Just breathe

All is quiet on New Year’s Day

A world in white gets underway

I want to be with you

Be with you, night and day

Nothing changes

on New Year’s Day

On New Year’s Day

“New Year’s Day,” War, 1983 U2
(Dave Evans, Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton,
and Paul Hewson)

2020 was a remarkable, extraordinary year. Please feel free to add your own adjectives and expletives.

I’m writing this during the magic hour, just before sunrise on Friday, January 1, 2021. I haven’t seen midnight for years, let alone on New Year’s Eve. But I am around for the sunrise and toasting 2021 with tea and milk. For me, these silent hours provide the perfect opportunity to pause before the day gets going. Or a new year for that matter.

Over the past few weeks, many people have said that they could not wait to see 2020 in the rear-view mirror, as if putting a new calendar on the fridge today will somehow make it all right again. I am wildly hopeful, almost to a fault, but I just put up my new calendar and I am very sorry to report that all of the serious issues of 2020 are still here.

How many times over the past year have I said to myself, “You cannot make this stuff up,” or, “The novel is writing itself.” It has often felt as though we are in a blockbuster disaster movie. There are so many extraordinary events that we do not have the time to process what is happening before the next jaw-dropping, head-shaking moment. It is absolutely too much. We’re either soldiering on or we aren’t even getting out of bed. It is a constant state of overwhelm with our bodies, minds, and relationships paying a heavy price. We numb the fear with food, alcohol, mindless TV, social media, online shopping. The thing is, we’re not out of this by a long shot and it’s time to introduce a better response to this stress.

When you put up your new calendar or open the planner, take a moment to exhale and release the stale air of 2020. We’ve been holding our breath or breathing through a mask for the better part of a year and that’s not changing soon. We are still in the thick of it and I know it sounds far too simplistic to suggest that breathing consciously is going to make a difference.

Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest between two deep breaths.

anon.

Like any other animal, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow when we are anxious and we’re deciding to flee or fight. Our bodies are in a constant state of reaction with our stress hormones preparing us to take action. But now our predators are in the headlines, an unseen virus, terror, unemployment, pending evictions, lack of food security for ourselves or others, and just the everyday stuff of life. We are collectively bathing in stress hormones.

When that anxiety and panic rises in us, we can lessen the effect with beer while binging on Netflix and pizza (which is not horrible, btw.) Or we can simply pause and take five or six slow deep breaths and focus on breathing. This action can interrupt the panic and the feeling of being in danger.

I do have binging issues but not when I am experiencing grade A panic. I have zero appetite and often feel nauseous. My mind goes to catastrophic thinking and I am most certainly not at my best. I have felt that panic like a heart attack and have landed in the ER thinking that’s what was happening. It’s devastating and utterly exhausting. I imagine that many, if not most of us, have a low-grade version of this all the time now. No amount of worry is going to make this better. I promise. Anxiety’s job is to alert us to the danger and to respond in one of three ways – flight, fight, or freeze. Adrenaline and cortisol gives us that shot of energy that makes us do one of those three things. Like immediately in a life-threatening situation. But we can’t escape these threats in the ways that our bodies are wired to respond. There’s no closure or event that lets our system know that we are safe and those hormones can stand down. The threats are still with us.

If we pause to focus on a few slow, deep breaths, our hormones register that we are now safe. It’s an all-clear signal that brings oxygen into your lungs and brain, slows your heart rate, neutralizes the hormonal response, and restores some clarity to your thinking. It stops the stress response and gives you space to breathe. The shock/surprise/react phase happened several months ago and now, we are hyper-alert to the dangers. No one thinks clearly in a state of panic or anxiety and there is nothing good about staying in this mode indefinitely.

Here’s the thing, these events are still happening. But you get to choose how to react to what you cannot control. You get to decide if these events of life are crippling, overwhelming, or just challenging. It’s not going to be any easier if panic and anxiety are still calling the shots and they will undoubtedly make things much worse. Until you make it a habit, set a reminder on your phone to just breathe for a minute or so every hour.

It’s New Years Day 2021 and nothing’s changed. How will you respond?

Published by Laura Nelson Lof

I'm a lifelong Iowan and a proud alum of The University of Iowa. I'm a writer, an armchair political scientist, and an accomplished sports spectator.

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