Emotional Wellness Month, observed all October, reminds us to “disconnect and take a time-out for our brain” amid our overbooked, distracted, and uncertain lives. A former emergency physician, Dr. Jan is familiar with the emotional costs that come from running on “emergency mode.”
When we are under high levels of stress, adrenaline and steroids flow through our bodies, suppressing parasympathetic nervous system activity, which carries messages from the body.
“Whenever you are in emergency, you cannot afford to think about what your body needs in this moment,” Dr. Jan says. “If you suppress messages from the parasympathetic nervous system for too long, they tend to build up and then pour out all at once.”
Here are some of his tips for fostering better emotional wellness:
Set the Tone for the Day. This is a matter of basic values. Taking time in the morning to prepare yourself for the day is just a matter of shifting your “set point“ of what you think is adequate preparation before you are fit for the world. Skipping basic morning routine tasks would offend people’s senses. But in just the same way, if you don’t have a way to prepare your consciousness and your emotions, you may offend people in other ways, by acting stressed or insufficiently sensitive to other people’s needs and emotions.
Bring Attention to Your Own Internal State. One method which works very well is sometimes referred to as “giving and taking with the breath.” It is quite simple and easy to learn. Here are the steps:
1. Notice the thoughts that are passing, the emotions you can feel, and bodily sensations.
2. Imagine something like a window in the middle of the chest. With your in breath, imagine you can draw in all of the thoughts and feelings and body sensations through the “window of the heart“ and into presence, or consciousness.
3. With the out breath, breathe out a sigh of blessing, where you re-create thought and feeling from out of your own presence. Repeat steps two and three a few times.
4. Now, simply expand the circumference of the breathing in to include things outside yourself. Breathe everything in through the window of the heart into presence, including everything you have attributed as part of “me,” and everything you have thought of as part of “the other.”
5. Send out a wave of blessing, from out of your own presence, blessing the thoughts and feelings you think of as “me” as well as the thoughts and feelings you think of as “the other.”
Sit Doing Nothing. The most powerful and effective thing that we can do to change the quality of the day and to make the greatest contribution to others is actually not a thing at all. It is taking time for nothing. You don’t need to learn any fancy meditation techniques or special breathing or visualizations or anything. If you just sit and observe the thoughts that are passing, the emotional fluctuations, and the sensations in your body, with a relaxed and detached curiosity, they start to settle down on their own.
“Slowly, after some time you feel less caught up in the thoughts and feelings and body sensations, and you relax more into being….,” Dr. Jan. says. “Instead of consciousness being something you experience, you know that it is who you are. People quickly discover that it is peaceful, relaxed, and inherently loving.”
About the Author: Dr. Jan Bonhoeffer (SAY Yon Bon-hoffer) is founder of Heart Based Medicine, a nonprofit foundation helping medical professionals, caregivers, and others maintain compassion and empathy for their patients and for themselves through the pandemic and beyond. His new book is “Dare to Care — How to Survive and Thrive in Today’s Medical World.” Learn more at heartbasedmedicine.org.