Heart-Focused Breathing, And Other Ways to Unwind

As the economy drops and blood pressure rises this holiday season, it's nearly impossible not to fall into an anxious depressive spiral. Why we stress—and how to cope.

Stress overload makes us stupid. Solid research proves it. When we get overstressed, it creates a nasty chemical soup in our brains that makes it hard to pull out of the anxious depressive spiral. Most of us have been on stress overload ever since 9/11, or maybe since living by our thumbs on a BlackBerry shattered our concentration; certainly since we caught on that the government was lying to us, again, about not really being in a recession when we were hurtling toward Depression 2.0. (Never mind yelling at your mother over Christmas dinner with the entire family watching.)

So I was cheered to find the following booklet in my inbox last month: “ De-Stress Kit for the Changing Times.” It’s distributed online, free, by HeartMath, a non-profit research institute that for 20 has been studying years how stress impacts our heart, brain, and emotions.

Ideally, communicate your feelings to a group of people sharing a similar experience. Or to your family (if you can stand them).

Panic, anger, fear, blame: any one of those powerful emotions can set off a cascade of biochemical changes (1400 of them) which flood our brains. Why? Our heart rhythms become chaotic, even though we don’t feel it. But when those chaotic signals are sent from the heart to the cortex—the smart part of our brain—it scrambles, or desynchronizes, our thinking. That’s when we make stupid decisions or forget the names of our children or revert to childlike behavior.

Even our What-me-worry President blubbered his way through a recent speech, protesting like a little boy that his daddy really did give Junior “unconditional love.”

HeartMath, whose research has tracked this incredibly intimate feedback loop from heart to brain, teaches simple techniques for lowering stress. In the first phase of shock over, say, your mortgage being called in or your job washed out, it’s essential to engage with others and share the fear, release the feelings, do fun things to take your mind off it. Remind yourself that we’ve been through rough times before and come out of it. Ideally, communicate your feelings to a group of people sharing a similar experience. Or to your family (if you can stand them). In laughing or crying together, instead of going into emotional gridlock, you can feel a beneficial release as your heart reopens. The collective energy helps lift your spirit.

Doc Childers, founder of HeartMath, recommends heart-focused breathing. It’s an active kind of meditation. Rather than watching your thoughts go by in a detached manner, as in mindfulness meditation, heart-focused breathing is intended to call up positive emotions (love, kindness, compassion) which can literally change your emotional state and rinse out that harmful hormonal stress cascade.

I become very disciplined about meditating at this time of year—20 minutes in the morning—to interrupt the chaotic too-much-to-do signals that would otherwise, at some point, cause me to do or say something I will regret. I concentrate on my gratitude list. It gets longer every day.

This season, our consciousness—hell, the whole global consciousness—is being challenged to make a giant psychological shift. We have to move from the unbridled pursuit of self-gain at the expense of others to recovering appreciation for what we gain by caring and sharing with one another. The longer we dwell on the negative news, the worse the conditions we create for making good decisions or for getting out of the anxious, depressive, downward spiral that threatens to engulf us and has clearly paralyzed our government officials.

Focusing on that appreciation doesn’t eliminate the problems, but it does help to offset the anxiety. My amateur prescription: find somebody else you can help. When a person says to you—“Your help really saved the day”—it actually changes you, by changing how your heart beats and at what rate. And if you give a compliment, you’ll likely get one back.

Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the life cycle. She is also a contributor to the magazine Vanity Fair.