Hello UC Berkeley Selection Committee! Please find below my third piece. The other two pieces that I submitted are published works from when I was writing thought pieces for the World Bank. As such, they are written in an incredibly dry and academic style. I do not recommend reading them in their entirety unless you are having problems with insomnia. I included them as they show I can research a subject deeply and understand the world of pharmaceuticals.
The below piece is one that I wrote for my writing class - I have been in writing classes more or less continuously since Fall of 2020. This piece shows more of my writing style and storytelling skills when I am not writing for diplomatic policy wonks in serious business suits. This is the style of writing I want to do for my psychedelic project.
Thank you very much and I hope you are having a great day -
My old leather sofa is ruined. After 2019, the leather in the middle cushion, just where the weight of your butt or hip would go if you were lying on it, completely wore away and is now cracked open and ripped. Worse yet, the springs have just given up springing so that it is no longer comfortable to lie down on.
I should take some responsibility for this however. After all, I spent most of 2019 lying flat-out on my sofa. “Why?” you ask. Because I had a burnout.
Before I had a burnout, I had no idea what one was. Since then, I have learned a lot more about them. A burnout happens after a person has been operating in a stressful environment for too long – either emotionally stressful or just too much in some way. And while the brain says “Go! Go! Go! We can do this!” the body says “Please stop.” And the body continues to escalate its requests until, if they go unheeded, the body eventually just shuts down. While every burnout is different, in my case I couldn’t really get off my sofa for months on end. And so I laid on my sofa so much that it finally broke.
I can see the proximate cause of my burnout was working in a rather toxic environment. But, as Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” So I spent some time looking deeper and I came to see my patterns that resulted in me being a tasty treat for some of the people in the world: my weaker boundaries, my desire to people please, my need for approval. And when I looked even deeper, I would say the core cause was a disconnection from myself, from my soul. I sometimes consider my burnout more of a soul-collapse than anything else.
In any case, one day while lying on my sofa, I saw an ad for a breathing program with a testimonial from someone claiming that this breathing program cured his burnout. My only experience with any type of breathwork at that point was that 5-10 minutes in yoga class where we did alternate nostril breathing and it always seemed, well, to be honest, not really interesting.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. I started doing 15 minutes of breathing exercises every day and, being a bit of a quant person, I also tracked the results. Every day, at the end of the day, I gave myself a 1 – 10 score on how I was doing with 10 being a perfect non-burnout day and 0 being lying on my sofa all day, probably crying in frustration. I tracked this for 229 days and, about half of those days, I did do my 15 minutes of simple breathing exercises.
The chart below graphs the results. I actually started the breathing exercises on August 6, most likely extra-motivated by those big downward spikes.
I attribute 100% of the upward trajectory of that line, an almost 20% increase, to the breathing exercises as nothing else really changed in my life and I had months of no improvement prior to this. And actually, the upward trajectory is almost less important than the reduced volatility - less really unbelievably bad days.
I am amazed that such a noticeable improvement came from spending only 15 minutes a day doing simple breathing exercises. I had tried so many things to improve the burnout from yoga to ayurvedic teas to gentle walks to meditation to just trying to push through it (pro-tip: that last one is really not a good idea) and nothing had moved the needle.
I was so intrigued that I wanted to find out more. The first thing I learned is that my burnout, while severe, is really not so unusual these days. The coronavirus pandemic stretched many already-stretched people to the breaking point. A recent survey showed that 80% of employed women and 72% of employed men report they are currently experiencing worker burnout. That is such a large percentage that we can almost say all of us are struggling with some form of burnout or overload.
And then I learned more about the brain and stress and breathing. This is where (IMHO) it gets interesting: When you, walking about your day, minding your own business, detect a threat or a stressor, the message first goes to the thalamus, the part of your brain that acts like Air Traffic Control. The thalamus then sends the message on to two places: Its very close-by neighbor, the amygdala and its very far away friend who lives on the other side of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex.
