Why a Deep Breathing Practice Impacts Your Mental Health

Are you breathing? Like, for real?

I don’t remember a lot from my Latin class in college, but I remember this one phrase: “Dum spiro, spero.” It means, “While I breathe, I hope.” This quote has been heavy on my mind in light of everything going on today.

There is so much confusion and uncertainty causing mental distress and pain. It seems as if everyone is divided, and we are required to take extreme stances for every issue. I swear, if I wrote up a post about why I love having a dog, the cat people would come after me and attack my character. Totally kidding, but do you get what I’m saying? Have you felt the same way recently? It’s like everyone is on edge and forcing each other to pick sides… but when it’s the “wrong side” – you’re cancelled.

It’s exhausting. I find myself tense and edgy as a result, quick to react instead of thoughtfully respond. It keeps me in a triggered state. It keeps me STRESSED.

Chronic stress, or being in a constant state of fight or flight, can have negative effects on our immune system, digestive function, blood sugar, blood pressure, reproductive organs, decision-making ability, empathy, and so much more!

However, a regular practice of breathwork (deep intentional breathing) has been proven, time and time again, to take our body out of chronic “fight or flight” and straight into “rest and digest” mode. When we are only taking short, shallow breathes through the mouth, we perpetuate that stressed state. I’ve recently found that wearing a mask for a long time disrupts my breathing. I start breathing through my mouth more and I begin to feel a little panicked. I know that’s no bueno for my overall health.

If you could do JUST ONE THING for your health today, can you promise me you will take a few deep breaths?  As you may know, I’m a big fan of the simple 4-7-8 approach. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and out through your mouth for 8. Repeat two to three times. There are excellent apps to help get you started in a regular breathing practice as well, from Headspace to Insight Timer, to faith-based apps like One Minute Pause and Abide.

For more on the importance of deep breathing and how to incoporate it into your daily life, check out my video below!

Cognitive Dissonance – Why We Can’t Just Get Along

I consider myself a lifelong observer of human nature. I love questioning and digging into motivations and why people respond and interact the way they do. I love people-watching. Since my people-watching opportunities are limited right now, I prefer opinion-stalking on social media.

Lately I have been wrestling with the concept of cognitive dissonance. Once you understand how it works, you can see it happening all over your newsfeeds.

Here is the definition: “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”

What this means is when you encounter an opinion or belief contrary to your own, it causes a knee-jerk response of defensiveness, shutdown, or absolute denial that any belief system other than your own could potentially be true. It causes an inability to give anyone the benefit of the doubt because that may mean that your belief isn’t as rock solid as you thought, or maybe – you have been wrong.

For example, let’s bring up the topic of vaccination. This is a hot button topic for so many so it feels like a perfect example to start with. In fact, I can already sense you getting uncomfortable. In my observations, it seems to be more common to shut down someone and call them “anti-vaxxer” than to sit down and ask questions about their decisions and thought process. Why? Because if that person shares that their child was injured by a vaccine, and you have the belief that vaccines are completely safe, it may cause you to question whether you are opening up your own child to injury – and no parent wants to believe that. See? Cognitive dissonance. So we shut down, say those people are ignorant with their “Google degree,” and refuse to listen or give them the benefit of the doubt. I get it because I was once there, too. I didn’t want to consider an opposing view of vaccines.

Now, someone reading this is already shutting down and refusing to read the rest – so to that I would question, why? Why is this offensive to you? I would encourage you to dig into that and maybe sit down with someone who stopped vaccinating their child. You might find, like I did, that no parent chooses to make such an extreme decision for their child without doing a lot of research (beyond a Google search). I would even wager to guess that the majority of parents I know will do anything it takes to keep their kids safe – and that might look different from parent to parent. It may not change your mind, but at least it could create an environment of care and sympathy, something that often seems to be lacking in this controversial conversation.

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I’ll bring up another example to make you even more uncomfortable. White privilege. Systemic racism. “Systemic racism doesn’t exist.” I hear that from time to time. And when that belief gets challenged, it causes more shutdown, more defensiveness, and maybe some articles or videos thrown in. Cognitive dissonance causes such an internal storm that it makes it nearly impossible to listen to anything other than your view. But remember, like my first example, just because you haven’t experienced something yourself doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For those who don’t believe in white privilege or systemic racism, I’d encourage you to sit down with a person of color. Talk to them about their experience. Listen to their stories. As I mentioned above, you don’t have to change your mind, but maybe you could show someone you care enough to consider an alternate perspective.

