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Hi, friends. 
I am typing this into my phone in the middle of the night, which is an indication that All Is Not Well. Like many of us, I’ve been walking around in a heightened state of anxiety, and I wanted to share two things that are helping me stay in the present moment and cultivate a sense of safety in my body, also known as stop freaking the fuck out.
I have a new therapist. Halfway through our first session, she said, “I’m noticing you’re not breathing.”
I was like, of course I’m breathing, I’m alive? but I also knew exactly what she meant. My default is shallow breathing; I don’t take deep diaphragmatic breaths unless I’m actively remembering to do it, which I don’t unless I put reminders in my phone. I’m certain this is, at least in part, yet another insidious side effect of diet culture: it’s impossible to fill your lungs completely while you’re sucking in your gut and trying to look smaller, which I did both consciously and unconsciously for like 35 years and still fight the urge. 
Anyway, the point is this: consistent shallow chest breathing keeps our bodies operating in fight-or-flight mode. You might think you’re relaxed, but when you’re not filling your lungs completely, your body assumes you’re, like, hiding from a T-Rex and releases stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine). Trying to overcome that anxiety using only your mind is not a fair fight. Deep breathing signals to your body that you’re safe. It activates your parasympathetic nervous system, aka the “rest and digest” state.
There is now an hourly reminder in my phone to breathe deeply for three minutes. When I do this, I put my hands on my lower rib cage and focus on filling the lower part of my lungs with air. My belly expands, but I’m focusing on breathing more into my rib cage than into my belly itself. In and out through the nose, I Inhale for a count of 4 and exhale for 8 (if you try this and 8 is too hard, just make the exhale as long as you can). 
I started a wonderful breathwork teacher training program with Alchemy of Breath in 2019 and then I bailed halfway through it, which at the time I ascribed to my life being super chaotic and up in the air (which, in fairness, it was) but I now suspect that part of why I quit was subconscious fear that I wouldn’t be a great teacher. 
I am learning so much about myself from doing Quitted, mainly how deeply programmed my perfectionism is, and how even though I don’t usually have a hard time being vulnerable and honest, I would rather eat a bucket of glass than be messy. The podcast is requiring me to show up messy because I’m new at it, and also, messiness is sort of inherent to podcasting, which it turns out is one reason people like it!?
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Flow state.
I posted this piece I illustrated on Instagram last week; I drew it while watching season 2 of Love is Blind, which like much reality TV, is terrible and also tremendous. (If you haven't seen it, Season 2 is the far superior season IMHO.) It’s also good TV to draw to, because it only requires like 50% of my attention and I only need to look up every few minutes to confirm that yes, Shake did just say that. (Omg, the audacity of this dude!!!)
I’ve noticed that when I’m in flow with something, my nervous system gets to rest, like a bird coasting on an updraft, or riding a bike downhill. This is not the same as checking out from reality; it’s supported rest. This is what my body craves right now.
Making the drawing above was more about the process than the outcome. That piece isn’t trying to give advice or provide a takeaway; it’s not trying to sell something. I sometimes forget that making art is an intrinsic part of how I show up in the world, because I’m not in the regular practice of it right now. But I love looking at art-making as “the place where flow lives” because this removes questions based on judgment or pressure, like “where is my style going?” and “does this suck?” and “do I suck?”
Two weekends ago, I was walking on the beach when I heard a very loud voice in my head that said “Make a big painting.” This is sometimes how my intuition talks to me; it doesn’t ease into a conversation, no salutations. It just sort of Kool-Aid Mans its way into my consciousness, and it can be extremely bossy. 
I’ve been illustrating since 2011, but all my work is digital and very commercial; the way it looks is dictated by brand guidelines. I haven’t painted a big painting in like 25 years. So when my intuition said “make a big painting,” I said “what???”
I knew it was my intuition talking because tears came to my eyes right away – this is always a clue for me – and there was no logic or secondary purpose attached to the command. It wasn’t “Make a big painting and sell it,” it was just: make a painting.
I am practicing paying attention to my intuition and acting on what it tells me. I feel like I might actively be trying to prove to the universe that I’m a willing student, like a kid standing on a diving board yelling MOM, WATCH!!! I suspect this is probably not how this works and also not the point. And yet, here I go. Bounce bounce bounce. 
