My anxiety and panic attacks began when I was in college. I don’t know if it was from the pressure of my schoolwork, of graduating without a job, or what, but I began to find it difficult to drive or leave any type of “safe space” without hyperventilating. I spent years gathering up information, trying to understand what was happening to me. Self-help books and online forums became my lifelines and over the years I’ve gradually learned to work through this disorder using mindfulness and a slew of cute little acronyms.
This is why when I began reading Tara Brach’s Radical Compassion, Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of Rain I came in with the belief that I would be looking at it through the lens of my anxiety and panic disorder.
Radical Compassion is about using mindfulness tools to teach yourself self-compassion and kindness. She does this by introducing us to the acronym RAIN.
“Simply put, RAIN awakens the mindfulness and compassion, applies them to the places where we are stuck, and untangles emotional suffering,” the author writes.
Its goal is to cut through the dense fog of our everyday lives, the trance that we find ourselves in when we begin to worry incessantly. When we’re caught in the thick of daily life, when we’re stressed, anxious, angry, terrified or numb, we can’t be present with ourselves and the world around us. RAIN is a way to cut out all of that, to dispel self-doubt so we can live our best lives.
I immediately thought this was going to be a repeat of so many things I’ve read before. And while, in a way it echoed a lot of what I know about allowing and accepting your own fears and anxieties, what’s unique about her approach is its focus on self-love, not on the fear or anxiety itself. The author wants us to move beyond that so that we can back to living in the present. We do this by acknowledging our fears, allowing them to be there and being ok with that and then by showing ourselves compassion for the way these fears make us feel so that we can move beyond it.
The first step of RAIN is simply to Recognize ( R ) what is going on inside of you. I took a look inward and asked myself what I’ve been struggling with, or overwhelmed by recently. Since having my son last year, actually it’s probably since I got pregnant, I’ve been having this sort of identity crisis over who I am. Not about who I am now that I am a parent, but who I am now that I’ve put the brakes on a career and decided to put raising my son first. As I recognize that I notice the emotions that come up: feelings of inadequacy, laziness, selfishness, restlessness, anxiousness, the list goes on.
The second step is to Allow (A) what is happening by breathing and letting be. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to just be, breathing in deeply all of the things I love about being a mom and letting myself sit with the uncomfortable parts too. I just let it all float there and tried not to push any of it away. The author tells us it’s important to sit with our discomfort.
“We inevitably encounter everything we’ve been avoiding – the loneliness, hurts and fears. And yet if we practice regularly, we discover that we can maintain a balanced, openhearted presence in the midst of the storm.”
Next is to Investigate (I) what feels the most difficult. For me, this step initially seemed like a repeat of Recognize but the author asks yourself to go beyond just naming the emotions you’re experiencing, she asks you to identify what hurts the most about them, what ultimately scares you the most. I’m scared that I’m not doing what society says I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to have the career and the family, to do it all. I’m afraid that this is me settling because anxiety and panic stopped me from pursuing the career I thought I wanted, the one that required traveling. I’m scared of what I’m missing because of the choices I’ve already made.
Lastly, the N stands for Nurturing. This is the part where you send a gentle message inward, directly to your anxious part. The author says it helps if you imagine envisioning your future self as a wise and nurturing presence. I could see myself very clearly, in about 10-15 years, standing in my kitchen, surrounded by my children. I’m happy. I’m in my own domain. I’m taking them to soccer practice, making their lunches, planning summer break trips. It all sounds so boringly suburban but I am unbelievably happy. I’m saying to myself, “it’s ok, every decision has lead you right where you were supposed to be.” My future self is confident, there’s nothing she would have done differently. She is an anchor.
The author teaches us several more techniques, guided meditations and reflections, in addition to sharing some personal stories from her students. Overall I felt like I really connected to the text. If I had read this book several years ago, it would have struck me differently and I think that’s what I love about self-help books. One day, I’ll be able to reread this and it will help me deal with something else I’m dealing with.
RAIN allowed me to get out of my own head, to confront some of my biggest anxieties, acknowledge them and then dispel them so that I can continue living in the present. It helped quiet that ever-doubting inner dialogue in my head that tries to cover “the gold” underneath my negative self-beliefs.
Christine Wolkin is a freelance writer and writes for our blog. Learn more about our studio at Allebachphotography.com or by texting 610.539.6920.
