Air to our open hearts

If you’ve ever seen the movie of the same name, you’ve seen images of backdraft–the rush when fire is finally given air after having used all available oxygen. That’s the idea of what can happen as you first start practicing self-compassion. We’ve starved ourselves of kindness and compassion for so long that at the first sign of “air” to our newly opened hearts, we are flooded with fear and the pain that we’ve numbed for so long.

Backdraft is a sign that the healing process has begun (Kristen Neff)

Backdraft may take an emotional form: fear, sadness, grief, anger, or shame. It might trigger fearful thoughts (e.g., I’m a loser). And it might hit you physically with aches and pains. It could creep up at any time, but it’s important to know that it’s a natural part of the process.

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What do we do when backdraft hits?

Through mindfulness, we can recognize backdraft for what it is and label it. If you’ve followed me on social media, you’ve learned that labeling can switch off the alarm center of our brain and activate the prefrontal cortex instead, which helps us move from a reactive position to a more thoughtful one (Cresswell et al., 2007). Simply say, “This is backdraft” using the same tone you would use to comfort a friend. You can also do the same labeling technique with the other emotions that rise up (e.g., This is grief).

As you do this, take note of where you feel the emotions in the body and calm it with your hand (touch helps release oxytocin and reduces cortisol). Then redirect your thoughts toward something neutral like your breath or sounds you might hear (Neff, 2018). It doesn’t have to be an overt process. If you are in the middle of the grocery store, for example, you can simply pay attention to your hands on the cart or count the colors you see on the shelf.

Follow up with self-care

After you’ve calmed the initial alarm center, follow up with something soothing. It might be self-care activities like a soothing bath or a long walk. Or it could involve immersing yourself in an ordinary activity like doing the dishes, cuddling with an animal, or having a warm drink. A coach or therapist can also help if you need to talk through the process.

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