Archive for June, 2015

GroundingWe have shared many blog posts about recovery as a process, as a habit that takes daily practice and attention. We’ve talked about the many triggers of relapse, from stress to poor health to depression. Another major trigger for relapse is a feeling of restlessness, of being scattered, of losing control over our circumstances or emotions. Sometimes, a recovering addict might get stuck in painful or frightening memories that seem easiest to erase by returning to alcohol or drugs.

In this post, we’ll introduce two techniques, grounding and centering, that can help you return from a place of seeming chaos to a place of rest and calm. You may have heard yoga or meditation teachers talk about “grounding” and “centering,” but what do these terms actually mean?

To “ground yourself” simply means to bring your energy and attention from your head and stomach (which are often hotbeds of anxiety, cravings, restlessness, and impulses) to a more stable base: a connection with the Earth.

A simple grounding exercise is to place your feet on the floor (or on the ground if you can sit or stand outside) and to imagine roots extending from the bottoms of your feet down into the earth. Imagine the roots burrowing deep into the earth and drawing nutrients from the rich soil. Feel the connection to the earth come up through your feet and legs and into your entire body. Stay with this feeling a few moments, breathing steadily. When you are ready, imagine your roots retracting, and take a moment to feel gratitude for the Earth and for how it supports us.

To “center yourself” means to set aside all thoughts of the past and future and to focus on the present moment. It means to take your scattered energy and focus it on your heart. “Heart” in this sense is the center of our feeling nature, the place from which we feel and give love.

A simple centering exercise (which can immediately follow the grounding exercise above) is to find a comfortable position, breathe slowly and evenly, and bring your attention to your heart center. Focus on feeling love and compassion for yourself. Remind yourself that you are perfectly safe and that anything that happens to you here on Earth, no matter how bad it may seem, is for your highest good. When you’re ready, extend this feeling of love outward to the world. Feel your connection with others.

You may want to end your grounding and centering exercises by giving thanks for any people, things, and events that have contributed to your growth or brought light to your life.

Everything I Wanted To Know About Spirituality But Didn’t Know How to Ask, by Peter Santos. This book includes chapters on grounding, centering, meditation, and more.

“Grounding Exercises.” Living Well. This web page contains a list of 20+ simple exercises to help ground yourself in the present moment.

Other resources:
Grounding exercise for better sleep and pain management:

Centering exercise to use when beginning new projects at work, school, or home:

Free Guided Meditations from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center

BreathingAll residents at St. Joseph Institute learn about breath work: what it is, how to do it, and why it helps. But breathing is one of the easiest practices to overlook. We breathe without thinking about it, and we often “forget to breathe” when we experience stress. When our residents finish treatment and return to their homes and lives, they will surely experience stress. The simplest and easiest way to combat this stress is to practice breath work, daily if possible.

As residents learn, our body’s nervous system can be divided into two parts: somatic (under our control) and autonomic (involuntary, beyond our awareness). By controlling our somatic nervous system through breath work and other stress-reducing activities, we can calm our autonomic nervous system. When we forget to take care of our stress, our bodies can actually forget how to relax.

Deep, slow, relaxed breaths activate our ability to rest and digest. Being relaxed and centered reduces our cravings for food, alcohol, and/or drugs. As we relax, we have a better perspective on life and can more easily prioritize our goals and tasks. Being relaxed awakens our intuitive, feeling nature, allowing us to act from our heart center instead of reacting to the world in “fight-or-flight” mode.

Of course, even when we “remember to breathe,” it can be difficult to practice breath work. We’re stressed because we’re busy, and taking time out to breathe instead of getting work done means we’ll get behind and therefore feel even more stressed, right?

Solution: 5 minutes. Five minutes is five times better than zero minutes, and taking five minutes to practice breath work when you feel your shoulders tightening or your anxiety growing can help tremendously. The more you practice noticing and relaxing your breath, the more quickly you will become aware when it changes due to stress.