Like a rolling fog depression crept into my life. Whether I didn’t notice or didn’t want to, it’s sneaky claws dug into my back and joined me for a ride into 2019. Entrepreneurship has a way of stretching you, even when the changes are good. Along with some personal stretching came the accompanying dark side of rapid personal growth: fear, anxiety, and depression. The unknowing nature of the future. I’m reminded of the mantra of “past success does not guarantee future results.” My ego loved to play in the space of imposter syndrome.
“The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of ‘real’ grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying:
We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not deserve your job, we are taking everything away, and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”
Every day I got up and I gave the world my best…the best I could give. My job was fulfilling but thrumming low-level messages of a million negative “what if’s” intensified over the summer. Fear took over. I didn’t even realized I was depressed. I would have told you I was stressed out. Eventually, people would ask me if I was okay. I was wearing the signs of depression outward on my face. I was not okay. What started as slight anxiety and depression turned into graphic images of my own death replaying every time I closed my eyes to go to sleep. Where did my happiness go?
This shadow cast on my life for 9 or so months. My emotions were suppressed and bunched up. Despite having a business that was fulfilling, I was dull. I didn’t feel like myself. I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t sure what or how to return to me.
A Journey Back
The journey back to me started with a simple question. “When am I happy and without stress?” The answer was simple. I’m happy when I’m hiking in nature with my family or friends or even alone. So I made a commitment to no longer work on Sundays and hike as much as possible. The thing about depression is it’s really hard to feel like doing the healing thing. So I did my best. I made plans and hiked. I stuck to my commitments. When I hiked I had no stress, no worries and I was happy. Hiking in state parks around Pennsylvania, I learned my first lesson: the forest heals. This was a crack of light in the darkness.
Around the same time I started reading Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari. This book was eye-opening to the current scientific research on depression and anxiety. Many of the ideas around brain chemistry most Americans and doctors share are no longer considered valid theories by neuroscientists. The book detailed the nine disconnections that cause depression and helpful solutions.
The one that hit me hardest (and I’m sure other entrepreneur friends can relate) was a disconnection from a secure future. While our friends with jobs get to experience a false sense of security (let’s just be honest, they can lose their’s at any moment), we don’t have that luxury. There is always an unknowing.
Seeing that I was in fact depressed and related so much to the book I saw a hopeful, healthy path forward. Another crack of light in the darkness started to appear.
The Habits that Heal
Prior to depression, I read 10% Happier a book on the power of meditation. What both books confirmed is successful people take time to meditate and reflect daily. I had come to believe that meditation was a healthy and helpful practice. My scattered brain needed something to help it focus. I signed up for the Calm app and started doing their 10-minute meditations. My experience has been to start a small habit and do it for 30 days straight. The smaller the better. 10 minutes or less. This habit of meditation became the cornerstone habit of healing. It took about a year for me to go from this is so difficult, to this is okay, to I can’t live without this. Now I start every day this way.
The Trip to Heal For many people, depression flow in and out and doesn’t tend to have a finite conclusion. For me, that was not the case. I can point to a moment and place in time where my depression left my body. For months I had been running and running, suppressing emotions. Then I had a window of time during a photography trip to California with nothing to do. So I stopped running, relaxed and meditated for hours. I just let go. When my mind got very quiet I met with the depression.
I remember curling up after meditation and the words kept flowing out “I’m so sad.” I must have repeated those words a few hundred times. Every time I repeated the words had less power and eventually, the words lost all power. When I got up I felt light. The emotions worked themselves out of my body. I was renewed, ready for 2nd chances.
I had already learned hiking weekly outside was something that brought me joy and I tried to walk my dogs a mile a day. But walking wasn’t quite enough. I knew an experience daily would make me more productive and focused. So I picked up the idea of 10 minutes of exercise. Originally I considered Peleton but instead got a gym membership and started running for 10 minutes a day. My fitness regimen is almost laughable. 10 minutes of exercise is my current goal. But habits are hard to set when they are big and consistency is king. Those 10 minutes connect me back to the person I want to be. I don’t need an hour to get the results I want. Just 10 minutes.
