Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sing Yourself Into Breathing

On a previous post, "Sheet Music" , I was extolling the value of singing lessons. Harriet posted a comment about thinking about singing lessons to help her relieve some of her anxiety symptoms; specifically her breathing difficulties. (Check out her description of the "Breathing Thingy"). I understand exactly what she means by breathing problems because I have very similar symptoms myself.

For anyone who has not experiences these "breathing problems", or anyone who has them, but does not know what is happening to them...Here is a description of what my breathing problems feel like. At first I start feeling like I cannot get a breath. It is as though someone is hugging me so hard I cannot breathe. Sometimes it feels like someone is sitting on my chest, making it impossible to fill my lungs with air. My breathing becomes intensely shallow. I start being able to only fill the top of my lungs. The air will go no farther. The shallower I breath, the worse the tightness in my chest becomes. I start panicking sometimes, because this all feels so intensely physical, like I am going to suffocate. It can feel terrifying.

It feels terrifying, but I know it is just my mind creating the feeling. Even though I have insight that the breathing problems are not physical problems I cannot stop them no matter how hard I try. Traditional deep breathing exercises help some people.

The easiest way to learn these exercises is to lay on your back on the floor and place your hands on your belly, about two or three inches below your belly button. Laying on a harder surface than a bed is best to start with as it will help you lift your belly with air as opposed to sinking yourself into a soft surface.

Next, envision the air you breathe in going past your upper lung lobes, past your lower lung lobes and instead, entering your belly first. The task is to visualize filling your lungs from the bottom up, instead of from the top down.

With hand on your belly, so you can feel your belly rise as you breath in, slowly, through your nose, breathe in and make the breathe go to your belly first. If you are doing it right you will feel your belly rise as you take in air. When your lungs are full hold the breathe for a couple seconds, and then reverse the process by emptying the top of the lungs, then the bottom, then the belly. I call these "belly breaths".

For many people, as few as 10 of these exercises can dramatically reduce anxiety symptoms, like the breathing problems. Once you do these exercises a few times, you can learn to do them even while you are sitting or standing.

For some of us though these traditional breathing exercise seem to cause more breathing problems or more anxiety. I am like that. I think for me the focus on breathing, when I am in the middle of having breathing problems, just makes me more focused on the problem. I have discovered that for me, singing, and especially singing lessons, can greatly relieve my breathing difficulties.

My singing lessons are so helpful for helping me breathe. with traditional breathing exercises, like the one above, my focus is on breathing correctly with singing lessons, I am more focused on the sounds my voice is making than the exact method of breathing. Taking my focus away from breathing, but towards a task that requires deep, belly breathing, helps my breathing difficulties dissipate.

To sing a person needs to "belly breathe". If you are to have power behind your notes, or need to sing a long phrase without a breathe, you need a lot of air. Shallow breathing does not make for good singing.. You need to use deep breathing to create the richness and fullness of the sounds.

I think because the focus is on the sound so much my body/mind forgets about the connection the required breathing techniques have to anxiety and difficulty breathing. My anxiety levels, and my breathing problems ALWAYS get better in my lessons (especially my tendency to subconsciously hold my breath). I also notice that my back and shoulders, which always seem tight and sore, become looser and more relaxed, partly due to my teacher really helping me pull my shoulders down when I sing, and helping me learn to relax my neck/throat muscles which in turn creates a richer, and more powerful sound.

I would recommend singing lessons to anyone with anxiety. I have even been trying to talk my instructor into leading some singing classes specifically for breathing difficulties, and to help people lower anxiety levels using singing as a relaxation exercise.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

For My Friend Polar Bear

My friend Polar Bear is having a difficult time right now, and I am sure she could use some levity to help her feel better. I read about this in the paper yesterday, and found the video on you tube. This is for you Polar Bear...hugs:

Polar Bears and Huskies Playing

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sheet Music

I have been wanting to learn some new songs in my singing lesson, but have been so depressed, exhausted and overwhelmed, that I haven`t been able to push myself to go to the music store to find some new sheet music.

So on Thursday, after yet another failed effort to get to the store, I thought I would check out some online resources. I came across a really great website called "".

At first I was a bit skeptical about the site, because it asks you to download software. I was concerned about viruses etc. because I didn't know the site, but because I desperately wanted a new piece of music for my lesson that day I took a chance and downloaded the software.

Once you download it you can choose the music you want to print, pay for it, and it is available immediately. They have all kinds of music available for all kinds of instruments. Having sheet music as accessible as i-tunes has recorded music is wonderful, but that is not the best thing about Musicnotes.

When I cam home from my singing lesson I opened my computer and noticed two new icons on my desktop: "musicnotes player" and "guitar guru". I opened them to see what they were. I was thrilled.

