Prevention Magazine | March, 2004
Life lessons from a scientist and mom
One morning years ago, when I was a young working mom, the gods of stress had their way with me. It was a big day at Tufts Medical School, where I was a scientist and assistant professor. A grant proposal critical for funding my cancer research was due, I had to give a lunchtime seminar, and 150 medical students were waiting to learn about how the stomach functions. Not coincidentally, my own stomach was in a stressed-out uproar.
Hassled and harried, I was trying to get my two young boys to quit dawdling and eat their breakfast so I could drop them off at day care. Afterward I would still have an hour’s drive on the infamous “Southeast Distressway” to get to work in downtown Boston.
As I mentally reviewed my to-do list, I was everywhere but in the present moment, barking orders like a general and obsessing about the day’s menu of events. The kids were poster children for chaos—two whining, cranky, cereal-spilling disaster zones. At long last we were nearly out the door, when I skidded across the entrance hall on a mystery mound. Sally, our loyal collie and the source of the pile I’d slipped on, tucked her tail between her legs and took speedy refuge behind the sofa.
In that moment—just as I was about to really lose it—I had a profound “aha.” The kids and the dog hadn’t randomly chosen that particularly busy morning to bounce off the walls. Instead, they were mirrors of my own crazed state: As I went off center, so did they. It suddenly dawned on me that the best way to change their behavior was to change mine. I’d recently started a yoga class, and I decided to try a stress-busting breathing exercise we’d been taught.
After just a minute or two of breathing in that conscious way, I could feel my energy shift. That scattered feeling of anxiety gave way to a kind of clear, focused energy. (You can learn how to do the same “circle breathing” that saved the day for me that morning by following the directions in “Centering Exercise: Circle Breathing”.)
The kids calmed down, my shoes got washed, and by the time we left the house, I’d learned that peace is a choice that starts inside, then ripples out to change the world around you.
It made sense to me, as a scientist, that I would find my peaceful center through a simple breathing technique. Breathing is a unique physiological process that happens automatically, yet you can easily shift it with your conscious will. If you’re stressed-out, your breath reflects your mental state, coming fast and shallow, choppy and irregular. You may even unwittingly hold it for long periods of time.
Stress breathing in turn stresses your body, causing it to release hormones that make it harder to concentrate and more difficult to remember things. (No wonder I was running around the house that morning wondering where my keys were, only to find them in the refrigerator next to the juice!) Studies show that frequent stress breathing raises heart rate and blood pressure, triggers anxiety, and even changes blood chemistry in a way that makes your platelets stickier, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Washing off my shoes in the sink that morning, as I breathed my way back into control, I had one of those life-changing “knowings” that you feel in your bones. Every day brings a clear choice: to practice stress or to practice peace. I thought, If I make a conscious choice to make peace of mind my primary goal going forward, everything else in life will flow more smoothly and harmoniously.
Finding inner peace doesn’t require hours of daily practice—I don’t have that kind of time, and I suspect you don’t, either. You don’t have to stand on your head or stare at your navel. All it takes is a little willingness and common sense.
Life is a precious gift to be savored, not a series of chores to complete while you complain about being “crazy busy.” Remember—your to-do list is immortal. It will live on long after you’re dead. What matters is you, right now. In this column, you’ll learn simple, effective ways to center yourself and bring mind, body, and spirit together so that life becomes a joy and a pleasure, and your best self can shine. The circle breathing described here won’t take up much of your precious time, but it will help center you and create a field of peace that will be a blessing to everyone around you.