I have written my first post for another site – EveryDay Mindfulness, and I’m feeling so proud to see it on their beautiful site. I hope you like it!
From autopilot to mindfulness – the battle against anxiety is finally over
This time last year I was battling anxiety. Year after year I’d been keeping my head above water, but paddling frantically to stay afloat. It was exhausting.
For me, anxiety manifested itself (past tense!) as negative thoughts spiralling out of control, constant thoughts that I wasn’t good enough. My anxiety was centred on social situations, primarily the fear of having a panic attack in public and not being able to escape.
Battling panic attacks
Physically my panic attacks took the form of intense heat and nausea, very difficult to cope with when there’s a roomful of people, but invisible to everyone around. Mentally my panic attacks were crippling. I would feel like I was going insane, that I wouldn’t be able to hold down my job, which would lead to being at home all day, which would lead to me being agoraphobic, which would lead to me losing the plot and being locked up in a mental hospital, with no means of escape. All this in a split second, it was terrifying. If only I could battle against these thoughts…
Battling was all I knew. If only I could battle harder. If only I was strong enough to battle through it. I must be a failure for not being strong enough.
I tried self-help books, NHS counselling, hypnosis CDs, online programs and, most of all, willpower. I tried to take small steps towards the things I was afraid of, but I never got past the first step. It became a vicious circle, reinforcing my belief that I wasn’t good enough or strong enough.
Meanwhile, life became pretty small. I would go to work, smile, come home, smile, go to bed, my life on autopilot. I could do this. Anything more and I would “wobble”. I would always have an excuse ready for invites, “I’m too busy”, “It’s too far away”. Meals were the worst – I found it impossible to eat while I was feeling sick, which would just draw attention to me, the last thing I wanted.
Everything came to a head last summer when we moved house. Suddenly “home”, my only safe place, felt alien to me. I had panic attack after panic attack. It felt like my safety net had been pulled from under me, and I was terrified. My autopilot had failed, and I was signed off work.
People were worried and I couldn’t bear to make up yet another lie, so I decided to come clean, on Facebook of all places. The response I got was overwhelming and unexpected. I was shocked by the number of people who sent me private messages to say that they struggled too, people I envied as having good jobs, good social lives, and that certain air of confidence that I felt I lacked.
The moment everything changed
A few days later a book arrived in the post, a gift from an old school friend. It came with a note explaining that mindfulness had helped him more than any of the self-help books and counselling that he had tried over the years. The book (”The art of happiness” by Matthieu Ricard) itself was too in-depth for me to concentrate on while I was off sick, but I looked up the author on YouTube and was transfixed. It all made sense, a form of meditation that didn’t try to stop the constant barrage of thoughts, but rather to notice them, and let them go. And all backed up by scientific evidence. I watched videos about neuroplasticity (thank you Ruby Wax). I learnt that we can physically alter the structure of our brains, and that I was not destined to a life of anxiety. I no longer felt trapped – there was a way out!
I ordered “Mindfulness: A practical guide” (by Prof. Mark Williams), chosen for its amazing reviews. Little did I know it would become the book that changed my life. (This sounds exaggerated but please read on…)
The book is arranged as an 8 week course, with a chapter per week, and comes with a CD of short meditations (ranging from 3 to x minutes). I can’t emphasise enough that I don’t want you to be put off by the word “meditations”.
Mindfulness: the misconceptions
I have found that a lot of people have been quite sceptical as soon as I mention mindfulness. I am really pleased that mindfulness is becoming mainstream, but the fact that it is the new buzzword adds to the scepticism that mindfulness is yet another passing phase. Yogalates anyone?
The most common barriers people have:
1. Meditation is not really my thing
People often think of mindfulness as a form of meditation, and then start imagining Buddhist monks or long-haired hippies (nothing wrong with either of these, they are simply the stereotypes people tend to come up with). You can be mindful without meditating, it’s all about noticing what is going on in that moment. Have you ever been so absorbed in a hobby that time has whizzed by? You were probably being mindful without even realising, you were focussed on that moment, on that hobby, not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. (Who knew learning to crochet could be so mindful?!)
