for vegetarians, something had to die to nurture the soil that grows your food. And yet this food is life, sustenance.

3. Walking Around Your Block: Some evening this week after dinner or before breakfast, take the time to mosey around your block. Do this with the purpose of really seeing your neighborhood, maybe for the first time. Again, focus on your 5 senses. What can you see in gardens, architecture, wildlife? What do you smell? Taste in the air? How does the ground crunch or remain solid beneath you? Take time to smell the roses.

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4. Lover’s Eyes: You’ll have to gain your partner’s cooperation for this one. Maybe even invite him/her to join! Take a full 3-5 minutes to stare into your lover’s eyes. No kissing, talking, or anything other than noticing the exact shapes and colors, the mix of golden and stormy hues. How do his/her eyes look in the light, in the shadows? Can you see yourself reflected in the pupils?

5. Notice Your Breath: Tried but true, when needing an immediate anchor for mindlessness, return to the breath. Focus on how it feels coming in through your nose, cold perhaps down the back of your throat, shoulders rising or belly expanding, and then hot back out, warming you up. If your mind wanders (and it will!), there is no need for judgment. Just notice the wandering and then bring your attention back to your breath. Try this for just 5 minutes at first.

6. Read Your Favorite Poem: If you have a beloved poem, passage, or even song, take a moment and read it aloud. Really feel the rhythm and the words as they take shape on your lips. Notice what emotions rise for you as you read, how your body changes in tension or relaxation, in ache or weightlessness.

7. Just Listen: Turn off the TV and iPod, and just listen. Listen to the silence. The empty space. Listen to the train passing in the distance. Your children playing in the backyard. Listen to the electric hum of lights and machines. The creak of old wood. A bird calling just outside the window. Listen to the sound of your own breathing. Open your ears … what do you hear?

8. Notice A Certain Color: This is a fun exercise for the whole day. Pick a color (any color!) and every time you see it, take a moment to be mindful of your surroundings. “There’s orange!,” for instance, and then take a breath and really notice where you are. This is a double mindfulness, because you are remaining mindful of noticing this color (I bet you’ll see it more than you think), and then the promise of further connection to the present moment when you encounter that color.

9. Play with Kids (or Animals): Kids have amazing aptitudes for mindfulness. The world has not yet taught them to be self-conscious, running a to-do list in their heads, or how to worry incessantly about the past or future. This is a mindfulness practice of participation. Can you open yourself to the moment? The sand castle, the tea party, the made up game of cops and robbers with the rules changing at every turn? Can you be fully present to the excitement and joy of imagination? Let go of your conscientiousness, your worries, your need to be in control or productive. Just play.

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10. In the Shower: This is an activity that is often done in haste and without thought. Instead of running your shower routine mindlessly,  pay attention to the feel of the water on your back and face, the smell of your shampoo and soap, the way your razor or washcloth feels over your skin. Take a moment to breathe. Take a moment to just be naked and tender and alive with yourself.

11. Dancing: The idea is to actually lose yourself in the music, and let your body express what it wants to express. If you’re a little hesitant to do this at the club or in front of others, close the door to your bedroom and crank up the volume on your favorite song. Turn off the critic, and see what your body might enjoy sharing about this specific beat or those catchy lyrics.

12. Waiting in Line: Next time you’re waiting in line at the post office or for a table at a restaurant, rather than pulling out your smart phone, take a moment to take in your surroundings. Allow yourself to really breathe, and notice the people, the chatter, the white noise, the music, the art on the walls, the smells of food. Take a moment to notice where you really are, and who you’re sharing this space with for a short time.

I cannot iterate enough that the purpose of mindfulness is not to relax or even to feel content. The purpose of mindfulness is to be alive in the present moment as it is – to notice what is and enter into what is with a purpose that focuses your attention and strengthens your anchor to vitality. The purpose of mindfulness is to slow down and experience. To be alive in the moment you have, which is always and ever, only this one. The past is gone. The future may or may not happen in any certain way, or at all. Live this moment. Don’t let it pass you by in a string of missed opportunities. There is beauty all around you. Heartache, too. It all deserves your attention.