Continue reading “Cognitive Dissonance – Why We Can’t Just Get Along”

Tips to Take Charge of Your Health During the Era of Covid

As an advocate for whole body healing, I really hoped this virus situation would open up new discussions on how to take care of our personal health.

Have I missed something?

We are NOT a healthy country. This should be opening our eyes, but it’s not.

The U.S. spends the most on health care compared to other developed countries BUT has lower life expectancy, highest infant mortality, highest suicide rates, and highest rates of chronic disease.

We’re masking the real issue. Yes, pun intended.

The actions I take for my health actually don’t impact your health. YOU have to advocate for yourself. And you are not powerless. There is so much hope!

Here are some of my favorite tips for taking personal responsibility for your health. I hope these are as helpful for you as they have been for me. Continue reading “Tips to Take Charge of Your Health During the Era of Covid”

Thanks to PTSD, I’ll Never Be a Hero

Thanks to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I’ll never be a hero.

I want to. I’d like to think that I’m a person of action, and that if I witness a dangerous event I’ll jump right into rescue mode. I’m a nice woman, and I like helping.

But I can’t. Trauma keeps me from moving. Trauma keeps me frozen in place, dissociating myself from reality, stuck to the floor in cement boots.

I taught English for 11 years, so looking back, I’m glad the topic of “disaster response time” wasn’t a job interview question. I wouldn’t have passed to the next level of interviews, that’s for sure.

I remember once when I worked at a middle school, a substitute teacher passed out in a classroom down the hall from me. I heard students running down the hallway, calling for the nurse. I peeked my head out the door, knowing I needed to check and see what was going on, knowing I needed to respond. But everything started moving in slow motion. I heard cries, I heard the words “CPR,” I saw others in action. But I was frozen. I couldn’t move.

I was chained to the past.

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I was 9 years old again, listening to the cries of my mother and grandmother as they try to revive my dying grandfather. I hear my grandma shout “No Freeman!” I watch him falling out of the car to the sidewalk and onto my front lawn. I watch them get out an epi pen, perform CPR, yelling for help.

I watch his eyes roll back.

Continue reading “Thanks to PTSD, I’ll Never Be a Hero”

Freedom from the Mental Illness Shame Cycle

When I was 21, I made a suicide pact with myself. I felt the weight of the world on a consistent basis, as I struggled with depression, mania, and the chaos of jumping from one failed medication to the next. My mind was not my friend, and I didn’t feel safe in my body. At the young age of 21, I was fatigued from fighting the swirling thoughts and the heavy waves. I was burdened by being the only one who suffers from such a debilitating disorder.

I didn’t want to be on this exhausting earth any longer than necessary.

I decided that by my 41st birthday, I would end it all.

Today I turn 39. I have been in a stable place mentally for over a decade. The giant roller coaster I used to ride with my moods is now just a soft swell, a gentle up and down of a kiddie coaster.

I have no intention of ending my life. Not now. Not ever.

img_7600My life is a gift. My illness is a gift. For so long I lived in shame about my diagnosis. I didn’t want to share about it, and I didn’t want to look “abnormal.” I knew I carried a stigma. Today I am learning that thanks to my moods, I get to see the world from a different lens. Colors are richer and brighter to me. The air is fresher. Sounds are more soothing and meaningful. Everything is vibrant and alive. And even when they are not, and I experience a drop in my mood, I see the dark side and feel more deeply than others… meaning I can empathize with others’ pain in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I know now that my pain has a purpose. My pain showed me who I can be in spite of a broken brain.

Continue reading “Freedom from the Mental Illness Shame Cycle”

Being Bipolar in a Global Crisis

No amount of sugar or substance can make my brain buzz the way a dose of hypomania can. The ideas, the thoughts, and the LIFE that course through my head – all those are amplified in a time of crisis or extreme change. Being thrown off my daily routine or sleep schedule is a risk to my mental health. So throwing me into a global pandemic and giving me access to information 24/7 can really shake things up.

