The dinner breath

I’m a little short on adventure these days, though nursing hungry twins can be scary after midnight. Release the Kraken!

Evenings are also full of adrenaline. It is 4 PM. The house is a disaster, and every child is crying. I am making dinner but also I am ready to spring. The muscles of my back, neck, and jaw are coiled.

I am not entirely opposed to adrenaline. I love to ski, hike, and bike; but in those sports you can always stop and re-assess. Evenings with my family are more like running whitewater.

Something about being tired, and having a dinner-making responsibility to see through, makes the madness in my home unbearable. In a past life, the highest use of late afternoon was to fix a quiet cup of tea for some toes up time. Now, as my children hover and swarm, I feel like, Why are you still talking to me?

On the exterior I am calm. Inside, my brain turns to soup. I open the refrigerator door and forget why I opened it. Nausea sweeps through me. What is this? Oh. That’s panic. Cold, hard panic. Then I remember, green beans, and move on.

*

To freak-out is the body’s natural reaction to threat. It goes by many names… Come un-glued. Flip your lid. Lose one’s shit. The brain short-circuits, making the prefrontal cortex and all of its propensity for language and rational thought temporarily unavailable. The only problem is, wild children do not constitute an emergency.

I was never one for whitewater. In my early 20s a boyfriend wanted to learn so we spent some time at the pool and then took our kayaks to the river. In the course of a week, I swam a class II rapid, tipped on an eddy-line (and feared I would drown), and watched him washing-machine down a class IV rapid. That was enough for me.

People say we can only control ourselves. What the hell? Living in chaos, at times, renders me emotionally hijacked. I am anything but in control. Fight or flight isn’t a pleasant state to hang around in; I would gladly drop my reaction if I could. How do I make it stop?

While it is happening, I’m convinced that a nice little adult temper tantrum will restore order – for tonight and all the evenings to come. But freaking out never solved anything. Tomorrow night we will be right back here where we started. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

I want to be a calm mom. If I can pull this off, maybe my kids will look back on childhood with rose-colored glasses. Right now, I commit to figuring this out. I will learn to recover from stressful moments without to upsetting anyone.

Maybe all I need is to reframe the situation. I wonder if I could shift this daily experience out of anxiety attack and into adrenaline rush. When someone in our family is up against something difficult, we say, try again or ask for help. My husband loves whitewater. So I ask:

“You know that time, between 4 and 6 PM, when everyone has needs, and I am tired, and I need to make dinner, and it is so hard?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“It’s sort of feels like running the rapids on a river; like there’s no possibility of eddying out or making things any calmer. I just have to get through it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Why do you like that feeling?”

“It’s a little scary,” he says. “But it’s exciting too. The danger gives you a rush.”

“Is there anything you like about whitewater kayaking that might help me get through that time of day?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Breathe. Take a breath. This is what people say. Before you go under, I think. But one breath does nothing. I need like an hour of breathing to feel like myself again.

I’ve been working towards self-regulation for my entire adult life. Allegedly there exists a teeny tiny gap between emotion and the impulse to act. All one has to do is locate it, separate the two, and let the emotion rise and fall within the body without doing anything crazy.

You don’t have to do anything.

After decades of scanning I still don’t see that space. Anger, stress, fear, or scarcity sends me straight into whatever in-voluntarily smack-down spectacle my body orchestrates to reign in control. At the first hint of a hairline I promise to throw in a pry bar like a javelin.

Keep your head down, I tell myself. Ignore the chaos. Keep going. Ride the wave.

When you’re in a hole, and the water keeps coming, there isn’t time to think. Yet, keep paddling, and the hole will eventually spit you back out. My brain flat-lines for ten to fifteen minutes, tops. All I have to do is resist the urge to lash out for this teeny tiny slice of time. The emergency will resolve and my brain will come back online by itself.

I am motivated. Never before was every day so fraught with land mines and the stakes so precious. Maybe with compulsory daily practice I can get a combat roll down before the brothers move on to solids.

For fifteen years, I have been aware of my breath, the experience of life in my body, and the compulsory generation of thoughts. I can observe thoughts, but in a triggered state I end up bending to their whims.

In the big picture, mindfulness helps me to stay calm. But it has never helped me snap back to stasis in the heat of a moment. It occurs to me, that fight or flight is a physiological response, and if there is a way in, then there must be a way out.

With a little research I learn that the return to rest and digest status is a function of the Vagal nerve. This “wandering” nerve starts at the brainstem and meanders all the way to the gut; which is why intuition is sometimes described as a “gut” instinct. I am pleased to learn and is also sometimes called the Vagas nerve.

Goodbye reality; hello Vagas.

Want to hack your way out of fight or flight? There are quite a few ways to stimulate the Vagal nerve: Story-telling. Singing. Journaling. Belly-breathing. Splashing cold water on your face. Pressure points. Bearing down.

You mean, that I can calm down just by pretending to fart? Yes. Maybe.

Ready. Set. Vagas.

Vagal nerve strength can be measured by tracking the heartbeat. Under stress, the heart holds a constant rhythm. As a person returns from a triggered state to calm, there is more variability in the timing between heartbeats. The skill of returning quickly from a triggered state back to center is a function of vagal tone, but it also goes by another name: Resilience.

I think a lot about building resilience in myself, my children, and our family. Realizing that two separate goals just met and married in a neon chapel strikes me as very, very cool.

Vagas is the answer no matter the question.

Resilience is not a measure of grit-your-teeth endurance or the depth of your stuffed emotions. Rather, it is a measure of one’s willingness to look what is real in the eye, see it for what it is, and to do what is needed, for as long as is necessary.

Highly resilient people are no better at holding back floodwaters from bursting through the dam than anyone else; their forte is to accept the disaster, pick up the pieces quickly, and begin again.

For my part, resilience means generating less anger; valuing relationships over control; noticing the experience others are having even when I am at my whit’s end. It is stopping, before I freak out, to ask, Is this worth giving up my calm?

The finish-line for me each evening is something our family calls, the dinner breath. My husband and I made up this ritual on our second date and have kept with it ever since. We join hands with our daughter, the babies in their highchairs, and anyone brave enough to venture over for dinner at our place. We sit in stillness long enough to take one intentional inhale and exhale. We wait as the vibration of gratitude travels around the table and passes through each one of us. We are together, and that is enough.

I hope dinner time will become just another time. A regular meal. No big deal. Becoming resilient to the chaos of children gives me hope that I will make it to the table. That there will come a moment, with everyone in front of a hot meal, where nothing crazy has happened. When I sit and take hands, I finally relax. I have conquered the rapids.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can go to Vagas and that’s kind of the same thing.

***

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