All content owned by Amanda Bowers

3 Steps to Mindful Living

Meditation. Zen. Mindfulness. These are now words of mainstream 21st century consciousness. Yet many don’t really know what they mean, or more importantly, how to use these concepts to enrich their lives. Some people envision monks meditating in monasteries at the tops of foreign mountains, others think of yoga practitioners twisting themselves into ever complex poses, and yet others may think of a blank slate heart where perpetual serenity whitewashes emotions off the canvas of life. In truth, all of these ideas are true. And yet they don’t have to be your truth. It is entirely possible to enjoy a more mindful life without devoting hours in meditation or yoga, and while still enjoying the stirrings of passion, hope, and what this Southern girl likes to call sweet sassy molasssy spunk.

So what is mindfulness? I’ll be the first to admit I am in no way an expert on the definition or practice of this art. The more I read about mindfulness, and the more I talk to people who value a mindful lifestyle, the more I realize that mindfulness is a subjective concept and practice. For me (and for others who share this mindset), mindfulness is more about living than reflecting. It’s more about being in the present moment than remembering that ugly altercation with a co-worker, running your to-do list over and over, and looking forward to dinner with your partner such that you don’t notice the lunch you’re eating now. (And we all know that dinner can then be filled with looking forward to dessert, to sex, to sleep … fill in the blank.) Mindfulness is a way of life that helps you slow down, enjoy the present, experience more novelty, and enhance your connection with yourself, those precious to you, and the world around you in all its beauty and strife.

So how can one become more mindful without signing on for hours of additional “work”? The easy and difficult task of it, is simply this:

1) Attention: We live in a world where our concentration is pulled in more and more directions at once. We can be bathing a child, planning tomorrow’s staff meeting, and casually glancing at work emails to which we feel we must reply as soon as possible all at the same time. We can be eating dinner, watching T.V., and remembering yesterday’s sorrows all at the same time. Mindfulness asks us for our full attention. Something we’ve probably not mustered to that extent since grade school when learning multiplication or creating a splendid holiday craft were all our minds could hold at any one time. Children and animals are exemplary models of mindfulness, yet as adults we have the ability to sustain our attention, and experience meaning from that attention in ways that a child never could. When mindful, we are in the present moment. That is all. You can be in the present moment listening to Prince, or eating a gourmet hamburger, or marveling at the exact curves and taste of your lover’s lips. You can be mindful when you’re driving to work or responding to emails or cooking dinner. Ask yourself to slow down and focus on this moment and this moment alone. Ask yourself, “How can I give this moment my full attention?”

2) Awareness: Now that you’ve slowed down enough to even realize what you’re doing or how you’re being in the moment, allow your awareness to blossom. Not sure how to do this? You can start by paying attention to your 5 senses: What do I touch, taste, hear, smell, see right now? What is this person really trying to communicate to me? What am I really trying to communicate to this person? How does my child’s hair smell right now, and now after I’ve bathed her? How many different colors are in this flower? How many different tastes in this strawberry rhubarb pie? How can I experience this moment instead of going through the motions of this moment? How is it different from all the other moments, even from other similar moments? This doesn’t mean you must get lost in all the intricacies of the particular: the early morning splash of light, the sound of an ambulance passing by, the photocopier oozing ozone into the air. But it does mean that as you remain in touch with your task, you recognize what you are doing as you are doing it, and what the world is offering back.

3) Participation: You’ve slowed down, you’ve noticed the moment, now release yourself to be in that moment. We all have our daily agendas. And agendas themselves are not to be discouraged. Yet getting from point “A” to “B,” or marking this and that off your to-do list does not mean you have to be mindless along the way. You can dance when your favorite song comes on the radio. You can compliment a co-worker’s new hair cut. You can savor the sweet sunshine you taste in your orange juice. You can notice your feelings and neither avoid or cling to them. You can merge into the moment – energetically – such that you experience flow. A flow from this to that to this. Nothing is ever the same. Each moment is always only what is. And when you’re really looking, what is, is so so much.

(Ideas about mindfulness influenced by Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a type of psychotherapy practice.)

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“I have lived with many Zen masters – all of them cats.” ~Eckhart Tolle

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.