By Iban Goicoechea
In my last article in the November 2012 eNews, I spoke about being invited to dine with Whitehouse staffers, an event where I had the opportunity — I felt it was an obligation — to address veterans’ concerns in three areas. The first issue I discussed and subsequently wrote about was the relationship between PTSD and ADHD and the surprising dearth of research into the effects of their co-existence in many veterans like me. Since that article, I’ve received positive feedback from numerous veterans grateful I’ve shared issues they’ve been facing but have difficulty expressing.
I promise I’ll tackle the two other areas from that dinner in future articles… However, in this issue, I want to digress a bit, and share something I’ve found especially helpful. As a veteran returning to university, I’ve had to completely change my pre-military coping methods of dealing with stress as I once-again faced the demands of academic life, and most recently, final exams.
For most veterans (and all Marines) the phrase "Natural Respiratory Pause” has less to do with breathing than the name might suggest. In the respiratory cycle (i.e. when you’re breathing) this is the space between one full exhalation and the next — naturally drawn — breath. Indulge me, and try finding the natural respiratory pause after your next exhalation, then continue reading the next sentence…
Now that you’ve taken your next breath, what thoughts were racing through your mind during the natural respiratory pause? If you’re not sure, that’s because it is a moment of absolute internal quiet and profound inner calm, as if a mutual "time-out” has been called for both mind and body. Try it again, but move your eyes—not your head—and look around you.
This pause in breathing serves to prevent bodily movement from interfering with the precision that marksmanship demands, but there’s a mental quiet that settles in as the deliberate attention to breathing takes command of your focus, rather than transient thoughts. Just being aware of a natural respiratory pause clears your mind, so that you can choose where to direct your focus next. It’s calm.
Any veteran familiar with the natural respiratory pause knows how to call upon that calm, and knows the potential of what can be accomplished in that moment, but relatively few of us transfer that specific method of control over mind and body to domains outside the military. Now, I practice it daily; it helps.
Recently, I used this technique to clear my mind moments before each final exam. It took me less than a minute, even adding a few extra measures… I loosely closed my eyes, exhaled, paused, inhaled, exhaled, paused, and then I opened my eyes. I decided to not get worked up; I decided that I would be relaxed. I skimmed the exam, maintaining that state of complete stillness, not settling on any one problem or trying to answer any of them, then went back to the first page and set down the exam.
I took another breath knowing what lay ahead of me, figured that I could only answer to the best of my ability, acknowledged that any worry at all would only interfere, and started working on the next breath after my natural respiratory pause — all deliberate, but seamless (hint: practice.) No stress; just answers. I still had drifting thoughts and fidgeted distractedly every so often; I just noticed my thoughts, noticed my fidgeting, and stopped (think "stop”), realized where I was, what I was doing, and that there was actually a time limit. I didn’t dwell on it. I noticed my next breath and reset. No stress.
One of the symptoms that ADHD and PTSD share, but that manifests differently in each, is the tendency to not be mentally in the present moment. For people with ADHD, our thoughts can be anywhere—the past, future, or the squirrel flicking its tail over there; for people with PTSD our thoughts are generally in the past, or speculating about a fearful future event based on past experiences and perceived similarities in the current moment. In reality, neither is actually fully in the moment.
Triggers act on both ADHD and PTSD alike; something in the moment "right now” sends our attention to another place, or another moment in time… that "something” is referred to as a trigger. Triggers exist, and everyone has them. We have emotional triggers; you can be triggered to anger if, for example, you see an injustice done. Or happiness, if someone steps in heroically to right that injustice.
Reactionary triggers, as with Pavlov’s famous dogs, occur, for example, when you walk into you house and smell your favorite dish being prepared; your mouth waters... or someone sneaks up behind you and makes a loud noise; you’re startled. Everyone has triggers; we develop different responses, in different contexts, and to different things.
What I do now, that I didn’t do before, is strive to be increasingly aware of my triggers — both the emotional and reactionary. Rather than being blindsided by a trigger I used to try to avoid at all costs, now I tell myself, "You know where this could go. Are you sure you want to jump off that cliff?” Just that moment of awareness stops me from letting my mind slip into certain distractions or memories. Those distractions and memories exist, and always will, but going to them unexpectedly and uncontrollably is not helpful.
By learning and recognizing my mental triggers, I continue to gain control of where my mind goes. And if it takes more than asking myself that question, I stop my thoughts by choosing to take a breath, exhale, and pause. Then, having acknowledged the presence of a trigger and my sensitivity to it, I factually reassess the situation and return to the current moment.
I’m sure you’ve heard the term, "mindfulness.” It simply means being here, now, rather than being distracted. The question, "How do I increase my mindfulness?” is one that is tackled in fields as diverse as psychology, religion, mysticism and more. Paradoxically, the answer is "Now.” It’s already done; you’re here, now. At any given moment, you are where you are, doing what you’re doing. To achieve mindfulness, simply stop thinking about other things, and notice what’s going on around you; see, hear, smell, taste, feel… clear your mind of thoughts of some other place, or time, and allow it to fully experience and absorb this current moment.
You can do it right now, try it. Yes, now. Look around, sniff and notice the taste in your mouth. What do you hear? Who do you see? Feel your feet against the inside of your shoe, or against the floor. Use your senses, but don’t use thoughts to describe what you sense. Just take in the sensation. Then, decide what to think next. What about when it feels overwhelming? Take a second to process it all. Close your eyes, take a breath, reset…
Personally, I keep my mouth closed during the entire process. Take a normal breath through your nose. Exhale normally, through your nose. Do not hold your breath, but do not decide when to take your next breath; you will eventually take another breath, naturally (I promise!) Focus your attention on noticing this. That’s it. Notice the quiet that exists between breaths. That quiet and peace, that’s where you’re free to perceive, notice, focus… anything.
Concentration exists in that vacuum that is empty of inapplicable thoughts. Practice; expand the amount of time you can make the stillness last, and enjoy even the briefest of moments of respite from the stress or anxiety that results from an unplanned mind trip to another time and another place.
Iban Goicoechea is the ADDA eNews "Vetran’s Affairs” Editor. Many military veterans with ADHD are facing life with ADHD and PTSD and other comorbid cognitive disorders. ADDA’s eNews is giving voice to veterans through Iban’s articles. To add your voice to the discussion, contact Iban directly at ADD.Iban@gmail.com.