Within 24 hours after I got that message, the universe/my life then aligned in some strange and synchronistic ways to allow me to go on a ten-day painting retreat in Morocco next month, led by my friend Flora Bowley. I tried to talk myself out of it (I hate groups! I hate “activities”! The money!) but I know I’m supposed to do it, so I’m doing it. Mom, watch! I’ll let you know how it goes.
In the meantime: I’m seeking out more time in flow state. I get there when I’m doing an illustration with no rules, when I’m tufting a rug, and sometimes when I’m writing; I know folks who experience it while knitting or bike riding or cooking. A flow state activity doesn’t have to be “creative,” but it does need to be active in some way, and immersive through creation (the challenge and/or skill involved in doing something) vs. straight consumption (like passively watching Netflix or scrolling). And it can’t be too hard; part of the deal is that you need to be able to perform whatever task it is without getting stressed out.
Being in flow helps with anxiety on a neurochemical level (dopamine!) and it also helps in that it keeps your mind busy enough to not worry about the future or ruminate on the past. I loved this summation: “Neurologically speaking, when you experience a state of flow, you lose the habitual experience of what it feels like to be you.” Sign me up!!!

Some links:
1. Humanitarian aid for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. I’ve donated to Together Rising, Razom for Ukraine, and Global Empowerment Mission, all of whom are working with local teams on the ground to deploy their resources where they can have the strongest impact.
2. Jen Pastiloff is doing a Ukraine aid fundraiser edition of her signature yoga class “Yoga to Quiet Your Inner Asshole” this Saturday morning. This is not an ordinary yoga class and Jen is not an ordinary person. You can suck at yoga. You can suck at being a person. (But you don't, even if you think you do. Not always, at least.) Attendance is virtual, or in-person in Jen's backyard if you happen to be lucky enough to live in Ojai, CA.
3. Holly’s newsletter is very good and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend and podcast cohost; she is also a fantastic writer. It’s called Recovering but you do not need to be “in recovery” to enjoy it. We’re all recovering from something anyway. 
4. Africa Brooke’s podcast episode “Do you know what you stand for?” helped me make some decisions this week. It also inspired me to write my values on sticky notes and put them on my computer, and to think differently about what my values are and how my choices are aligned with them, or not. If you're looking for clarity, Africa may help you find it.
5. Meg Conley is brilliant and I always appreciate her POV on everything, especially the things she writes about in her newsletter homeculture: women’s work, caretaking work, economic justice, home in war, war in home, the stories of women and mothers and other people who do the work of the home.
6. I’ve been watching more TV than usual and reading the news on my phone in bed, and neither of these things are ideal expressions of my one wild and precious life but I don’t feel ready to stop doing them, at least right now? But I did get some blue light blocking readers from Eyekeeper, because the last thing I need is more insomnia. 
My partner calls me “Sharper Image” for my propensity to buy random & vaguely futuristic shit that I hope will change my life, but joke’s on him because blue light blockers really do help prevent sleeplessness from looking at a screen for a million hours at night. It's science! They’re also affordable (mine were $25) and they have a million frames and they come in a variety of reading strengths, including zero, for those of you with Youthful Eyes. You can also get 15% off with code EMILYMCDOWELL. This is the first time I’ve ever signed up to be an affiliate for something and it’s blue light blocking readers. This… adds up. 
7. It is Thursday which means it’s a new episode of Quitted! This week, legendary author and extremely wise person Elizabeth Gilbert talks with us about why she quit social media 14 months ago, among many other things. This is part one of a two-part episode; the second half will air next week. It was an honor to have this conversation and I hope you like it.
Take care of yourselves and each other.
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PS: If you liked this newsletter and want to share it, a shareable version for social is here. If someone sent you this and you want to subscribe, you can do that here. I so appreciate every share and forward. I don't have a lot of regrets, but one of them is not starting to use my Instagram to build a personal email list until 2021. Whoops!
PPS: If you're loving or even liking Quitted, it really helps us if you take a second to rate and/or review the show. And if you want to help us make it (we're funded by us and by our listeners), you can join our awesome Patreon community here. THANK YOU!

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