Breathing exercises come in endless variations and can be used to increase alertness, prepare for sleep, or simply relax. The exercise below, breathing for relaxation, comes directly from St. Joseph’s educational materials.

  1. Find a comfortable position. If you’re sitting, put both feet flat on the floor.
  2. Gently close your eyes.\
  3. Focus on your breathing. Inhale through the nose – pause – exhale through the mouth – pause. (Note: if it’s more comfortable for you to exhale through your nose instead of your mouth, that’s fine. Just focus on slow, even breaths.)
  4. Continue breathing in this manner, simply focusing on your breath.
  5. Begin to imagine that when you inhale, you are breathing in peace and relaxation. When you exhale, imagine letting go of tension and stress.
  6. Notice what is happening inside your body as you breathe.
    a. Using your internal vision, notice what your breath looks like
    b. Using your internal sense of hearing, notice what your breath sounds like.
    c. Using your internal sense of touch, notice what your breath feels like.

Doing this breathing exercise even five minutes every day will help reduce stress, reduce cravings, improve sleep quality, and stabilize your nervous system.

Other resources:
“Breathing: Three Exercises.” Spirit & Inspiration.

“6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less.” Greatist.

Negative thinking“Don’t believe everything you think.” This short, simple phrase is the key to managing negative thoughts. Why manage negative thoughts? Negative thinking supports negative emotions, and the two together lead to feelings of stress, powerlessness, and the need for escape. In short, negative thinking can lead to relapse.

Our training materials at St. Joseph Institute include a short article by psychologist Bruce Campbell that explains how our thoughts affect our moods and actions. Campbell describes two different styles for interpreting experience: pessimistic/hopeless or optimistic/hopeful.

The pessimistic style sees specific events as examples of permanent, far-reaching negative forces. Thoughts in this style often begin with “I always…!” or “I never…!” (and often end in exclamation points!).

The optimistic style sees a specific event as just that—something specific, limited, and temporary. Thoughts in this second style might begin, “Today, I…” or “This time, I…”

Say you make a mistake at work. You might feel a mixture of several emotions: shame, anger, anxiety, hopelessness. You can fuel these emotions with pessimistic, hopeless thoughts like “I’m such an idiot!” “I’ll never get better!” or “This always happens to me!” Or, you can think, “I made a mistake today.”

Campbell suggests that we practice recognizing and evaluating negative thoughts by keeping a thought record. Note the event, the emotions it raised, and your initial thoughts about it. Ultimately, you want to correct your thought pattern to one that is based in reality and hopefulness. In the example above, you might conclude, “I’ve been making more mistakes than usual lately. It could be because I’ve been so tired. But I’m learning from each of these mistakes, and I know that I can improve. I’ll start by going to bed earlier.”

When we’re in the midst of a powerful emotional reaction, such calm, rational thinking can feel impossible. That’s okay. In this case, allow yourself to feel your emotions. Sit with them, observe them, seek to understand them, let them flow. If negative thoughts fill your head and make you feel worse, that’s okay. Just let it all play out for awhile, knowing that when you’re ready, you’ll approach the situation more rationally.

When you’re ready, use Campbell’s questions to help correct your negative thoughts.

  • Do I know of situations in which this thought is not completely true all the time?
  • If my good friend had this thought, what would I tell him or her?
  • When I felt this way in the past, what did I think that helped me feel better?
  • Five years from now, am I likely to see this situation differently?
  • Am I blaming myself for something not under my control?

In the end, remember that thoughts are powerful. They create your reality. Anita Moorjani, author of Dying to be Me, asks her audience in a lecture to look around the room and notice everything red. Then, she asks everyone to close their eyes. “Now,” she says. “How many things can you recall that are blue?”

Her point is simple: What we focus on is what we will see, often to the exclusion of everything else. If we go out into the world looking for everything that might harm us, we will see only danger. If we look for examples of kindness, we will see kindness.

Make a commitment to yourself and to your recovery: don’t believe everything you think. Nurture positive, hopeful thoughts, and allow the rest to fall away.