Once I stopped battling anxiety, it lost its power over me

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

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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.

The breakdown

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

 

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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

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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!)


And now?

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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.


 

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Smile! The thought hygienist is ready to see you…

This post is part of #reverb13 at http://www.katmcnally

What was the best decision you made in 2013? What were the results? How will you continue the good work in 2014?

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I hope that I have finally made a few good decisions this year. I “came out” of the anxiety closet – it was just getting too small and dark in there. I started Silver Linings Project on Facebook and WordPress and have met some amazing people. I also hope it has brought a smile to a few faces along the way.

My best decision has to have been deciding to see a counsellor. I am lucky to have a counsellor that gets me, and I trust her. She challenges my thoughts, sometimes in a very subtle way, sometimes just a smile and/or a quizzical eyebrow is enough. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes I cry, but little by little she is working her magic, and I hope to gradually share that with you on here

I thought counselling would be hard, challenging, and painful. I am sure that it can be. However, my counsellor has been so gentle that at first I admit I wondered what I was paying for, other than a lovely chat! My insightful other half told me to trust in the process, and so I did, and I’m so very glad I did.

We spend so much time, money and energy on how our bodies look, but neglect our thoughts until they get out of control. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if from an early age we were taught to be positive, to be mindful? Why do we only work on our minds when they go wrong? I would love to see a counsellor forever, not because I can’t see an end to my anxiety, but because she helps me keep my thoughts in check, she reminds me when old thought patterns creep back. It would be a bit like a mind check up, like going to the dental hygienist but so much nicer! Why do we rate our teeth as more important than our brains?

It’s a funny old world.

There’s gold in that there mud

#reverb13

I’m a big fan of muddy experiences. They become our greatest teachers when we’re wise enough to exfoliate with them; roll around in the deep until we finally feel ready to get clean.

Today, identify something muddy that kept recurring for you throughout 2013, and then ask yourself this: What’s the clear truth underneath this damn mud if I finally wash myself clean?

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click image for source

My mind is a muddy mixture of thoughts that go round in my head. This time last year my thought process was relatively simple, it was a straight no. No, I can’t do that because I’m petrified. It was a thick black impenetrable mud.

This year there’s a more murky mixture of thoughts. I have recently been trying to work out how to seperate my thoughts from the Anxiety Monster’s thoughts. For example, there is an event coming up that I don’t want to attend. I have to work out if I really don’t want to attend, or if these are the whisperings of that little gremlin again. If I tell myself that I don’t want to attend because it’s not my cup of tea, how can I trust that I’m not reverting back to my old habit of avoiding situations I’m afraid of?

Thankfully I have a wonderful counsellor who helps me wade through all this mud, wellies and all! She recommended I listen to my first thought or reaction, and stick with that one. So, the event in mind started off as “I’m not sure I can be bothered with the hassle, I’d rather stay in” – and so that is what I shall do. PJs, tub of ice cream, bliss. Another event coming up started with excitement, and now the anxious thoughts are creeping in – and so I shall put the anxious thoughts aside and go and enjoy myself.

Sounds so simple doesn’t it? Hopefully it is. Hopefully learning which thoughts are mine and which are rantings of the gremlin, I can learn to be true to myself. That’s the gold underneath all that mud.

Switching mind to manual

Day 10: #reverb13

Living life on auto-pilot can feel disorienting and dull. How did you cultivate a life worth loving during 2013?

How can you turn off your auto-pilot button in 2014?

I was so pleased when I saw this challenge. Switching off the autopilot has been the “thing” that I’ve focussed on most this year. I have been learning the principles and practices of mindfulness, learning to live in the moment, not distracted by past regrets or future “what ifs”. I’ve been learning to turn off the constant stream of negative thoughts and self doubts. So refreshing!

Instead of battling to suppress negative thoughts I’ve been learning to spot them, and give them the attention and credit they deserve – none. This is still a work in progress, perhaps it always will be, but I’m getting there, moment by moment.

Turning off the autopilot frees up the mind to notice all the beautiful things around us. For me, I try to cultivate this habit by taking photos on my phone, photos of the little things that go unnoticed on autopilot. 2014 will hopefully see lots more mindful photography,with a focus not on technique but on spotting and capturing the moments.

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Mindfulness: week two

This post refers to the 8 week mindfulness course in Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic work. The book also has a website and blog: Frantic world

If you haven’t read them already, you may like to read these two posts first:

Week two: “Keeping the body in mind”

Me, enjoying the sensations of being barefoot

This chapter is all about tuning into the body with the help of the guided meditations on the cd. We often ignore or push aside feelings such as tiredness, stress and unhappiness in order to get through the long list of things we need to get done. However, in the long run this isn’t helpful and actually slows us down. If we can learn to tune in to our bodies, we can pick up when we need to take time out, time to relax, time to stretch, time to look after our bodies instead of our to-do list.