The "guitar guru" opens up a window with a diagram/picture of a guitar neck with frets and strings, and it shows the area where a guitarist plucks/plays the strings. When you purchase a song on Musicnotes you also gain access to guitar lessons for that song. When you open the song in guitar guru the online guitar shows left hand finger placement for all the notes/chords, as well as what the strumming/picking hand is supposed to do. You can slow it down in the beginning until you learn the song and speed it up to the correct tempo as you become more proficient at playing the song.

The guitar guru is amazing, but for me the "musicnotes player" is even more exciting. When you open your purchased song in "musicnotes player" it opens the music and then plays the piano/guitar music for the song, lights up the vocalist's notes showing the singer how the notes are supposed to be read (timing/tempo etc.), and uses a flute type instrument to show the singer the sound of each note on the sheet music. It is like having a singing instructor available 24/7.

I just purchased a song called "Calling You", by Holly Cole. I am not a huge fan of Holly Cole's, but I heard this song in a movie, (Baghdad Cafe), and it is hauntingly beautiful. I sang it in my lesson and my voice is perfect for it.

If you play/sing music I encourage you to check out Musicnotes. It is so easily accessible and has some pretty cool features.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Joy of Music

This post was inspired by a post about "[t]he neuroscience of music enjoyment and depression" over on Dr. Shock's blog. The post is about how brain images of depressed people listening to music "... showed significant deficits in activation of the most important reward areas of the brain"...but the "...depressed patients scored their subjective liking of there favorite music comparable to healthy subjects".

This post really got me thinking about both how my love for music is impacted by my mood disorder, but also the flip side, how my major depression is impacted by music. I wonder if the deficits in the reward centre areas of depressed people's brain images are related, not to our ability to enjoy music while listening to it, but rather to our ability to consistently recognize it as a rewarding activity?

Music has been extremely important to me throughout my life. Some of my best memories in childhood, and throughout my life, revolve around musical experiences I shared with my family. My Mom loved to sing and passed her joy and passion for singing onto my sister's and I.

As children we often played our ukuleles alongside our Mom playing her guitar. We would spend hours singing and playing all the songs we loved. Sitting around the living room and singing was treasured experience for all of us. As I grew older my sister "K" and I started buying our own records. We would spend hours listening to and singing along with our favourites bands.

My sister and I still sing together any time we are together. We sing karaoke, sing to the radio in the car, or sing by ourselves if no music is around. We have sung together so often that we instinctively know which person will sing the melody and who will sing the harmony.

There has been only one period in my life where music disappeared for me. The first year or so around the beginning of the Major Depressive Episode I am currently in. I was so depressed I just stopped listening to music. I did not enjoy it anymore. I found it suddenly noisy and irritating. I did not have the energy or the desire to listen to it anymore. I stopped listening and I stopped singing. Music felt dead to me.

At some point in therapy Dr. X (my psychiatrist) told me he played the piano. The information awakened the sleeping love for music inside me. Years prior I had had a girlfriend who was an incredible pianist. She used to take me to the university's practice rooms and play classical piano for me. The experience had been sublime. I loved the sound of her piano playing. When Dr. X casually mentioned playing the piano it reminded me how much I loved listening to classical piano music. I went out and bought two really beautiful and inspiring cd's:

For the first time in a long long time I began to love music again. I even went to hear Yundi Li play, not once, but twice. Slowly, I began listening to and enjoying music again. I bought an iPod, and started downloading my favourite music. I purchased an iPod contraption for my car so I could listen to it on the stereo. I began to sing out loud as the music played through the radio. My sleeping musical giant was awakening.

Then last year my husband bought me singing lessons for Christmas. I do not think I ever received a more valuable, precious and well thought out gift. I was scared stiff to go. I felt intensely fearful of rejection. I kept thinking, what if I can't sing? What if all these years I believed I had a good voice when in fact I sound awful. I was so scared I would be told my voice was not good, and the feedback would devastate me, because I loved to sing so much.

Instead, my first lesson my instructor seemed flabbergasted at how, without lessons I had learned to control my voice, and sing the way I did. She was immensely happy that "finally she found someone who wanted to learn jazz, the music [she wanted] to teach". That first night she invited me to join a choir she taught at the art's centre. My first lesson was such a positive experience, and it only became better.

I discovered my teacher was a beautiful, kind and welcoming soul. I have been able to tell her about having a mental illness; that I struggle with chronic depression, and that anxiety often scares me into not trying new things, or continuing doing things, even if I love doing them. She accepts that and is flexible about my lessons if I do not feel well enough to attend on our regular lesson day.

