My doctor told me to try biofeedback first, before he looks into giving me meds for depression or anxiety. Fortunately, my student fees cover free therapy, including sessions in the biofeedback lab.
The "lab" is actually a lovely, comfortable den, run by a loving and comforting woman with whom, last time, I spent so much time chewing the fat, that we didn't have time for the actual biofeedback session. So this time, we went straight into it. There are several biofeedback things we can do, I was told, and this time we are going to start with the Heart Math program.
The quick and dirty explanation was that just by measuring variation in my pulse, this program can detect whether I'm in a state of "coherence" or not. Controlling my breathing, focusing my attention on the area of my heart, and invoking positive feelings such as appreciation, will bring me into "coherence." What is coherence"? Something about the autonomic nervous system... It means I will have that "fullness of heart" feeling that indicates my body is running at its optimal level. I was suspicious that the mere timing intervals of my pulse could indicate whether or not my body is at its optimal level... (What about my anemia? Low ferritin and hemoglobin can't be detected via pulse, but I still can't make it through the day without lying down several times...) but I tried to keep an open mind.
A thingamabob was strapped onto one of my fingers, and soon a graph started producing a line that measured my "coherence." I got a few squawks from the computer in the first few seconds. Apparently I was low coherence when I was first hooked up, and the computer didn't like that. But I just started following her instructions to breathe in for 5 and out for 5... "Ding" I was at 90% coherence already, in just a few seconds. "Excellent job!" I was told. "Not many people get that high so quickly."
We then went through a visualization. While continuing my rhythmic breathing, I was supposed to focus on the area of my heart, as if I were breathing "through my heart"... then imagine feelings of appreciation for something... That exercise lasted several minutes, and I sustained high coherence throughout most of it. I didn't tell her, however, that I was having a hard time faking a "feeling of appreciation" for something or someone out of nowhere. I thought of things I enjoy, but I just didn't feel like being actively happy that day. Blah was kind of my mood. Neutral.
There was another screen view in the program that showed "coherence" a different way. So we started another exercise. I lay down in a recliner and closed my eyes. This time, I decided to test the system. When she said "focus your attention on your heart," I focused my attention on my right foot instead. I imagined breathing "through my right foot." Woohoo! This would come in handy if anyone ever tried to strangle me... Coherence was still high, so apparently the computer didn't notice that my foci of attention included the wrong body part. Then it was time to add thoughts of appreciation. For this, I decided not to be snarky. I was already feeling guilty enough.
So I really made an effort to be happy about something. The only thing I could think of on the spot, that I didn't have mixed feelings about, was the Agastache rupestris plant in my front yard. I love that thing. It smells so nice, it's beautiful, and it's practically care-free.
However, this exercise was lasting longer, and as much as I tried, I couldn't just hold this still image of the Agastache in my head for so long. My mind wandered. I wonder what grade I'll get for the final paper I submitted yesterday. What a dumb class that was. Well, at least it's done, and I have a date this Thursday. Oops... Happy... be happy... No, she said "Appreciation." I tried to come back to the Agastache. Oh, I don't think I remembered to water the garden today. I need to get the mail too. I wonder if I'll get another nasty letter from... oops... My coherence wobbled down to the 60s and 70s. The therapist noticed and reminded me to breathe rhythmically. The only way I could do that was to blank my mind, though. Trying to focus on something didn't work. I got "Coherence" back up to the 90s again.
We had a chat afterward. She asked if I was feeling a "fullness of heart." Not really, I thought, glumly. Nice person that I am, though, I averted the subject instead. I told her that, to be honest, I felt resistance to the idea of "trying" to feel happy feelings, artificially.
"Why do you think that is?" she asked.
"Well, it reminds me of positivism, and I've had bad experiences with the positive-thinking movement, and I'm more in agreement with Carl Jung, who said that life is about light and dark, conscious and unconscious, sun and shadow, it's all a valuable part of the human experience, not just the 'light' things or the things that we are holding in our conscious minds, because just because we are consciously making ourselves feel happy, that doesn't mean we don't still have darkness inside, and if we try to repress our problems or the things we wish would just go away, that doesn't actually make them go away, they'll just come to bite us later, so I don't really like the idea of pretending things are good when actually, life kind of sucks right now; it reminds me of when I grew up, if we got sick we were made to feel guilty for our lack of faith or for letting the devil have an advantage over us, and there's just so much that's wrong with that from a theological and philosophical standpoint, because if you hold that God is 'only' good, and ascribe all bad to the devil or humans, then essentially you are creating a dualism, where God is at war with the devil, and while I understand the desire to not ascribe evil to God, when you do so you diminish his supposed omnipotence, so it's a paradox, but that's really a question that humanity has been struggling with for millenia, and every culture tries to solve it a different way, some end up with dualism, some end up with monism, and in the case of St. Augustine in the 4th century, he might have come up with one of the more sophisticated answers to theodicy, by saying that evil is not actually a 'thing,' it's merely the absence of good, and while that solves some of the problems of theodicy, it has its own set of problems."
At this point I realized I had said too much.
The therapist blinked and I realized she had been maintaining a gradually sinking smile throughout my entire rant.
"OK, I'll try again," I said, lying back down. "Breathe. In - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - Out - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5..."