If someone asked me what my favorite thing about summertime is, I would have a hard time narrowing my answer down to just ONE thing. I absolutely love to swim, so swimming ranks high on the list. I truly enjoy eating fresh vegetables from the garden and farmer’s markets, and summertime food prep on the grill is pretty sweet too. And then there are the vacations: my own annual scalloping vacation is in the heat of the summer, lots of friends and family come to visit to take advantage of the outdoor fun times in the Appalachian Mountains, and I get to hear excitement and joy from clients as they look forward to their own breaks from the day-to-day. Summer also just feels like it’s teeming with life and energy runs high and the long days yield a lot of productivity, but still leave time for some rest and a nap in a hammock. The only thing about summertime, especially in the American southland, that gets a thumbs down from me is the bugs that are just incessant. (But that’s what lemon, rosemary, and eucalyptus essential oils are for!)
Summertime is so sweet that it’s got its own anthem sung by the one and only Nina Simone, who reminds us in the soulfulness of her voice that life is long and complicated and filled with a full spectrum of emotions all the time, even in the summertime when the grass is high and the living is easy. And it is emotion, really, that’s on my mind this morning as I’m enjoying mist on the mountain over a rich cup of coffee. I’ve been doing a lot of self-inquiry into my own emotional world while doing a lot of reading and listening to lectures and podcasts on the latest developments in the neuroscientific world around emotions, the brain, and the nervous system. There are a multitude of things I’d like to write about over the next few months, but today I am simply thinking about just how IMPORTANT emotions are and therefore how even more important it is that we all learn to discern what emotions we are feeling, especially when we dislike or disapprove of our own behavior or reaction to another person.
I went to bed far later than I meant to last night, as I got distracted with screens. (Shocking, I know. Who does that?) I was tired long before I stopped doing “just one more thing,” and turned everything off and got in bed, and by the time I did actually stop and get in bed, I was totally exhausted. How many of you do this on the regular and find yourself feeling totally drained? And how do you feel when you wake up after a too late night of distractions?
I realized last night that my emotions had gone flat because my “executive functions,” i.e., all that decision-making and task tracking and over-riding biological urges that tell you to go to sleep were zapped out entirely and my actions were absolutely on auto-pilot. This also meant that when I got in bed and my two sweet cats came into my bedroom to do their nightly power struggle ritual as to which one sleeps at my feet and which one sleeps near my head, I was at first mildly irritated. After about 2 minutes, I was annoyed and my heart rate was increasing. After about 3 more minutes, I was angry and exhausted and weepy and I made both cats leave the room and sort themselves out somewhere else. I had to just be still in savasana (yoga corpse pose) and do some calming meditation to ratchet my EMOTIONS back down to just tired and ready for bed.
So, it’s not that my emotions were flat beforehand, it’s that my brain and nervous system were both over-tired and over-stimulated, and my emotions were on a hair-trigger just waiting for some stimulus. My response to that stimulus, which was from fuzzy creatures that I love dearly, was NOT loving. Because when our nervous system is over-tired and over-stimulated, the emotions that tend to be triggered are not the sweet ones.
I had the luxury this morning of sleeping in without worries of an alarm clock disrupting the perfect sleep cycle, and was able to sleep soundly, for the most part. When I woke up today, I immediately felt refreshed, happy to greet a Friday morning before a holiday, grateful for the rain that made sleep so blissful, and then super guilty for being so mean to my kitty cats. Thankfully, cats are more forgiving than people thanks to their smooth brains and infinite superiority complex. But how often do our hair-trigger emotions lash out in ways that are way more destructive than my mild example above? And just how much control do we have over such outbursts?
The answer is that most of us have precious little control over our emotions and lightning fast behavioral responses by the time we reach the end of a full day.
Earlier in the day, we have a lot more control, as long as we’ve had enough sleep and fuel for the most expensive part of our nervous system: the big fancy brain and its prefrontal cortex. When we are feeling well rested, well fed, and in relatively low stress and positive mood, everything about our emotional world and the behavior it triggers is way more conducive to positive outcomes in our relationships and interactions with other people (and cats).
None of this is a revelation, nor is it revolutionary. However, what I propose we all make time to do during the course of our overflowing days might be. The world would be a much calmer, safer, happier place if we all took time outs for some restoration DURING our busy days instead of always running ourselves down to the cell phone battery equivalent of that 2% red line and then it just dies and the screen goes dark.
How do you do that? Here’s a few things that I use, when I’m not trying to be super-overachiever-do-all-the-things-at-once woman and forget to take good care of my brain during busy days:
- Schedule a short nap or at least a “resting your eyes” time during your day (21 minutes is perfect and can leave you feeling refreshed without feeling “groggy” and this method works best on a day when you really did get enough sleep the night before.)
- Take short walks (inside or outside, though outside is best when possible) about every 2-3 hours throughout your day. Just getting up and moving briskly for 5-10 minutes can really help re-set your brain.
- Do “cross crawls” for 30-60 seconds 5-6 times a day to clear out stress or frustration and give your brain a little break.
- Stretch and release your eye muscles by doing what I call the “clock” exercise. You close your eyes for 10-15 seconds, and then open them and stretch them up (without moving your head up) to the 12 o’clock position and take a full, deep breath in and then out. Move your eyes to 3 o’clock and repeat the full, deep breath. Then to 6, 9, and back to 12. And then reverse the cycle and repeat it moving your eyes counter-clockwise. It takes about 2 minutes and is helpful to physically let go of eye strain, helps reduce headaches, and reduces stress in the nervous system because the eye circuits are really key circuitry in the brain.
- Listen to music, especially while doing tasks that require concentration and focus. Instrumental music is the most effective.
- Occasionally, when you are so overwhelmed and pressured that it seems totally impossible to do so, just don’t do all the things. Or even better, don’t do any of the things. Just don’t DO for a day on occasion. Your body, mind, spirit – and relationships – will thank you.
To summarize, how you FEEL is what matters. If you FEEL flat, watch out! The trigger is hair sensitive. But if you’re feelin’ good, then by all means, keep doing what you’re doing!
And if you’re struggling in creating the life you REALLY want, please reach out for help. We are here to assist. 864-918-2914