I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.
– Eckhart Tolle
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awarness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
Today is the first second Tuesday – if that makes sense – in four months when Eva has not required chemo. I said to her this evening, ‘That’s great. We’re not preparing ourselves for a week of shite.’ Not exactly Rumi.
Eva’s body is still battered by its effects, though. We spent five or six hours out of the house on Sunday, and she felt terrible for the next day or so. We are realising more the extent of this and what she can and cannot expect from her body.
And our minds. Our minds! This never-ending undulating coming and going of thoughts and feelings. The constant assessing of how do we feel? How does Eva feel? How are the kids doing? It would be easier to compartmentalise and cut oneself off from the depth and variety of feelings, but it is something we actively avoid doing. For some people, compartmentalising and suppressing difficult emotions can be a survival technique that allows continued functioning in day-to-day life. It is a live-or-die means of coping. I’ve definitely been a compartmentaliser at various times in my life, but in my personal experience it has usually ended up ultimately as an unhelpful process. I’ve learned that, with a now relatively healthy mental state and helpful coping mechanisms, it’s most useful to face discomfort head-on. This is not admirable bravery, but it is my current ‘survival technique’. For me, keeping unacknowledged fears of Eva’s mortality or the toll of this on our family or the implications for my career buried in a place where I try to pay them no heed, will raise its head in increased levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout. (Ad endum: this is a technique that does not work for people who are suffering from severe trauma or extreme personality disorders, where the experience of distressing feelings can lead to harmful and destructive behaviours. These should be addressed with an experienced practitioner.)
So how do we best deal with uncomfortable feelings, emotions, and to some extent, memories? Back in my day job I was confronted daily by people who were essentially dealing with high degrees of internal distress. Often people find it very difficult to distinguish what it is exactly that they are experiencing: fear, depression, hopelessness, anger, sadness, internalised self-hatred, regret, and confusion are probably amongst the commonest, but often two or more will co-exist. Being disengaged from reality, such as in psychosis or some types of trauma-related experiences, further worsen people’s ability to articulate what their internal experience is. And some people, for a raft of complex and fascinating reasons, simply deny that they are feeling anything.
Yesterday a lady who lives in the town where we live, who first introduced herself after having come across this blog, said to me that when her daughter-in-law was going through colorectal cancer, she and her son ‘did not have the words to express how they felt’ about what they were going through. This is a common theme when people experience difficult experiences; how do we translate our internal, complex, mish-mash, private, and confusing experience into words – a means of communication and labeling? I think we often feel overwhelmed and lost at the prospect of even trying to turn feelings into words; one is an intensely personal experience which is largely mediated by ill-defined sensations and physical impressions, whilst the other – language – is precise and concise and obeys various rules and conventions. Most of us find it difficult to work out what we’re feeling at the best of times, and some find it difficult to put the ‘right’ amount of weight on a feeling that they are experiencing (i.e. over-reacting or feeling overly affected by a particular emotion). How do we then neatly unpack it and label it and place it in an organised filing cabinet?
One of the risks of not paying attention to feelings is that they are a potentially helpful product of complex neurobiological processes which originate in deep parts of the brain. Over millions of years, they have grown and evolved to develop into a sophisticated and nuanced warning system. Anger and sadness and hurt and surprise served us well in surviving predators and attacking foes and the elements of nature. Our lives nowadays are more complex; we are not (often) preoccupied with escaping sabre tooth tigers or a pillaging neighbouring tribe or sheltering outside from a cyclone. Our enemies are: excessive stress; lack of physical activity and stimulation; subtle and more devious forms of competition with competitors; complex social communication systems; unstable political leaders and systems; rumoured virtual enemies and persistent bombardment with horrific world news. These are our ‘normal’ stresses in the west. Others struggle with eking out a daily survival, financial ruin, and natural disasters. When you add in something like childhood abuse or dysfunctional parenting, or even a more recent event which results in a traumatised response, the deep regulatory systems of the brain are often hyper-aroused. If this happens during childhood and, to some degree, adolescence there is correspondingly poor development of parts of the prefrontal cortex – our decision-making and self-actualising centre – of the brain. Stress and abuse and disrupted relationship with a primary caregiver actually forms the way our brains grow and develop. In the same way that in later life smoking, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and hypertension have adverse effects on the blood supply to the brain and the brain changes in reaction, we see that the brain is a plastic and versatile organ which is changed both by things within the body and things outside.
So what do we do when the voices in our head are screaming ‘I don’t know what I feel’, or are frozen silent in terror, or are confused and anxious, going round and round in ruminations of all the unfortunate things that have happened and all the bad that potentially could happen?
