Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Daily Practice: Frustration

When we become frustrated, we are practicing frustration, and our frustration becomes quicker and stronger next time.

When we calm our frustration, we are practicing calm, and calming ourselves becomes quicker and stronger next time.

I wrote a long post today, then took a break. When I came back, all but the first two sentances were lost. I felt an initial stab of frustration. This immediate reaction is beyond my control. I reacted to this reaction by immediately taking a long deep breath.

What, neuro-chemically, is a long, deep breath doing for the body? I have no idea. It clears the lungs, causing the CO2 concentration sense to clear, providing a measure of discomfort relief for a tiny discomfort we usually forget even exists. It oxygenates the bloodstream, which obviously affects the brain pretty quickly since it usually only takes five or six really deep breaths to get the first sense of hyperventilation. It stretches the chest cavity, and stretching also clears a discomfort. There is also almost certainly a level of placebo acting as well from the cultural belief in the calming power of a deep breath, but I suspect that this is acting on top of actual breath calming mechanisms.

Are these the only reasons deep breathing is calming? I don't know. I don't even know if these are primary reasons. But I have consistently experienced the calming power of deep breathing, and have incorporated it into a de-stressing pattern. Having practiced a deep breath when I feel a sudden stress, it has become almost second nature to reach for this first step in the de-stressing toolkit as soon as I feel the first hit of, in this case, frustration. I know chainsmokers who will reach into their pocket for a cigarette with the same habitual readiness.

Next, I relax my muscles. This is the shorter version of something I used to do when I would start meditating. I would start at my toes and clench the muscles as hard as I can for a second, then completely relax the muscle. Then I would move up to the feet, then up the legs, and so on, clenching and releasing one section of muscles at a time. When just starting out, it is valuable to try and find muscles you normally don't think about, try and flex every single one separately. Having finished, try to clench every single muscle in your body. Hold it while you mentally inventory all your muscles, finding and clenching any you have forgotten about. When you feel like you have them all, release it all at once. Having released, do a mental inventory to see if any muscles are still tight and release them as well.

This is a worthwhile exercise on its own, especially as part of a stretching or meditative hour. So much stress accumulates just from tiny discomforts like a tight muscle or the CO2 sense in your lungs, and releasing that tension brings a level of calm and reduces stress. But once you have taken that inventory of your muscles a few times, you can reliably relax all your muscles at once without the buildup. I don't mean you should go from standing to collapsing on the floor, that would be silly, but when you develop an awareness of just how tense your muscles are, then you can relax everything not needed for maintaining posture, and you can feel just how much effort it takes without you even knowing just to stay standing on two feet.

Returning to the thread here, I experienced a sudden external shock that raised my stress and arousal levels. With a deep breath and muscle relaxing, I have returned to equillibrium. This is all that is needed for a minor, non-physical shock.

Having re-centered myself, I can now move forward. What, specifically, is the problem? How clearly and precisely can I articulate it? Here, the problem is easy to articulate, the writing I have done appears to be lost. Did identifying the problem cause me any stress? In this case, no, but sometimes simply trying to identify the problem or stating the problem directly causes additional stress. This is not productive. If I allow myself to get upset during this phase, then I am less likely to solve the problem and more likely to spiral into negative emotional states. In this case, identifying the problem is fairly simple, my text has vanished.

Now a common next step after identifying the problem is to determine what has caused the problem. However, I tend to find that this can be counterproductive at times. It can lead to blame or recrimination. It is easy to answer the question "What caused this?" with "That stupid fucking whoever/whatever!" Identifying a cause in this way gets us no closer to solving the problem and creates new stress.

For this reason, I find it more productive to not ask how a thing occurred and instead ask how I can fix it. Sometimes in the process of fixing a thing it will become necessary to figure out how it broke, but delaying the question until then means it won't get asked as often, and when it does I will be focused on how is a narrow, mechanistic sense instead of a broader who can I blame sense.

Then I begin the process of fixing it. If it can be fixed, the problem is solved and any negative emotions were simply wasted. If I can't fix it, then I say "Such is life" and move on with life, having completely abandoned the unobtainable thing. Of course, giving up on unobtainable things is a challenge in its own right, but it will be a challenge for another post.

For now I will be mindful of my reactions and maintain calm as best I can.

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