Life can be stressful, and we all want to suffer less. There is so much information out there, so where do we start?
When I was in the Navy, it was 2002 to 2007, I was a Navy Corpsman, aka “Doc” and worked with the Marines. Basically, that is a Medic/EMT ( we did a bit of everything though). I specialized in Prevention and Wellness, and did ALL this schooling before the Navy and during the first two years of the Navy to have “vocabulary” to discuss concepts that were super helpful, but not always condensed into a usable format. I did a lot of teaching, and as a teacher, or healer, or parent, or partner, whatever we are………..we are only as effective as our audience is able to understand what we are talking about, and also why it is useful to them. The Marines used to always say, ” break it down Barney style”- ” No $15 big words” or “make that whole thing you just said, Marine-proof”.
Which is really good advice. I mean, what is the use of an awesome concept if people can’t use it and have no idea what you are talking about? As a therapist you learn all these really cool concepts and ideas, and often it stays locked away and not easy to access and hand to others to use.
So, as a therapist, I really love my work, and I am a “in the trenches” kind of therapist, meaning I want clients to have input, agency, and give feedback so I can improve passing along concepts in a useable way. Some are so easy, yet overlooked, and are great ways of helping us all deal with life more effectively. One of my goals is to break down concepts into useable skills, or tools, or fortune cookie write ups. That would be fun. Whatever works.
My background in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy ( unnecessary big words) mindfulness (learning to set aside judgment, and observe your thoughts, feelings, body, and the environment in the present moment– like: situational awareness) and trauma-informed concepts are the foundation of the skills I want to share and can be used in building a collection of “go to skills” that reduce distress and suffering for others.
So let’s just jump in.
Many people know this skill, but a quick skill to ground in the body, get into the present moment, focus concentration, and enhance performance is called.
SKILL #1: FOUR SQUARE BREATHING Exercise. AKA: Box Breathing.
a. POSITION: Get in a comfortable space, in your body. Sit or stand. Exhale your air ( just normal)- some times having one hand on your chest ( to ensure that is not what is rising) or belly ( which should rise and fall) can be helpful to focus.
b. Slowly inhale ( count to 4- I like to use my fingers, I am visual and kinesthetic)
c. Hold breath ( count to 4)
d. Slowly exhale ( count to 4)
E. Hold breath ( count to 4)
F. Slowly Inhale ( count to 4)
*repeating the rest of the steps.
SKILL #2- Non-Duality Thinking– So “dualism” is two opposites, or very different concepts contrasting each other- For example: Stillness AND movement, or in the thinking realm, Black and White thinking, All or nothing thinking. Non-duality is moving away from the extremes. Hopefully it is obvious how our thinking can be helped by not being extreme in our thinking habits.
TIPS to start practicing NON-DUALITY THINKING – also called DIALECTICAL THINKING
a. Adopt the idea that YOU ARE NOT YOUR FEELINGS OR YOUR THOUGHTS.
( thoughts are just thoughts, and feelings are fleeting. They all like to come and go- don’t push away or cling to any of them. “Thinking” is what our brain does, most of our thoughts are not truths, they are random, and certainly not WHO we are. Observe them, but don’t grasp on or hold too tight- RUMINATION for example- are thoughts that don’t go away, and keep coming up, over and over, and really can be persistent and invading and rather distressing- notice it, and say to yourself, ” I keep observing that thought, over and over” And do the BOX BREATHING.
b. Practice and notice being non-judgmental ( usually you will at first notice how judgmental your thoughts may be ). Let go of assuming your observations of others or situations are “right” or “wrong”. let go of having to be “right”- Learn, practice, and become a nonjudgmental observer or watcher of your own thoughts and feelings.
Question: What do I notice? What’s going on here? What am I experiencing in my body?
SKILL #3- Switch out BUT and use AND instead:
This concept also helps us move away from DUALISTIC thinking, but can also be a VALIDATING tool- which is extremely helpful in relationships and not putting others on the defense ( works great with teens especially, and giving feedback, for example). Keep in mind, validating someone does not mean we agree or like what they are doing, it means we see and understand their feelings about something.
When we talk about something we struggle with or something we want someone else to do , or expressing how we feel, we often times lose anything positive in the message as soon as we say “BUT”.
“AND” allows us to keep the conversation open. And it is less energy because we don’t have to fight off the good ‘ol survival tactic known as DEFENSIVENESS when someone feels put down, or their efforts didn’t matter.
example: “You’re great to hang out with and I really like you BUT you text me too much and that stresses me out”
Then try “AND”: ” You’re great to hang out with and I really like you AND you text me too much and that stresses me out. ( It is easier to lead into resolution and brain storming) I am curious what we can do about that to improve it, or understand each other better? What do you think?”
SKILL #4- Learn, Practice, and use RESPOND instead of REACT
There is a lovely saying that says, the music is the space between the notes. Or the great Victor Frankl “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
Using the STOP skill:
1. STOP: Stop, don’t say another word, just stop.
2. Take a deep breath, better yet a few.
3. Observe- take some personal inventory, meaning what am I feeling? Am I hungry? Just observe- is this other person, tired? Stressed? Uncomfortable?
4. Proceed with Awareness/mindfully….and as skillfully as you can given the situation. A good reminder is that some times our best course of action, is no action. It is to wait and observe if we need more information. This is very different from AVOIDING. Taking space to decide how you want to respond is often times misused as space to disappear and never deal with the issue, that is not what we are focused on here. The goal is to be more effective and lessen our suffering when interacting with others. Or our environment.
In spirt of the BOX BREATHING or FOUR SQUARE BREATHING, we will end with 4 skills for today.
How we think and respond to ourselves first, and then others, can be extremely helpful in taking the edge off our interactions throughout the day. AND also can be helpful in how we go about experiencing the world internally ( Within ourselves. I like to refer to that as our inner landscape.”
With practice, we can manage the pains of life, which are a given, a bit more effectively. We also let go of trying to control the outcome of a given situation and others by focusing more on our own responses and experiences, and that reduces our suffering and stress.
Go find you. Seek out your best adventure!
Strom’s Nomad Therapy
Nina Thi Strom, LMFT