Breathing is helpful on a lot of fronts and I recommend it heartily. When we breathe consciously slowly and deeply, we start regulating the most primeval part of our brain (the brain stem) which contains the neuronal bodies of the nerves enervating the basic rhythms of human life: heart rate and breathing rate. Deepening our breath also increases pressure in the chest, which further activates the part of our peripheral nervous system which is involved in relaxation and non-fight or flight response – the parasympathetic nervous system.
Now’s the scary part. When we are not rushing around and breathing fast and sweating and being tense and distracting ourselves and thinking – or saying – ‘shit shit shit’ all the time, we are even more confronted with this massive tumbling mass of clamouring sensations and voices. It’s so overwhelming and scary and can be too difficult for some people (without support and therapy and training) to handle by themselves. The overwhelming internal conflict that some people experience is thought to be the driver that leads to poorly understood behaviours such as deliberate self-harm (cutting, burning, intoxication, binge eating, purging, and, I think, also starvation in anorexia) and impulsive suicide. So these are not soft little clouds of worry I’m talking about here.
So we start breathing again, and coming back to our breath. When we feel pounding in our ears or sweat dripping or our minds being paralysed by thoughts of future horror – come back to the breath. It’s our most natural bodily rhythm which has been with us since seconds after arriving in the world and will be one of the last physiological things to happen before we leave it. That breath is our friend. Feel its coolness going in and its warmth going out. And just as the terror or rushing thoughts or feelings of weakness or ineptitude start poking up again….think about that breath.
It sounds trite and simplistic but it is the best place to start when it comes to actually figuring out what our feelings are when we are in the midst of being overwhelmed by them. Only once there is a lower degree of activation and physiological arousal, which we sense by decreased heart rate, breathing, perspiration, and decreased levels of circulating stress hormones, does our brain enter a place where the ‘smart’ bit can actually engage with these complex sensations and cognitively work through some of the stuff that’s going on. Again, for someone with a significant history of trauma, abuse, or disrupted attachment, this process will be long and drawn-out and complicated due to what can be termed brain damage that has taken place. But the brain is plastic and can remould itself, which is great news.
So what else can alleviate this turbo boost that our brains tend to resort to when under stress? If it was as easy as breathing, surely everyone would be fine, would they not? There are a lot of things we can do, and they take time to learn. But for me, learning to sit with the scariest and biggest and most anxiety-provoking feelings has been a great lesson. Sitting on them, squeezing them into a suitcase and then dropping that into the ocean is ineffective; it pops back up to the surface hours or days or months or years later.
For me, simultaneously activating my body has also been very important. Many people talk about the benefits of sport to their mental health and overall sense of well-being. Any sport is great, and we should all do more; however, I think it’s easy to mistake the exhaustion of a hard gym session or a fast run for internal peace and quiet. It definitely releases some feel-good hormones, but it’s not necessarily done in a mindful way. In other words, the next time that those uncomfortable feelings arise and you can’t immediately start doing some chest presses or a 10km run, the patterns of reacting to those feelings will repeat themselves. Mindfully-practiced exercise like yoga (which can be done to get either an intense strength or aerobic workout if desired) combines a few great facets: there is concentration on the breath and the associated beneficial physiological changes that take place with that; there is acknowledgement that we are composed of a body and mind (that part which, for the sake of argument, experiences emotions and feelings), and some believe spirit too; it works to bring homeostasis by literally stretching the body and holding postures to a state of muscle fatigue whilst concentrating on breath and being aware of sensations going on inside us. This is what some people refer to as grounding – being aware of where our body is in space and time whilst simultaneously holding in our awareness the feelings which we are experiencing in that moment. It’s actually pretty tricky to practice breathing, focus on that breath, pay attention to the physical strain on your body, and worry at the same time! It is a bit magical or spiritual how it happens – I don’t know if there is a physiological basis for it – but when there is actual alignment of the body, and attention given to our mind and spirit (whatever that may be for you), there is a profound level of deactivation of our ‘shit shit shit’ centres in the brain. That’s my explanation, anyway.
I know that over the last months that practicing yoga and mindfulness techniques have been super helpful for both Eva and I. There is a lot of misunderstanding of what both these things are, and I’d encourage you, if you struggle to figure out what you’re feeling and regulate your reactions to those, to investigate them both. And if you’re not interested in figuring out what you’re feeling, that poses an interesting question which I’ll invite you to explore on your therapist’s chaise longue one day.