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Anxiety busters: Deep breathing and kindness

Spokane psychotherapist Kent Hoffman inspired the “Wise Words in Troubled Times” series. He recommends both deep breathing and an awareness of procedural memory to allay the angst and rage brought on by the recession. (Dan Pelle)
Spokane psychotherapist Kent Hoffman inspired the “Wise Words in Troubled Times” series. He recommends both deep breathing and an awareness of procedural memory to allay the angst and rage brought on by the recession. (Dan Pelle)

At the beginning of the recession, Kent Hoffman, a 63-year-old Spokane psychotherapist, suggested that The Spokesman-Review publish regular stories about kind acts to counter the anxiety people were feeling as the economy collapsed.

His emails helped spark the idea for “Wise Words in Troubled Times,” an interview series that debuted two years ago, on June 6, 2009.

Hoffman was the first interview in a series designed to last about a year, because the hard economic times would surely be over by June 2010.

They weren’t. This week, the home-price index hit its lowest point since 2002, consumer confidence is again on the skids and the unemployment picture isn’t much more promising.

To mark the second anniversary of the series, Hoffman agreed to another Wise Words interview.

He’s had a busy two years. In May, for instance, he presented a workshop that has been percolating in his imagination for years.

Titled “Attachment, Procedural Memory and Sacred Practice” the workshop sold out and another, scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 5, is filling fast.

Hoffman still believes kindness matters, more than ever. Relationships with others, rather than relationship with things, is the antidote to continuing economic and emotional anxiety.

And, he says, don’t forget to breathe – deeply.

• Has the recession’s length surprised me? Yes and no. I assumed it would bounce back a little quicker than it has. But I began to recognize the depth of the issues that created the recession. The whole outsourcing and downsizing world, and the corporate capacity to make profits at the cost of putting more work on (workers) with less support. And I don’t think that will change. People will work harder with fewer resources and continue to feel bad about their options. 

• I recently read an interview with the flight attendant who yelled at people and then jumped down the chute of the plane. He described how everything has changed in the flight industry, and I see this when I travel. The airline is saying we can’t survive without putting more pressure on everyone down the line. I think it’s true in the news industry, in the social service industry and in my field as a psychotherapist.

There’s a squeeze going on and I don’t know when it will stop.

• What are the psychological effects? I see a fair amount of bitterness, cynicism, outrage. I see tempers flaring in ways they didn’t use to. I see shorter fuses everywhere. Everyone is feeling the pressure to do more with less time.

Life is not about productivity, but it’s become that way. I’m amazed at how much pain is walking on the streets.

• What is procedural memory? It’s memory learned before we have access to language that tells us the rules we need to play by in order to have our needs met. 

We get the operating instructions about how to do life before we have language, and it’s all encoded in the right brain. The left brain thinks it’s running the show but the right brain is in charge of so much of what happens with us.

That quarter-of-a-second look on someone’s face that brings back a memory of how that look showed up in our early life, and we had no idea that it caused us fear or upset. We didn’t have words for it. But then you’re sitting across the table from your wife and you get that same eye-rolling and you’re having a fight. That happens with your boss, with your next door neighbor.

I don’t want to be too goofy here, but when people understand procedural memory they take away the blame on themselves, their parents. They give themselves a break. They give those around them a break. You start to feel a lot of compassion for yourself and for the people who raised you.

• I talk to people about deeper belly breathing. Don’t breathe out of the middle of your chest, where we tend to hold our anxiety, but drop down a little lower and breathe slowly, maybe a count of four or five on the inhale and the same on the exhale. It’s slow, it’s restful. Like a cup of cool water in the middle of the desert.

One of the major dangers in our life is the focus on efficiency. Slowing your breathing down makes you, in the short term, less efficient. But it allows you to rest. Once we are rested, our perspective on things change.

• I just watched the first couple of years of “Mad Men” (a TV series set in the 1950s and ’60s). It’s helping me understand the era I grew up in. Then you look at the movie “Social Network” (about the founders of Facebook). It’s 50 years difference and nobody in any era has a clue how to deal with difficulty. They are drinking, smoking, having sex. We are all really afraid. We were in the ’50s. We are now. We are not offered many tools to deal with our fears.

• Kindness means slowing down and seeing the infinite worth in people. It’s in the little stuff. One of my favorite places is the checkout stand, where it’s fun to slow down and interact with the person doing the checking. The choice point for me is between being abrupt and quick, versus slowing down and saying here’s five minutes of my life that I won’t get back, so enjoy it.

 I was getting my tires put on, and the guy in front of me was furious, and he was yelling, and then stormed out. The guy behind the counter didn’t do anything wrong. He just wasn’t quick enough. He got blasted. I felt compassion for the guy and he sensed it. A lot happens nonverbally.

• Kindness isn’t doing kindness. It’s being kindness. We slow down. We make ourselves available.