A good friend of mine describes her depression as an elevator that takes her down to an unfurnished basement with toxic mold, the stench of cat urine and no windows. When she is there, she has difficulty believing that there are any floors above her. What she sees and smells, she surmises, is the sum total of her existence and she will rot there until her last breath.
We live so much of our day on automatic pilot — with little thought to what we are doing at the present moment — that we can get in that elevator with almost no effort on our part. Certain conversations or events trigger thoughts that push the “LL” (lower level) button. Then we walk out into a dark room and wonder how we got there.
Last week I attended a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) class in which we explored some of the trigger points for the elevator ride down to the basement, our stress reactions that usually happen automatically and unconsciously. When our thoughts get going on something, where do they end up? Where, exactly, does the elevator of distress stop?
Part of our homework assignment the week before was to journal about one unpleasant event a day. In one column we recorded how our body felt in detail during the experience; in another column what our moods, feelings and thoughts were that accompanied the event.
The twelve of us who were attending the MBSR class were told to turn to a partner to discuss one of the “unpleasant events” that happened last week. About five seconds into the exercise, the room got loud and emotions seemed to peel off the beige walls. You could sense the intensity in everyone’s conversations. After a while some shared with the larger group what they recorded in their journals.
One woman explained that an email from her husband saying that he was going to spend the evening working instead of hanging out with her triggered a cascade of thoughts and emotions that went to the familiar sore of rejection, a deep groove or pathway that had been paved by thoughts and experiences throughout the years in her brain. “The groove predates when I met my husband — so it doesn’t have anything to do with him — but it is there and can be triggered easily,” she said.
Another woman talked about how she wants to run from all conflict, especially with her husband, because she fears any kind of confrontation will result in an abusive situation, where she has to take the kids and run from him. “I know this is ridiculous, since he is gentle and kind and not at all the kind of abusive person that my stepfather was to my mom,” she said. “But that’s where my emotions takes me. A simple sigh from him can sometimes trigger the fear.”
Certain thoughts are the entry points to the elevator, so identifying them is key. Then we are able to get out of the elevator before it reaches the basement.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the MBRS program, discusses ways to catch our stress reactions and how to respond in his classic text, Full Catastrophe Living.
First and foremost is the breath.
Tuning to the sensations of breathing anywhere we can feel them in the body allows us to drop below the surface agitations of the mind into relaxation, calmness, and stability, without having to change anything at all. The agitation and choppiness may still be at the surface of the mind, just as the wave and turbulence are at the surface of the water during stormy conditions. But in resting in awareness of the breath sensations, even for a moment or two, we are out of the wind and protected from the buffeting action of the waves and their tension-producing effects. This is an extremely effective way to reconnect with the potential for calmness within you.
Concentrating on the breath is the easiest and most effective way to get out of the elevator. It’s the best anchor we have for living in the moment because the breath always happens in the present. Breathing at the belly is especially grounding because we are tuning into a region of the body that is far enough from the thinking head that we have a shot at not hearing all of its chatter.
During our exercise at the MBSR class, in between sharing our basement material, we would break for a few “mindful sighs,” where you take a deep breath in through your nose and exhale through your mouth with a deep sigh. Three mindful sighs took approximately a minute to do, but the effect was substantial.
Writes Kabat-Zinn: “If you can manage to bring your attention to your breathing for even the briefest of moments, it will set the stage for facing that moment and the next one with greater clarity.”
We also can try to locate our emotions in a particular place in our body.
Where are we holding our tension?
Before completing the homework assignment, where we had to record in detail the bodily sensations accompanying a stressful or negative event, I was not aware that my neck and upper shoulders hold so many of my emotions. By focusing our attention on those areas, consciously relaxing our muscles in the regions we hold our pressure, we can catch our stress reactions as they are emerging and circumvent a trip to the basement. Kabat-Zinn writes:
When you look into a symptom with the full power of mindfulness, whether it is a muscle tension, a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, fever or pain, it gives you much more of a chance to remember to honor your body and listen to the messages it is trying to give you. When we fail to honor these messages, either through denial or by an inflated and self-involved preoccupation with symptoms, we can sometimes create serious dilemmas for ourselves.
In other words, you end up in the basement.
Read the other articles in this series: “Why I Enrolled in the MBSR Program,” “Dancing in the Rain: Learning to Live with Treatment-Resistant Depression & Chronic Pain,” and “Non-Striving, Non-Judging, and the Pillars of Mindfulness Practice.”