The chapter also explains the connection between the physical sensations that we are learning to tune in to, and our thoughts:

The body often detects our thoughts almost before we’ve consciously registered them ourselves and frequently reacts as if they are solid or real, whether they accurately reflect the world or not. (p.92)

It is during the week two meditation, the body scan, that we learn to focus on different sections of the body. This is where I tend to spot the different parts of me that hold tension, particularly in and around my shoulders. The meditation doesn’t ask you to change anything, just to notice, to be aware. These meditations differ from others that I’ve tried because there is an emphasis on “not being wrong”, which is very reassuring for someone as self-critical as me. For example, if you notice your mind wander, this is good because it means you are aware of your thoughts and can use this as a prompt to bring your attention back to your breath. All these years I’ve thought that you were meant to try and stop your thoughts, blank them out, how wrong I was!

Lightbulb moment:

This week’s lightbulb moment is that all the years that I’ve been putting my mind into “Doing mode” (p.28) in order to solve my problems, I have been doing exactly the opposite of what my mind and body have needed.

When in Doing mode we are trying to analyse what is wrong with us, how can we get from where we are to where we want to be, how we can narrow the gap. Doing mode is about focusing on the gap, focusing on what is missing, and so results in us feeling more down, even further from where we want to be. Instead we need to learn to step outside of Doing mode into a more curious mode, noticing thoughts, not judging them, looking at them as an impartial observer. When in this mode we are less critical, and can see thoughts as just thoughts. As a chronic over thinker, someone who felt that if I just tried that bit harder I could make everything right, this was a huge revelation. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf”. This discovery was such an eye opener for me that I decided to make the picture below, I hope you like it.

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Next week, week 3: the mouse in the maze…

Mindfulness: week one

This post refers to the 8 week mindfulness course in Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic work. The book also has a website and blog: Frantic world

I don’t want to go into too much detail and give away the content of the book because I want you to experience it for yourselves (plus the librarian in me is very aware of copyright and the importance of respecting all the hard work the author has gone to). Here is my experience of the first week…

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Week one: “Waking up to the autopilot”

This chapter is all about developing an awareness of the things that we do on autopilot.

Here are a few examples of things I regularly do without thinking:

  • Eating (breakfast on the go, lunch at my desk, tea in front of the tv)
  • Travelling to and from work
  • Housework

What would you add to this list? For me they tend to be things that I do frequently, things that I do so often that I have stopped paying any attention to them, things that have gradually disappeared into the daily routine.

The next step is to notice what you are thinking about while you are on autopilot. Chances are you will be thinking a million and one things without even realising it. Where did you leave your keys?  Did you say the wrong thing to someone yesterday? What are you going to have for tea tonight? Must remember to get a birthday card at lunchtime. All this and more while you’re brushing your teeth (maybe your thoughts are slightly different?!) The important thing is that you aren’t noticing / enjoying the moment, you are living in the past and the future, all muddled up together. The problem is that when these constant thoughts become a habit, you don’t notice all the little stresses that build up until you reach breaking point.

When you reach the point where overload has seized up the conscious mind, it’s very difficult to reverse the process simply by thinking your way out, for this is like opening yet another program on the computer, overlaying it with yet another window. Instead you need to find a way of stepping outside the cycle almost as soon as you notice its begun” (pg 72)

Lightbulb moment:

By paying attention to the moment, I have been able to notice when thoughts start to get out of control or, more often than not, start to take a negative turn. For me this has been so helpful – by being able to spot the first negative thought, I can choose whether or not to pay it any attention. This has helped me to break out of the cycle of negative thinking – the type of thinking that goes a bit like this:

  • “You’re feeling a bit jittery”
  • “It’s probably because you have to get an earlier bus to work today”
  • “A sure sign that you’re not really coping at work”
  • “Probably won’t be long until you’re signed off again”
  • “If you get signed off again, you won’t have the courage to go back in again”
  • “If you lose this job you’ll never have the courage to get another one”
  • “You’ll end up agoraphobic”
  • “And what kind of life is that?”

All these thoughts can happen in the blink of an eye. The trick for me is to notice the first thought, e.g. “You’re feeling a bit jittery”, and then stop and ask whether this is true, and why this really might be. It could be that you’re tired, had too much caffeine, had too little caffeine… (And I’ve written my thoughts in the third person because these aren’t my thoughts, they are the whisperings of the anxiety monster).

I can now see that a thought is just that, a thought. It isn’t necessarily true, it is just something that has popped into my head. The trick isn’t to stop the thoughts, it is merely to notice them. It is my choice whether I decide to pay attention to it and act on it, or whether to decide it is an unhelpful thought and can be left to disperse. All thoughts come and go, like clouds, I don’t have to let them rule my life.

In the words of Gru from Despicable Me – Lightbulb!

And here is week 2.

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