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  • Writer's pictureHannah E Greenwood

Learning to breathe again

It’s been a rollercoaster start to 2021 in London that took all our energy and intense focus to keep going. Our lives on all levels, including our livelihoods, are founded on the dynamic energy of people connecting. Remote working is a good stop gap but so much is lost. We soldiered on stoically through 2020 but when the U.K. went into its third lockdown on 4th January, it hit our spirit very hard.

A helpful analogy is the overly nostalgic talk about the ‘Blitz spirit’ here in WWII. That was, if it existed at all, in the beginning. By the end of the six years, people were exhausted and that manifested varyingly in depression, meanness and/or a helpless resignation, essentially a loss of hope that anything was going to change for the better. It’s the shadow side of a huge metropolis with so many living on top of each other: there is nowhere to escape and gain perspective. I think the lowest point this winter was when the rest of the world was looking at us with pity and concern. Then we knew how bad it really was!

It was during this time, in late February, that I started voice/screencraft lessons with drama coach Rebecca Cuthbertson* to help me with my media work with videos and podcasts. Synchronistically, I had been gifted flute lessons with Lynnette Cruickshank ** who is also a professional singer. Very soon, these two wonderful teachers identified that my key learning was to work on my breathing. What emerged was fascinating.

Over the last 12 months, with the world turned upside down, I had become unconsciously stuck in flight/fight adrenal-overdrive mode and my breathing had become very shallow. As homo sapiens we are brilliantly designed, physiologically and psychologically, to respond fast to danger. It’s about pure survival and we do this by diverting all energy from where it’s not urgently needed and channelling it to react to the sabre-toothed tiger bearing down on us. This includes switching from our natural abdomen breathing to a shallow upper chest breathing, and it also includes conserving our emotional energy: pausing to figure out how we feel about the imminent threat is not wise when we’re about to be eaten up!

We are designed to be in fight/flight response for an intense sprint of energy. We are not built to withstand 14 months of this highly charged state with no respite. To add to our stress, after 3 months of consistent behaviour change, our smartly adaptive brain then tells us that this new… i.e. fight/flight response… behaviour is the norm now and begins to battle with our body which is trying to function as it has over many thousands of years of physiological evolution.

There are a lot of people now stuck in fight/flight adrenal-overload, manifesting in burnout, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and/or relationships breaking down. Concern around mental health is high. We need to stop being on full-on throttle. That doesn’t mean full-on resting/slump mode as the only other option. As with a car, it's about flexible gear-changing according to need and context. What can help if we are feeling over stretched is first to acknowledge it to ourselves and then ask for help. There is more practical advice in this article I wrote recently:

One of the reasons for this intense response stuckness is that we are being urged, even forced, to learn new mindsets, behaviours, and skills to adapt fast to this new world. In early March, two months ago, I had a dream that I was back, as me now, at University. It was the opening week, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the volume of new classes as well as the bustle of so many unfamiliar people around me. But then, in my dream, I moved from anxiety to a feeling of deep excitement about this new world I was in. I woke up and remembered I was having both my first voice/screencraft and flute lessons that day.

If we can change our attitude to new learning and experiences, then we can begin to ease our stress response: not everything unknown and new is a life-threatening sabre-toothed tiger!

The Learning Curve above shows the four psychological stages we go through in perfecting a new skill/ behaviour and subsequent mindset.

Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence: 'I don’t know what I don’t know'. This is where we can be very stuck in old beliefs and unhealthy habits and assume we know best, making the same mistakes over and over again. Some people never leave this place but if we have courage and/or enough urgent necessity we can be propelled to move to the next stage.

Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence: 'The point of real change'. This is the ‘futile void’ place where we become conscious of all we don’t know and overwhelmed with all there is to learn. Our inner ‘Critical Parent’, that judgmental, harsh voice stemming from early bad learning experiences, can be very present making us feel deskilled and useless. We can feel shy and vulnerable, and it can be very tempting to give up and retreat to the ‘I know best’ place of stage one. Many do so and retreat into their fixed beliefs and habits. But it is this shyness and vulnerability that is our hope. Shyness is about showing something true of ourselves to others, which is why people who don’t normally identify as being shy, suddenly find themselves so: there is no mask to hide behind. Ultimately this stage is where we have the chance to let go of rigid thinking and behaviour, to connect more authentically to ourselves and to others and to be open to real change.

Stage Three: Conscious Competence: 'I'm doing it!' This is where we begin to feel more confident that we can do this but still need to concentrate and practice methodically to perfect the skill/behaviour. It takes patience and discipline but we can feel and see it working and that brings us increasing energy and motivation.

Stage Four: Unconscious Competence: 'True Mastery: I’m in my flow and cruising!' This brings a delicious feeling of pride and creates more confidence to open up to further learning and new experiences. Crucially, we have learned to accept our vulnerability in stage two as a healthy and creative turning point in the learning curve. And it is this self-acceptance and openness that allows us to connect authentically to ourselves and others, essential for great leadership and also for happy and healthy human beings!

Hannah Elizabeth Greenwood

**Lynnette Cruickshank


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