“We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.” Ingrid Bergman
Several years ago I sat in a little office inside a locked Psychiatric hospital trying to help a middle-aged woman make sense of all of the problems in her life. She was suffering from severe depression and was having frequent panic attacks. Her life had become unmanageable, and the sheer weight of the issues in her life were crushing her spirit.
I listened to her tell her story, and express her feelings of hopelessness. It’s not important here to get into the details of the tale, but needless to say, she was bombarded with some of life’s most stressful events. Tears streamed down her face, and as she described each of her struggles, she began hyperventilating. The sobs became deep and throbbing, and she started pounding the table. “I can’t handle this! I just want it to stop,” she said.
At the time I was new to this kind of treatment. I felt overwhelmed as well. The weight in the air was crushing. I recognized this internal process in myself, and out of self-preservation started taking deep breaths. I asked her, “I want you to breathe with me. All around you are problems that you can’t fix right now, and I can imagine that makes you feel out of control. So, I want you to focus on something that you can control. Your breathing. You’ve been inhaling and exhaling since the doctor swatted you on that first day, and you are an expert. I want you to focus on this next breath. Ready? Inhale . . . 2, 3, 4. Exhale . . . 2, 3, 4.”
This breathing exercise continued for several minutes, as I attempted to bring her back to baseline. When she was able to control her breathing, and the panic was replaced with exhaustion I said, “Have you ever had the flu?”
Me: “When I get the flu, my life shrinks down to the size of my couch, and maybe a short path to the bathroom. I can’t handle going to the Post Office, or to work. I am not able to do the tasks on my ‘to do’ list. Even if I wanted to do these things, it would be wasted energy. Cause I’ve got the flu.”
Her: “I hate getting the flu.”
Me: “Me too. It’s not comfortable to have the flu. You feel weak, and nauseous. Your body doesn’t do what you want it to, and you just want to feel normal again.”
Me: “You’ve got the flu in a sense. All of these problems and issues are floating out there, and you can’t take care of all of them at once. Where do you start? How do you tackle these things when you feel so overwhelmed? That’s why, we’re going to shrink your life down. Wipe away all of the worry and problems from your mind for a time, because when you have the flu, you can’t affect them anyway.”
Her: “How do I do that? I think about these things all the time, and they’re just waiting for me.”
Me: “It is challenging, but you just did it with your breathing. You shrunk your world down to a single breath, and it helped you for a time. After a while you’ll have enough strength to expand your world a little to include eating lunch, and then going to group, and so on. As you get more comfortable, you will be able to expand enough to actually impact your life and those around you, but for now, it’s wasted energy to focus on that.”
Her: “Ok I’ll try.”
My middle-aged patient was skeptical at first, but we worked on keeping her life small. We rehearsed how to start dealing with the problems in her life. She developed a plan to make some changes in how she thinks about herself, and her role in the chaos. After a while, her life began expanding away from the couch and back out into the fresh air.
Paring down your life is critical in the midst of crisis. Focused attention on the moment, gives your life a little space to operate. It allows for a less cluttered mind, and an ability to eventually start moving in a positive direction. The alternative is to continue walking in circles.
Next time, I’ll talk about moving again…
If you need to talk with someone about either shrinking or expanding your life, North American Mental Health Services has qualified therapists available to help you.
Blessings, and thank you for reading.