By Sunday afternoon, I had had it.
Not only was it freezing out, but I had just worked a string of 13-hour days, and I had what could only be described as an awful dinner date the night before. I also wrote about 10 emails on a dating website that went unanswered.
Things were looking bleak and I was utterly exhausted and kind of tired of life.
This combination of exhaustion and rejection created the perfect storm inside of me that always leads to feelings of hopelessness and despair. I lay down and let the cloud of misery envelop me until I was no longer awake.
I woke up from that much needed afternoon nap 45 minutes later and found three returned messages from that very same dating website and, suffice it to say, the complexion of the entire world changed. Dopamine flooded through my veins and I was off to the races, daydreaming of all the wonderful possibilities of new love and romance.
This, unfortunately, is typical for me. Up and down, up and down, like a barometer in London. My days have always been tinged with bouts of euphoria and melancholy. It’s as if I am way too controlled by external stimuli.
Have you ever heard those old codgers always talking about “being on an even keel?” That ain’t me, baby. My keel is as uneven as the haircut I gave myself when I was four years old. What I feel fortunate enough to know when all of this begins to go down are basic mindfulness techniques.
Mindfulness techniques have been used to successfully help people quit smoking cigarettes, stop drinking, and sometimes even assist with eating disorders. There is an awesome TED talk with Judson Brewer where he explains how all of this works.
To paraphrase: the prefrontal cortex, the youngest portion of our brain from an evolutionary standpoint, is responsible for all executive function. This is another way of saying complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and the moderation of social behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that calls it a day when we are faced with stress—either real or perceived. This is why, many times, people will find themselves at the convenience store buying a pack of cigarettes or at the bar ordering a drink almost against their own will. They know intellectually that it’s a bad decision but that part of their brain goes on vacation when they argue with their spouse or when they screw something up at work.
Where mindfulness comes in is when you are able to move your disenchantment with your behavior from the executive realm (the prefrontal cortex) to some place more visceral and instinctive that still functions well under stress, such as the hippocampus.
Now it may not be drinking or overeating that I am struggling with personally, but it is vastly fluctuating emotions controlled entirely by external stimuli. This can be just as unmanageable. I mean we’re talking about unhelpful behaviors—they fall under the same roof.
So here are the steps involved—and like I said, if you are challenged by cigarettes, or poor food choices, or binge drinking —this can work in the same way.
Focus on your breathing. Get quiet, sit, and breathe—in through the nose and out through your mouth. You may have some unruly thoughts that try to knock you offline as you do this. Don’t make the mistake of admonishing these thoughts and trying to get them to shut up. This will only embolden them. Simply focus more sharply on the breathing. In through the nose and out through the mouth.
Get curious. This is sometimes called mindful observation. In my case, I will quietly ask myself what I am truly sad about. I will break it down to its bare bones and realize when all the bullsh*t is stripped away, it’s just fear. Fear of being alone, of dying alone, or of never being loved by anyone again. It isn’t too long before I am able to realize how irrational most of these fears are.
My keel slowly starts to even out. If you are, for instance, trying not to drink, this works in the same way. Observe what is making you want to drink. Play that movie to its inevitable conclusion in your head. As an observer, you will get a little distance from the madness, and it will make it easier not to act on it immediately.
Feel the joy of letting go. There is this point where mindfulness exercises such as these bring me to where I am able to see the world in all of its beautiful folly and ridiculousness. This, in turn, gives way to the magic of letting go. The happiness I begin to feel is not the high-end, drug-like quality of a “I think you’re cute” message from a dating site, but it is more sustainable and authentic. If you are struggling with cigarettes or food challenges, all of this works in a similar way. When you don’t pick up the chocolate bar or the cigarette, allow yourself the joy that comes from that newfound freedom.
Mindfulness, from everything I know so far, is an extraordinarily helpful technique for establishing a greater quality of life. I made use of it many years ago with substance abuse and cigarette smoking—two crushing habits I can happily say I no longer actively pursue. Today, I use it to “quiet the crazy.”
Give it a shot and try it for what’s ailing you. What have you got to lose?
Bonus: 5 Mindful Things to do Each Morning.
Author: Billy Manas
Image: Ezra Jeffrey/Unsplash
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron