You open your eyes and there it is. A spark. You can feel it. It’s tiny. But it’s enough. The beauty of new beginnings. You’re excited. You start. You roll. You make progress. You fuel the spark and the spark fuels you.
You’re motivated. You can’t sleep. You want to wake up and just go, go, go. You’re better. At work, at home, at the gym. It spreads. It’s contagious. You have energy. So. Much. Energy. Where does it come from?
Either way, it’s there. It needs go somewhere. You need more. Something else. Anything else. Another project. A new sport. A better job. Go, go, go!
But then, somewhere, something shifts. Where is it? Where is the spark? You wake up and…what? Why? How can this be? I don’t want to get up. No. Nooo. Just let me sleep. Come on. Just one extra hour.
But now, you can’t. Now, you have to get up. You have work to do. The gym is important. Your second project is slow. And a part of the first just broke. It needs fixing. Ugh. It’s too much. When are you supposed to do all of this?
A friend calls. She’s in town. Let’s get dinner? Another needs help. Hey, can you read my resumé? Slowly, anxiety creeps in. Everything is just another item on your to-do list. The list is long. Endless. It just spools off in your head. Over and over. Why does it never stop?
You can’t sleep. Your heart is pounding. You’ve had way too much coffee. You try anyway. Eight hours. Just this once. Pleaaase. You wake up after five. Argh. No time, no time. Gotta go. Gotta fix all of this.
What happened? How did you go from “I can take on the world” to “I’m overwhelmed, alone, and no one understands me?” How did it fly by so fast?
Nothing. Nothing really happened.
You just forgot to slow down. You forgot to breathe.
Breathing. You’re doing it right now. But taking a breath? Please, do it right now. More breathing, more living. Deeper breathing, deeper living.
How thin our most important survival mechanism becomes. Often, we don’t even notice. We just sit there, looking at our screens. But a cascade of shallow gasps? Just enough air to keep functioning, yet not enough to properly process anything? That’s not breathing. And that’s not living.
But if anxiety takes over, that’s our next stop. And we always get there fast. Let’s hit the brakes. Let’s pause for a second.
In fact, let’s pause for several. Science makes a compelling case to do so. In The Willpower Instinct, psychologist Kelly McGonigal provides an alternative to our body’s ancient fight-or-flight response. She calls it pause-and-plan:
“The pause-and-plan response puts your body into a calmer state, but not too sedate. The goal is not to paralyze you in the face of internal conflict, but to give you freedom. By keeping you from immediately following your impulses, the pause-and-plan response gives you the time for more flexible, thoughtful action.”
But what does that response look like? How do you trigger it? Yup. You guessed it: Breathing.
“The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.”
A well-trained athlete has primed their body to exhibit this response. Faced with a challenge, an opponent, a hurdle, their default is to relax, then tackle the guy, jump off the board, or hit back the ball. The same goes for an expert or any seasoned mindfulness practitioner.
But even an amateur can learn. Practice the physical response, and the mind will follow. Breathing is our most fundamental pattern as human beings. It is also our first chance to disrupt a pattern, to escape anxiety’s grasp, to start with a clean slate and make a change.
Life is a cycle. It all comes and goes. Our state of busy, of energy, of motivation and anxiety. But at any point in this cycle, you can breathe.
More breathing, more living. Deeper breathing, deeper living.
Every problem has a solution. It’s never the same, but it always lies behind a single, deep breath.
Sometimes, it’s taking action. Sometimes, it’s acceptance. Sometimes, it’s thinking or waiting or courage or patience. But it’s always a solution we must take time to even see. A solution that needs room, that requires us to breathe.
Perseverance. That’s what it is. Perseverance, one cycle at a time.