I find myself hopping around from medical research sites to conspiracy theory groups to political commentaries and read over all the comments and opinions. I am an excellent mimic. In order to manage my symptoms early on, I found a way to adapt to acceptable behavior and commentary, so I wouldn’t have to stand out any more than my buzzing brain could allow. I know what I shouldn’t voice in public or on social media, at risk of anyone thinking I am “crazy,” the C word accusation being one of my biggest threats. I fear other people’s opinions of me more than the average person, because deep down inside I know that my brain functions differently from everyone else’s, and that is scary. So I turn inward, and obsess, and research some more, and head down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, at the expense of my sanity.

At first the racing thoughts and buzz are a high, and they fuel me and energize me. At some point though, my brain reaches breaking point and I have to make it stop. I’ve been down these roads long enough to know where they end – in verbal explosions or in heavy medication to shut it all off.

ferris wheel and ship
The carousel ride that is bipolar disorder.

So I fight. I maintain my mind by shutting off my triggers. I stop researching, stop listening and reading to anything that will throw me into a black hole of information. I take naps, and I go to sleep early. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never struggled with sleep. I can always breathe myself to sleep. In for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, out for 8 seconds. I burn off the energy through heavy exercise. I write, I dig into my feelings and name what is going on instead of escaping through obsessive behaviors.

The thing about bipolar disorder, is that it manifests differently in everyone. Everyone struggles in a unique way, and everyone has different triggers.

*To hear more details from others who suffer and how they manage, click to listen to Episode 29 of the podcast on my show page or subscribe on iTunes.

I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tools for finding stability during times of major stress or life change. Before I list them, here is the caveat – these tools aren’t always effective in the middle of a full-fledged episode. It is really hard to tell someone who cannot physically get out of bed due to depression, “You should just lace up your shoes and go outside. Why are you just laying there?” Or telling someone who’s manic, “Slow down and go to sleep.” It doesn’t work like that. These are physical illnesses that affect the physical function of our bodies. Our brains aren’t capable of telling our bodies to do what our bodies need to do. This is why we have to be on the offense and employ these tools REGULARLY, during times of stability, so that they are habitual and instinctual. The sooner we can tighten up these strategies at the beginning of the roller coaster climb or at the beginning of the dip downward, the better off we will be. Continue reading “Being Bipolar in a Global Crisis”

Mom Life During a Pandemic: How We Can Best Support Our Kids’ Mental Health

I don’t have to remind anyone that the last few weeks of this pandemic and period of social distance have been unlike anything experienced or seen in our lifetime. My work schedule has been interrupted, my husband’s work schedule has been interrupted, our social life has disappeared, and my kids are completely thrown off. Field trips were cancelled, basketball season has been delayed, and school went online until…when? Do we even know? Dates spin in and out of my head, fighting for the return of normalcy. Is it April 9th? 21st? Or do we wait for the 30th to resume prior activities? I can’t even keep track.

This kind of disruption and uncertainty is difficult for me. Change of all kind is hard for me, especially as one who fights to stay mentally stable. I get the opportunity to verbalize that, share about it with my friends (via phone or text only, of course), and have long discussions with my husband.

My kids, however, don’t know how to express their fear or anxiety as well. For them, it comes out in misbehavior, aggression, moodiness, hyperactivity, tearfulness, or even closed off apathy. That is developmentally understandable. As their prefrontal cortexes are still developing, it is difficult for them to access emotions or positive decision-making when they are in fight or flight mode. A stressful trigger, like being told they can no longer see their friends or go to school, is going to take a toll on their bodies. Stress hormones get ramped up, contributing to more fear and anxiety that is difficult to process. Chronic stress can also affect the immune system and its function.

This is true for adults as well. Even though we have the luxury of developed brains, it is still difficult to access our frontal lobe and respond appropriately to hardship when we are faced with extreme stressors.

So what is the solution?

It starts with us.

Continue reading “Mom Life During a Pandemic: How We Can Best Support Our Kids’ Mental Health”

The Age of Outrage

I try to be very intentional about what I choose to speak out on. I am a woman with a LOT of opinions on a lot of things, but I prize relationships over my opinions so I don’t speak up if I fear it will hinder authentic relationship-building.

That being said, I have spent the last 5 days silently observing the frenzy taking over my newsfeeds. It has deeply disturbed me, though maybe not for reasons you would think. I’m ready to speak up now.

We are currently caught up in a viral response system. We are tangled up in an age of outrage, and nobody is immune.

