It is a time when we generally take inventory of the year about to pass and maybe even make a resolution or two on how we might enact some self-improvement. As for me, this year feels like it calls for something different. Like a lot of you folks, I expected things to turn out better, especially after coming out of 2020.
As recently reported by USA Today’s Dennis Wagner, after the creators of the Bloom self-therapy app surveyed 28 historians about the world’s “most stressful year ever,” 2020 came in sixth, “just behind the sacking of Rome by barbarians.” Time magazine took it even further describing 2020 with a cover proclaiming it “The Worst Year Ever.”
We can’t realistically rate 2021 much higher. It was certainly not the bounce-back year many anticipated. “We hoped, maybe even expected, 2021 would be better,” writes Wagner, “And, now that it wasn’t, we have to wonder about 2022.” We know that the holiday season is stressful even under the best of circumstances. As neuroscientist and author Magdalena Bak-Maier recently stated on NPR, “Christmas, you know, is very known to psychologists for being a highly triggering sort of event.” Sadly, the feelings are not all positive and reassuring ones. Now, as we are about to enter the New Year, the pandemic rages with our nervous systems holding on high alert.
Thomas Paine, whose writings influenced the American Revolution and helped pave the way for the Declaration of Independence, was a visionary who knew the rewards from bearing down during troubling times. He once proclaimed, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” That vision assumed a people united. As reported back in January, a CBS News poll found that 54% of Americans believed “the biggest threat to our way of life isn’t economic collapse, natural disasters or foreign invasions — but our own fellow Americans.” This view has not exactly brightened over the last 12 months.
As Kate Sweeny, a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside explains to USA Today, we seem constantly caught between positive and negative outlooks. It is part of the human condition.
While a bright outlook “reduces stress and motivates individuals to bounce back when things go bad,” history shows that too much optimism can lead to disaster. “Pessimism softens disappointment,” says Sweeny, who runs the University’s Life Events Lab. “But it could translate into debilitating stress.” The healthiest approach may be found in a balance between the two.
I would add that the first step in assessing these conflicting feelings might be to follow an age-old piece of advice. When experiencing stress, fear or anger, start by taking a deep, relaxing breath of air.
Says Daniela Ramirez, a member of the teaching staff at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Positive Psychology, “often unconscious and overlooked, breathing can be highly potent and beneficial for physical and mental health.”
“Deep breathing involves the whole torso, from the lower belly up to the base of the neck,” she writes in a recent post on Positive Psychology. “Many contemplative disciplines such as meditation, yoga, tai chi and qi gong integrate this type of breathing into their practices.” It is also true of most sports, especially the martial arts.
So often, if we think of it at all, we see breathing as an automatic, unconscious process. Ramirez reminds us that “Eastern perspectives like Taoism and Hinduism have long considered breath as the manifestation of vital energy residing in the body. After all, life begins with an inhalation and ends with an exhalation.”
Today, science has been exploring the “effectiveness of deep-breathing exercises for improving psychological and physiological stress,” Ramirez writes. “From a scientific perspective, breathing also encompasses a vital force. Oxygen enables cells to undertake chemical processes to produce energy to keep the body functioning.”
We know that when people feel pain, they tend to breathe faster. Reports Medical Xpress, researchers at the Salk Institute have now established that pain and anxiety impact breathing on a cellular level. The hope is that their findings could lead to development of an analgesic that would prevent opioid-induced respiratory depression, the disrupted breathing that causes overdose deaths.
Through the years, it has been demonstrated that practicing proper breathing techniques can reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. In addition, according to Ramirez’s research, “studies on slow-breathing techniques consistently suggest their ability to foster positive emotions and behaviors, facilitating emotional regulation and overall wellbeing.”
At the dawning of this new year, in this world that feels so divisive, dangerous and overwhelming, maybe the best move forward is to take a step back. To gather ourselves in by taking some deep, cleansing breaths before we start. “As you breathe in, cherish yourself,” says the Dalai Lama. “As you breathe out, cherish all Beings.”