Mindfulness can include meditation, but it is a particular type of meditation (and it’s not religious). Rather than meditating to transcend our day to day lives in pursuit of a higher goal, mindfulness is about zoning in on the day to day, noticing all the minutiae of life. And there’s no need to chant, or sit cross-legged.
2. I’ve tried meditating but I couldn’t do it.
I had always thought I was hopeless at meditating, because my mind is constantly whirring, and the harder I tried, the more I noticed my head was full of thoughts. In mindful meditation, this is actually a good thing, it shows you are noticing your thoughts. You concentrate on your breathing, acknowledge thoughts as they come and go, and then return to your breathing. It sounds simple and, with regular practice, it is.
3. I haven’t got time
The practice meditations in the book I used are really short, some are only 3 minutes long, so this isn’t a huge commitment of time. Once I was back at work I did them on the bus, headphones on, and no-one was any the wiser. Now that I am in the habit, I can spot when I’m going into autopilot and switch my thoughts back to being mindful at any given moment, anywhere.
Mindfulness: the benefits
I have been practicing mindfulness since summer 2013, and it has changed my life. I am no longer the girl with the excuses lined up, I am no longer the girl who fears change and social situations. I am probably still the girl you’ll find in the kitchen at parties, but only because that’s where the food is!
The three main benefits that I’ve noticed:
1. I can catch my thoughts before they spiral
The negative thoughts are still there, but by being mindful of my thoughts, I now have time to decide how to react. The first negative thought could be “you won’t be able to do that”. The mindful part of my brain spots the thought and steps up to ask whether I want to believe this or not. The spiralling has been stopped in its tracks and is now devoid of the energy it needs to keep going.
Most of the time I can spot that a thought isn’t based on fact, and I let it drift away. Sometimes it feels like it might be based on fact, in which case I tell myself I’ll come back to it later. 9 times out of 10, the thought then gets forgotten. My light bulb moment was realising that my thoughts are just that, they are my brains way of trying out ideas, and they aren’t necessarily helpful or true. Naughty brain, trying to trick me.
2. My default thoughts are changing
The book explains that our brains have a negative bias, we are hardwired to think the worst in a situation for our own survival. If you are a caveman confronted with a sabre toothed tiger, you might as well think the worst! However, most of the things I have panicked about were far from life or death situations, even if they felt like it. And by deliberately thinking more positively, we can rewire our brains to have a positive bias. Incredible but true, and scientifically proven. “The neurons that fire together, wire together”.
I am now finding that instead of thinking “what if that goes wrong”, I have started thinking “what if that goes right”, “what if I can do it”, “what if I enjoy it”, “what if….”
3. I notice and enjoy the little things in life
On autopilot, I hardly noticed anything. I walked the same route to work, I ate the same things, weeks passed by. But with mindfulness I notice little flowers in the verge, the way the sun catches on leaves, the way someone’s face lights up when they spot a friend. All these thousands of moments, all the time. They were always there, I just never paid them any conscious attention. To help reinforce these moments into positive memories, I write a gratitude diary (via an app on my phone), and invent photo challenges to remind me to snap little things on my cameraphone each day. Suddenly every day is a new and exciting possibility. (I’m well aware this sounds corny, but it’s my corny and makes me smile!)
Once I stopped battling anxiety, it lost its power over me. The negative thoughts do still pop up, but what has changed is how I react to them now that they no longer frighten me. On the few occasions that I have had panic attacks since practicing mindfulness, I have consciously switched to mindful breathing and the panic has subsided. The vicious circle has gone, and has been replaced with positive thoughts about everything I have achieved and may yet achieve. I will always have anxious thoughts, I’m only human, but I know they are just that, just thoughts.