As a result of this age of outrage, everyone is REACTING to everything, and nobody is RESPONDING to anything. And there’s a physiological reason this is occurring.

But before I explain that, here is what I mean by the age of outrage:

After a skillful performance that was a dazzling and empowering celebration of Latin American culture at the Super Bowl halftime show, my newsfeed blew up in criticism. I’m not surprised by much anymore, but that caught me off guard. I didn’t expect anything different from performers like Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, so I didn’t understand the outrage and shock. (Side note – I also spent most of the show dancing along and trying to do whatever they were doing, so I didn’t scrutinize every movement either.) Did it bother me that a 50 year old has to strive to look like a 25 year old to stay relevant and desirable? Maybe. But again, I didn’t expect anything different from the entertainment industry.

What affected me the most and what caused me to silently observe, hesitant to say anything at all, is that everyone seemed to be REACTING based on their own perception of the show, based on their own life stage and season, based on their own personal triggers. And so many of these reactions and post fed MORE posts, and shares, and back and forth commentaries.

For this reason, I am NOT going to share any more of my personal views, as they are multi-layered and will cause division and have nothing to do with the reason I am writing this. Now, I could talk about clothing choices and unfortunate camera angles (seriously – was J Lo’s gynecologist filming???) but that’s not what I want to get at here. Continue reading “The Age of Outrage”

The Myth of More

“Our discontent is fueled by the myth of more.”

My brilliant dad, Gary Brandenburg, recently said that in a sermon. It hit me so hard I had to do some major self-reflection.

I am a person who always wants more. This started at a young age:

Why have one Whopper when you can have two?

Why have one doughnut when you can have eight?

Why join one sport when you can play them all?

Why audition for just the school play when you can audition for the community theatre play, too?

Why volunteer in just one church ministry when you can volunteer in multiple?

But it doesn’t stop there. I don’t want to simply DO everything, I want to EXCEL at everything. So I can not only have more activity and excitement, but I can have more accolades and achievement.

I know I’m not the only one. I think our current culture drives this mindset through all the pleasant distractions that trick us into fulfillment.

The result? This “myth of more” causes major boundary issues, and it is completely unrealistic.

When I am consumed by the myth of more, I say yes to too much. I overdo it. I crash. I let myself down. I let others down – typically, the ones who matter most to me.

I can’t do everything and do every thing well.

When I’m rushing to find satisfaction from achievement or excess or MORE, I can’t be present. I can’t be satisfied.

This Thanksgiving week, I have purposefully taken a week off from my usual schedule to meditate daily, enjoy good meals, have fun with my family, read fiction instead of non-fiction health books, spend quality time with my husband, and just BE. When I catch my mind spinning on things I “have to” or “need to” do – usually those things driven by a need to find fulfillment in distraction – I stop my thoughts, take a deep breath through my nose, and tell myself, “This week I am resting. That can wait.”

It is a beautiful thing. I always find contentment when I choose to be present and grateful.

So wherever you are reading this, take a deep breath, hold it, let it out slowly, and tell yourself that you already have everything you need, right in front of you!

“And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” -‭‭ Philippians‬ ‭4:19‬

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Kanye, Bipolar Disorder, Religiosity, and My Thoughts

While my entire Facebook feed is filled with articles and comments about Kanye West’s new album and recent conversion, I have stayed silent. Why?

Because number one, I don’t really know anything about Kanye to begin with (other than the time he hijacked Taylor Swift’s speech on the VMAs and the famous rant about George Bush not caring about black people). He has kids with weird names and a wife with an awesome body. That’s about all I know. Superficial? Maybe. I can’t tell you the name of any of his songs. They’re not on my running playlist.

Number two, what he does or says doesn’t have any affect on me personally. If he wants to sing songs about being rich and famous or songs about Jesus – cool. I typically don’t speak up about issues in pop culture unless I feel they have some kind of heart-twisting impact on me and my life… or if they have some kind of mental health connection.

So when I heard he suffers from bipolar disorder, that’s when the light bulb turned on. How did I miss this? Talk about a plot twist! It led me to take an interest in all the Kanye news of the last year or so. While many out there are debating whether his conversion is real or a publicity stunt, my first thought upon learning this is – is this all a manic episode?

Continue reading “Kanye, Bipolar Disorder, Religiosity, and My Thoughts”