When my anxiety and stress don’t match my movement, I feel it. If I move fast enough beyond the vibration of my anxiety, my stress will lower alongside my movement when I slow down. So if I’m behind a computer stressing about money or issues, I need to move until that feeling releases. I run up the steps. Take a break and walk to get lunch. This isn’t suppressing emotions, this is feeling into them. Allowing them. Matching them with my body until they’ve been felt.
Breath Work: Pranayama & Wim Hof
The work of being human is never done. While all signs and feelings of depression were gone stress still lingered. Enter the healing power of breathwork and breathing exercises. One day I stumbled across a video from Wim Hof, a real-life superhuman who hiked Mount Everest in shoes and shorts only. Where do his superpowers come from? Ancient breathing techniques. He teaches a method of breathing that I’ve integrated into my daily routine (a modified Pranayama yoga breathing technique thousands of years old).
If you struggle with meditation, you may find a breathing exercise much easier to complete. I found this lowered my stress level much like meditation but with the added benefit of being very wakeful.
After Wim Hof, I discovered the method of breathing used by Navy Seals. In moments of stress, it’s the cure. Breathe in 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold 1, 2, 3, 4. Breathe out 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold 1, 2, 3, 4. If you visualize a box, the 4 steps will form the edges. Unlike the Wim Hof method which energizes, Box breathing is for use in stressful situations because it grounds you. In as little as a minute you’ll feel less stressed. You can practice in front of people and they will be unaware. You’ll just appear calm.
Reflection & Gratitude
I’ve come to understand happiness as a triangle. Mind, Body, Soul with purpose in the center. If I meditate, if I move and if I express my gratitude I am happy. My soul needs to express gratitude. It isn’t always natural. Sometimes it feels awkward. I’ve found that most days this can be done in as little as one minute on an app ( I use Presently) or by writing a thank you note.
The Questions I Ask Myself
Socrates said it best, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Isn’t it the quality of our questions that determine the quality of our life. Here are a few of the questions I’ve learned recently I find helpful:
Am I living in the future or in the past? What can I do to be present in this moment?
Have I gotten enough sun lately? Should I go outside?
Am I hungry? Thirsty?
Do I need to move around?
Do I need to meditate?
Is my breathing shallow? Should I change it?
Is this my ego speaking or my truest self? What does my truest self say?
Who would I be without this thought?
What is the thought opposite of this thought?
Am I willing to see this differently?
Is there something I could do secretly selfless for someone? Can I compliment? Thank? Gift?
Is there something or someone I need to say no to? A boundary I need to set?
Am I rehearsing my best self?
If nothing else works. I’ve found the mantra of the Hawaiian tradition Ho’oponopono to be the most helpful. It’s simply taking complete responsibility for my reality or perception of meeting with it and repeating.
“I love you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you.”
This works for thoughts, ideas, people, shouldas, couldas and wouldas.
What I don’t say anymore is “I shouldn’t be thinking this or feeling this.” The truth is I am thinking this and feeling this. It’s what I’m supposed to be thinking and feeling right now. Let’s meet with these thoughts and ideas and see what happens. And I’m open to the possibility to see things another way. But this person, feeling, thought, the idea isn’t going anywhere until I meet with it. Yes, I’m literally telling my ideas “I love you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you.”
It might sound crazy but it works. Try it.
These ideas and healing did not come in isolation. The most helpful thing people did was to share space and meaningful conversation. My natural inclination was to be a hermit. Many people didn’t know what I was feeling until I told them. I’m grateful to the people who showed up or invited me to show up or listened. Whether you pay someone to listen, talk to your doctor or find friends to talk with, the journey back to the truest you will start with tools outside of your current thinking and reality. I’ve laid out the tools I’ve used and what’s worked for me. Hindsight is 20/20 and I can see all of the things that made a difference. It’s a combination of fighting for a new life and allowing others in. You are not alone. This is a road walked by many. Help is out there. Love on your Mind, Body, Soul. Move your body, discover the stillness in your mind and feed your soul with gratitude. Reconnect with people, reconnect with your purpose and spend time in the forest reconnecting with the earth and sun.
Could it really be this easy? Just adding a few habits to your life? The answer is: I don’t know your situation. Maybe. These tools have been used for thousands of years. Habits are slow to take hold and I don’t know what exactly will work for you. The important part is to start. Give something a try. When everything seems impossible, give something a try.
Further Reading& Watching
Finally, this wouldn’t have been possible without the insight found in these books and techniques they shared.