I buy my organic lettuce greens and salad mixings at the grocery story, come home, toss up a large salad, large enough to serve myself for lunch and put several containers away in the fridge for later. As I go to eat my salad, sitting on top of a spinach leaf is a big, juicy grasshopper. He’s having difficulty finding his footing; I’m having difficulty slowing down the very fast, very automatic reflexes of my amygdala. I do have enough practice under my belt, transporting spiders out of my bathtub that I think clearly enough to take the entire salad bowl out onto the front porch, lift the grasshopper on his spinach leaf down onto the ground; he grooms his legs and hops away.
That was one resilient grasshopper, to survive whatever transport to the store, time in the produce section, coming home in a plastic bag inside a grocery bag, surviving the tossing of the salad (I can’t even fathom how he wound up in the salad for the day instead of the salads in the fridge) to perch on top of the lunch salad bowl, waiting to be discovered by me and transported back to nature in my front yard.
Through his adventure, I was noticing my own adventure, regulating the fast-track reflex – is this safe or dangerous? Calming down the jitters in my nervous system even as I was functioning just fine in restoring the grasshopper to his more natural habitat. I’ve included a story in the forthcoming Bouncing Back about training my higher brain to regulate the reflexes of my lower brain when I startle at a spider in the bathtub. My higher brain knows the spider isn’t as much of a threat to me as I am to it. I know that I will feel better about myself if I carefully transport the spider out to the garden than if I squash it and flush it down the toilet. I now keep a glass and stiff cardboard handy in the bathroom for just such service in the life of the spider. My lower brain hardly reacts anymore at all to these surprise visitors.
The grasshopper was new – completely out of my repertoire of what to expect in my kitchen, especially this time of year, especially in the rainstorms we’ve had of late. I noticed, even though I was functioning just fine, it took much longer, about four full minutes, for the jitters in my nervous system to dissipate. New situation, same ole survival response, more training of the brain needed.
Keeping calm in the face of a startle is one of the 5 C’s of coping (along with compassion, clarity, connections to resources, and competence). The exercise below teaches you a quick and reliable way to return to calm when startled.
Deep Breathing to Relax the Body
When we intentionally slow down and deepen our breathing, we are activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system in a positive way. We are conditioning the brain to calm down and return to our window of tolerance. Breathing slowly and deeply can deescalate a full-blown panic attack in a matter of minutes. Doing it throughout the day helps us establish calm rather than stress as our new baseline.
- Lie comfortably on your bed or on the floor, closing your eyes if you wish. Take a moment to come into a sense of presence, being here, in this moment, in this body. Notice the sensations of your head, your back, your pelvis, your legs, and your heels touching the bed or floor, feeling the groundedness of the earth itself supporting you. Place one hand on your heart, the other hand on your belly. You can also place a small pillow under your back behind your heart center, corresponding to the hand on your heart in front. Awareness of the space in your torso between the pillow and your heart can evoke the sensations of ease and well-being.
- Notice the sensations and movement of your breath filling your belly as you inhale, rising through your lungs and chest to your throat and nose, then releasing through your throat, chest and belly as you exhale. (Your heart actually rests on your diaphragm, so these long deep breaths give a gentle massage to the base of your heart as well.)
- Notice the pauses between inhaling and exhaling. Allow your breath to expand, filling every part of your body, moving into your shoulders, arms, and hands, your sacrum, your legs, your feet. (When you focus the awareness of your breathing on a particular area of your body, you can consciously release tension in parts of your body that have been tightened by implicit memories of stress or trauma.) Become aware of your entire body breathing.
Over time, this exercise conditions a new, more relaxed pattern of breathing you can use in any posture-sitting, standing, and walking as well as lying down. As you bring a compassionate awareness to your breathing, notice whether you experience a spontaneous welling up of gratitude for simply being alive as well.
[P.S. Thanks to my friend Daniel Ellenberg who, upon hearing the story of the grasshopper in the salad, spontaneously created the title of this post.]