The amygdala is part of your instinctual lizard brain. As soon as a threat message comes in, it starts releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare the body for flight or fight. The pre-frontal cortex is your advanced thinking and rational brain located right behind your eyebrows. As it takes a bit longer for the potential threat message to get there, the pre-frontal cortex only starts processing things after the amygdala has geared up. This is why, when you put your hand on a hot stove, you pull it back before your thinking brain realizes what is going on. The amygdala and instinct handled it.
The problem is that when our amygdala reacts faster than our conscious mind, the rational brain is sometimes faced with the task of chasing down a wild horse who has gotten out of the barn and is off at a full gallop. Not an easy task. And if the stressors and threats are continuously coming in, like during a global pandemic with race riots, an unprecedented election cycle, extreme weather, school closures, working remotely, not being able to see each other outside of a small zoom box, and so much more that 2020 and 2021 threw at us, our amygdala can get stuck in panic mode or develop such a sensitive trigger that we are just in a low-grade perma-panic mode. In this case, the horse is out of the barn so often that we can’t even remember what the barn looks like.
While mindfulness, meditation, and philosophy are great ways to work with my rational prefrontal cortex, breathwork, movement, and touch are the entry points for working with my amygdala. The former can help tame our monkey mind, the part of our brain that chatters on and on and on all day. “Do I look fat? Should I
If you are the type of person who is asking, “but how exactly does breathwork calm the amygdala? What is the science here?” well then, this section is for you. The answer, in short, is through pacemaker neurons. Just like the heartbeat is controlled by pacemaker neurons that tell the heart when to beat, your breathing is controlled by pacemaker neurons as well. These breathing pacemaker neurons are located right where you brain attaches to the spinal cord. They send a signal down the spinal cord to your diaphragm and the tiny muscles between your ribs, telling them to expand. And then, a couple of seconds later, hopefully, they send another signal, telling them to contract. And so you breathe.
have the salad or the sandwich? Does Fred hate me? I need to stop off at the grocery store and pick up some bread.” The latter works with the underbelly of our brain that is trying to figure out if we are safe or not in ways that our conscious mind cannot really process. Rational discussions with the amygdala tend to be about as fruitful as negotiations with my cat.
We need to speak the language of the amygdala to get it to loosen its grip on the trigger. And it turns out that breathing exercises are the amygdala’s love language. I am so grateful that my burnout eventually receded and, while I am not 100% yet, I can now stand up for most of the day. But I still do my breathing exercises every day, just now I am sitting on a new leather sofa.
Science Nerd Alert Corner
There are about 8000 of these breathing pacemaker neurons by the brain stem. And while that may sound like a lot of neurons, it’s not - there are about 86 billion neurons in the brain. And these 8000 breathing pacemaker neurons aren’t all alike. There are over 50 different types of them. Some (about 200 of them) control sighing. Others (about 150 of them) control the rate of exhalation. And about 150 neurons have tentacle legs that go directly to the brain stem’s neighbor, the amygdala. These neurons send status updates to the amygdala saying, “Everything’s cool.” Or, they can send a signal straight into amygdala saying “Houston, we have a problem.” And actually, your amygdala can influence your breathing and your breathing can influence your amygdala. When you feel a threat, you start to breathe faster as part of winding the body up to react. And when you breathe slower, the amygdala tells the entire body to slow down. Communication is going both ways between these two. A lot of communication in fact. Back and forth, back and forth. More like a deep integration.
Nature is a very efficient organism designer. For example, the pacemaker neurons for the heart are located right on the heart. They don’t have to send messages very far – that is efficient. But the pacemaker neurons for breathing are located way up in the brain, far away from the diaphragm and the lungs. That may seem odd until we consider those 150 neurons that connect breathing and the amygdala. Perhaps the body did efficiently design the breathing pacemaker neurons to be exactly where they need to be – next to the amygdala, the emotional and anxiety center of the brain, so that our breathe can help us regulate our emotions, anxiety, and sense of safety and security.