Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Now more than ever we need to be intentional about our thoughts.
I woke up and realized my first thoughts were “we are in a pandemic.”As my heart started to race, I looked around my bedroom. My nightstand had the usual array of items; Kleenex box, pen and highlighter, devotional and the book I am currently reading on neuroscience and leadership. I looked out the window and was awed by what I saw. It was business as usual … the chipmunks were playfully scurrying about the moss covered rocks near our waterfall and the birds were singing their usual melodies. It all looked so peaceful… so normal.
I sat back down on my bed and remembered I can’t control what is going on in the world. I can and need to control my thoughts and my breathing.
Desiring to start my day more intentionally, I sat down, focused on my breath and began to breathe deeply. In through my nose, hold for two, strong exhale out my mouth. Repeat. Repeat.
As I continued to breathe in this way, I then turned my thoughts to… my thoughts. Something most of us never learned to do - were never taught in school and virtually have no modeling for. Many people have little awareness about what their thoughts are more than a vague awareness of I am hungry, bored, or tired.
Why does this matter?
Our thoughts play a huge role in our health and wellbeing. Our very thoughts determine which chemicals are careening through our bodies. When we think dark, negative, worrisome thoughts, we ignite our sympathetic nervous system and invite a host of stress hormones.
Once we access our sympathetic nervous system, a cascade of internal events occur. Our heart rate and blood pressure go up. Our breath becomes shallow meaning we don’t get the necessary amount of oxygen to our brain. Adrenaline and norepinephrine, course through our body. You may have a vague sense of this feeling when you realize you feel afraid, panicked, or you experience tight muscles.This sympathetic state occurs when we are met with any real OR perceived threat; we can think ourselves into a sympathetic state and set off the whole cascade of events just described, by our thoughts alone!
We are designed to be in this state ONLY periodically and for short duration. In those acute episodes, most of us easily recover from this “fight or flight” mode.
However these are clearly not normal times. So much of our lives have been disrupted. People are sick, the world is closed, and the financial hardship and worry for some is overwhelming.
This results in more people living in a chronic state of fight, flight or freeze. They are enduring life on a daily basis with a constant sympathetic load. That is NOT what the human body is built for. This chronic state of being leads to a host of physical, emotional, and mental consequences that are detrimental. Living life in sympathetic mode increases the likelihood of inflammation, obesity and disease. We are more prone to any sickness and disease when our immune system is depressed. Additionally, we are more likely to feel anxious, sad or depressed. We are less likely to think straight and consider options to any of our problems. Relationally, we are more prone to irritability and impatience as our body and brain suffer with living chronically in this sympathetic state.
So what options do we have then you may be wondering…
Despite your present circumstances, you have the option to carve out time, every morning and throughout the day to unplug, and intentionally take what I call “Cave time”. This is a concept I introduce to my clients as well as bring into the workplace when I consult. Cave time allows for the one most important task, which is managing yourself.
Start with your breath. Inhale as deeply as you can through your nose and hold for 2 seconds. Then forcefully blow the air out with your lips in an “O” as you exhale. It is not nearly important the count of your inhalations or exhalations- what matters is that you begin to practice this as a new habit. Each day your lung capacity will grow ( a good thing in these times) but you will also be accomplishing something of great importance- you will access your parasympathetic nervous system, commonly referred to as the “rest and digest” system.
You also access your parasympathetic nervous system when you get a massage, dance ( if you enjoy it), have sex, eat chocolate, do yoga, or take a walk in nature… in other words anything that feels relaxing or rejuvenating.
This is the place we were intended to live more often than not. Think about the pace of life you were living before COVID-19. Did that pace have you living more often in your sympathetic or parasympathetic state?
Additionally, start paying attention to your thoughts. Question them for accuracy. Is it certain you will contract Covid -19 or is that your fear? Be aware of the thoughts that do not serve you or lead you down the worry rabbit hole. Journaling your thoughts is one way to increase your awareness of them.
We can’t do anything about the way we were living. But you and I have a choice today about the state of our brain and mental health moving forward.
Today you can choose to breathe deeply and begin to control your thoughts so that the “happy chemicals” can flood your brain. We can all enjoy the feeling of deep breaths, relaxed muscles and more joy in our life and relationships… even now.