Bringing your system to balance
VASCO GASPAR is a Mindfulness consultant and Heartfulness trainer living in Portugal. Here he shares a simple effective practice to down-regulate emotions.
We all sometimes feel stressed, anxious, fearful or angry. It’s part of the experience of being human to feel emotions, something we share with all other mammals to some extent. Actually the part of our brain that is involved in the processing of emotions is called the limbic brain or mammalian brain.
Emotions have been helping us for thousands of years to deal with the environment and survive. For instance, if we’re crossing a busy road and a car is coming straight towards us, it is very good for us to feel fear. It will mobilize our physical resources to run away or jump back from the front of the car. And we don’t even think about it because most emotions are faster than our conscious mind. That is also an advantage from an evolutionary point of view. Taking the car example again, it would not be useful for us to think about whether it is a Mercedes or a Ford. That split second of reflection could cost us our lives.
But that evolutionary advantage comes with a price. I had a teacher who used to joke that we are all descendants of the nervous monkeys. Why? Because all the relaxed ones didn’t made it. The ones that were the first to run were able to survive and reproduce. In fact most of us, by default, constantly keep scanning the environment for threats, and we react to them using the same mechanisms we used to fight lions or run away from other ferocious beasts.
In our modern lives fortunately we don’t have as many physical threats as our ancestors, but we’re using the same brain mechanisms to deal with problems that are mostly conceptual, like the fear of losing a job, the anxiety of speaking in public etc.
What can we do when we are in an emotional state that is not useful? For instance, imagine that you have to speak in public and feel so afraid that you lose the capacity to think clearly; or you had an argument with a colleague in a meeting and now you arrive at the next meeting still angry with him. Or even that you feel mad after spending an hour in the car on your way home after a frantic day at work and don’t want to take those toxic emotions to your small child waiting for you at home.
Is there a simple practice we could do before stepping onto the stage, into the meeting, or arriving home?
Something that would help us down-regulate the excessive emotional state and bring us to a balanced and coherent state. If you’re a Heartfulness practitioner my suggestion is to use the Cleaning process, which I find very useful.
Another possibility is to do the following steps that take less than five minutes:
Go to a place where you can be alone. It can be a room, your car or even the toilet.
Breathe in deeply, filling your lungs, and then breathe out as if you were blowing a candle, until your lungs are completely empty.
Repeat the process three times. That will help you bring oxygen to your system and balance your inner state.
Allow your breath to come to a regular rhythm and put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Sense the hand you prefer on these parts of your body. Normally one combination will feel more familiar than the other.
For one minute or so, notice how your hands move as you breathe. Is it the hand on your chest that moves more, or is it the one on your belly? Are they moving more or less the same way? Just follow the movement, with a sense of curiosity. Some people notice that just by doing this they feel calmer. Some scientists argue that it is related with our physical memory of a hug, especially when our parents held us when we were babies, when we were crying.
Now just move the hand on your belly along with the breath. Do it as if you had a balloon in your belly: As you breathe in the ‘balloon’ fills and your hand moves away from your body. As you breathe out the ‘balloon’ empties and your hand moves closer to your body. Your breathing process will become more abdominal. Since the lungs are bigger at the bottom, you will bring more oxygen to your system, allowing you to be more awake, aware and able to self-regulate. Try to keep this abdominal breathing going for 30 to 60 seconds.
Continuing abdominal breathing, now add some counting to the breathing process. Breathe in and count mentally up to four. Breathe out and count mentally up to six. Do it at your own pace. Breathe in counting to four; breathe out counting to six. Keep doing this for one minute, coming back to the process of counting if you are distracted.
This will help your mind to keep focused on an object and not to think about what is stressing you. And by regulating the breathing process it will also impact your heart and circulatory system, bringing your whole system to a more coherent state.
In the last minute of the exercise see if you can bring your mind to an image of someone you love and care about. It can be someone from your family, a friend, or even an animal. Just hold that image in your heart for a while.
You can keep doing the breathing process if it is useful, or simply just rest in the image of a loved one. The rationale here is simple: the same way that you feel stressed when you think about something that stresses you, you feel calmer and more balanced when you think about someone who evokes positive emotions in you.
That’s it. Very simple, right? Even my almost 90-year-old grandmother does it daily. And it takes less than 5 minutes.
Just give it a try. The next time you feel that your emotional system is out of control, just stop and go through these simple steps. You can do them together or just do one or two. Notice which steps have a deeper impact in downregulating your emotional state and then use them whenever you need. After that, go into your day.