Throughout my depression one of the most difficult things for me has been being able to accurately determine my ability and desire to participate in things I love to do. Every single day I am scheduled to go to choir or to my singing lesson I have anticipatory anxiety: I feel a sense of dread about going, and a feeling that I am too tired, or too exhausted, or too depressed to go. About 95% of the time I find the negative voice, telling me I am too depressed to go, is wrong.

While I do periodically cancel my lessons, or decide to not go to choir, for the most part my scheduling in, and committing to these things as part of my personalized benevolent structure plan keeps me going even when my brain tells me not to go. With choir I usually make the right choice by forcing myself to go; the people and the activity of learning and singing together almost always lift my mood both during the evening lesson, and into the rest of the evening that follows. Once in a while it seems to be as overwhelming as I imagined. I think my social anxiety may be informing my experience on these days.

With my singing lessons I cannot think of a single time I regretted pushing myself to go, even if I was severely depressed. I get to my lesson, often having an anxiety attack. I begin with a feeling of not being able to breathe and a tightness in my chest. Within a few scales and different singing exercise I find myself breathing again. The more I sing, the more powerful and skilled I begin to feel. By the time I get to my third or forth song I almost always feel an intense sense of enjoyment and joy at how beautiful it feels to sing. I'm not the only one feeling this way. My singing instructor regularly extend my lesson so we can sing more songs. She says she loves to sing and play the piano with me.

I always leave my singing lesson singing the songs I am learning or have learned. I sing all the way home. I sing while I make supper. I sing throughout the evening. Sometimes I am still singing the next morning when I wake up. My desire to sing dissipates throughout the week, and again, every day a lesson is planned I have to make the decision to go in spite of feeling too depressed to go. I am always rewarded when I stick to my plan to go, even on the days I feel barely able to get out of bed. For me, singing is always the right choice.

I'm not sure how I can get my brain to remember, and consistently believe, that going to my singing lesson is always good for me. I seem to forget the joy my lessons bring each day I am scheduled to go to a lesson. I am trying hard to believe that over time my brain will train itself to happily anticipate going to my lesson, to have no doubts about the value of going when I feel depressed. Until then I just have to keep reminding myself that when I sing the joy I so often miss in my daily life always shows up again in my singing lesson. That is a pretty good incentive to get me there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Scheduling Wellness Activities

I am often inspired by other bloggers. The idea for this blog came when I read Harriet M. Welch's blogpost "Quicksand and a Mandala". In the post she talk how difficult it is for her to just sit and meditate. She goes on to describe an intricate art project that allowed her to meditate in a more activity based way: by focusing intently on a beautiful and intricate art project. She describes herself as a "Kinesthetic Meditator". Upon reading those words I had an ah-ha moment: Activities calm me, help me stop my negative brain chatter and help me build wellness into my life.

My other blog "Vicarious Therapy" is often really focused on thoughts, ideas and feelings. I decided I needed to emphasize how important it is for me to remain active, to somehow gently "force" myself to keep DOING, even when, or maybe especially when, I am feeling severely depressed.

My psychiatrist has been helping me create and incorporate into my everyday life, what he calls a "benevolent structure". The idea is to develop, schedule and maintain a set of activities I love to do, or that help me feel a sense of accomplishment; activities that gently help me remain engaged in life, that help me feel involved in the world around me, and that provide me with a sense of belonging and a sense that I can contribute to this world. The idea is that by scheduling these activities I will have the structure I need to help myself do things even when I am feeling really unwell.

This benevolent structure does help me remain engaged. I am often severely depressed I have a very difficult time getting myself to do things. The things I schedule, I do. The schedule: my singing lessons, my choir, my dog walks, my meetings with friends etc., acts as a catalyst that grabs my hand and gets me to do things even when the voice inside me is saying, "I'm too tired, too depressed, or to exhausted to go to "X" activity.

I guess the best way to describe my benevolent structure is this way: My benevolent structure (the schedule of activities I have created for myself) is like a personal contract to myself. In the contract I have agreed that despite having negative thoughts, or feelings of depression, or anxiety, about activities want to, and like to do, I will not cancel, or avoid the activities. I will do the activities I schedule.

It may not be easy, in fact two things that provide me with the most joy: my singing lessons and my teaching art classes, are tasks I actively dread going to every single week. They are also two activities in my benevolent structure that bring the most joy to me while I am actively engaged in singing and teaching. This is not an easy path to follow, but I am hoping that over time I will relearn to be excited and happy about doing the things I love to do.

I hope this blog can become a compendium of things that bring me joy and things that help me heal. I hope in writing and reinforcing the positive activities I embrace in my life I will eventually reprogram some of my negative behaviours and thoughts into a plan for a lifetime of wellness. I hope too that I can inspire others as others have inspired me.