Mindfulness meditation was a mystery to me for many years. How could I possibly sit still and do nothing for 30 minutes? That was until the day I went to a short course run by Mindfulness Works and that got me started.
For the first year the effort required to stop whatever I was doing, sit down and tune into a guided meditation was demanding and difficult.
I would choose the shortest podcast I could find – often not more than 7 minutes. Doing this meant that once I was hooked up on my headphones, I was pretty much okay to stay with it until the session ended.
In those early days I practiced simply on the trust that it was good for me.
My Meditation Practice Today
Now I set my timer for 29 minutes, another trick to fool myself into doing it. I sit, close my eyes and try to remember to open my heart while I focus on my breathe. It’s this simple, but not always easy.
My mind can go wild. Some days it just won’t rest: revisiting conversations, worrying about the future or drifting into day-dreams.
Sometimes, without warning, suppressed emotions of grief or sadness arise. I have learned not to resist these but to let them pass, which they do quite quickly if let alone. (More about this in My Mind is a Junk Shop.)
Whatever happens during meditation is okay! Emotions and thoughts will come and go – mindfulness is about being the observer of whatever happens.
Using Mindfulness to Grow Self Awareness
I used to believe that by thinking my way through problems I would become a better person. I was so wrong.
Over-thinking only creates more worry and insecurity. It wastes precious energy and as I’m getting older, I need all the energy I can get.
Mindful meditation, on the other hand, creates space for self-discovery.
So Why Do It?
When I began with meditation several years ago, it was the temporary relief from depression and anxiety that kept me practicing. Today, it is the discovery of alternative ways to look at the world that keeps me doing it
Does Mindfulness Make Everything okay?
Hell no! The doubts, worries or anxiety symptoms don’t disappear and as you may already know, growing self-awareness can be challenging. But the results are all worthwhile.
Mindfulness is on an upward curve and there are many good reasons why it’s happening. Just remember you don’t need to know the science, or follow a particular philosophy, before you can trust that it will work for you.
Like exercise – Just Do It! You have nothing to lose.
Thwark! Bang! The first major anxiety attack hit completely without warning.
It was on a day I was relaxing at home when suddenly – my ribs were on fire, my chest was hurting and my mouth was dry. I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I was terrified!
What I have learned since is that anxiety happens to just about everyone. Most of us experience mild symptoms of stress and anxiety and think they’re just a normal part of life.
Stress is often experience as one or more of the following: tension in the shoulders and neck, muscle strains, headaches, forgetfulness, procrastination, PMS, irritation and insomnia.
Mild, though these symptoms are, they can fester into long-term negative consequences for our health. High blood pressure, weight gain, skin ailments and sugar addiction are all responses to stress.
Over the past 30 years there are many times when I had a fuzzy, thick brain, if not real headaches, sugar cravings and even minor chest pains at one point. I learned to live with these minor irritations. Doesn’t everyone who was striving for success while juggling a career, family and relationships go through them?
I would never have given these symptoms the label of ‘anxiety’. But I now realise this is what many of them were, particularly the fuzzy brain thing which is a strong signal that my stress hormones are rising.
At the other end of the stress response scale are disabling anxiety and panic attacks much like the one I experienced that day I was ‘hit by a truck’.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a label given to the range symptoms that severely limit normal activities. Often it describes someone plagued by constant worry, fear and dread.
However while that’s true to many, for me it’s been more about the physical symptoms.
When I was hit with anxiety I had recently emerged from a major depressive episode and was feeling quite positive about life (helped by mindfulness meditation).
Yet as it transpired, my body was way out of wack with my mental state. I was completely unaware that my body’s stress responses were in absolute overdrive. While my mind was healing, my body was doing its own thing and trying to catch up.
Not only were my anxiety attacks frightening, I knew they were shortening my life. There is a limit to the amount of stress hormones this body can handle and I have created enough cortisol over the years to run a power plant!
If you were to ask my advice, I would offer the following. Don’t ignore the minor symptoms of stress and anxiety. You are putting yourself at risk, not only of developing physical ailments but also an increased risk in the onset of major mental health event.
Research shows that it can take only one or two significant life events, (such as the death of a friend, redundancy or relationship breakup), to generate a severe state of anxiety, depression or other mental health disease.
By looking after the minor stressors, we are better equipped to handle life’s major trials.
Reach out if you need help. It’s not a sign of weakness. Being vulnerable and asking for help takes courage.
‘Kia kaha’. Stay strong. Ask for help.
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In the best of times, and in the worst of times, there are things that make a difference to how I feel about my life – regardless of how my mental health is tracking. Here are three top tips for moving forward.
It has been proven that exercise supports health and well-being. I’m not talking about hard-out cross-fit training sessions. Rather I prefer light exercise. I find that even a 20 minute walk can change my state and being near water or in nature usually produces the best results.
Apart from long walks in the outdoors, my other favourite activity is Pilates. I have done a gentle version for ten years now and while it is quite low impact I have developed very good strength and flexibility.
Any exercise that requires the brain to tune into the body is great therapy, for the both the mind and the body. The awareness developed has helped me understand and avoid stress responses as they arise. Knowing how to read the signals of distress and having the physical awareness to deal with them, provides reassurance when things are falling apart.
Mindfulness is a great way to keep learning about ourselves and the world. It expands knowledge and creates new ways of thinking. Often we get stuck in recycled thought patterns – without even knowing that is what we’re doing. Any old habit is hard to break and if we are not aware of thought patterns, they are impossible to change.
The practice of mindfulness meditation allows me to pause and observe what is actually going on inside my mind. I am surprised at the huge amount thoughts bouncing around – but not taking me anywhere. Such a waste of energy!
Just the simple act of being able to see my thoughts has changed the way I respond to stress and make decisions. It has also brought insights that would not have arisen without my daily meditation practice.
Also my view the world has changed in recent years. I can accredit this to meditation along with the lessons learned from my experiences with depression and anxiety. I find it exciting to be evolving like this.
If you haven’t tried meditating then guided meditations are a good place to start. 12 minutes listening to a pleasant voice helping me relax both physically and mentally is very therapeutic, while not taking a big chunk out of my day. If you are like me, being alone with nothing to occupy your mind is not always comfortable. That’s why guided meditation is great. It gives you sometime to do – while you’re not doing anything.
My favourite guided meditation pod casts are found at Meditation Oasis available on most pod cast apps and here. They offer a guided meditation for every occasion, varying in length and intensity, so you can pick one to suit your needs.
Here in New Zealand, Mindfulness Works run courses in many centres around the country. I can highly recommend these programmes.
When dealing with mental health issues the thought of trying something new might be impossible and if it is possible, it still takes an enormous effort. Some days I have had to force myself to do the more routine tasks, never mind attempting something I haven’t done before.
Fortunately, due to technology, we no longer have to leave the house to have new experiences. Connecting on-line enables us to; learn from others, share experiences or simply watch the world through whatever lens we choose to apply.
Alternatively there’s the option to take up a new hobby. YouTube is the biggest classroom ever! You can learn anything including; cooking, knitting, decluttering your home (some people call that a hobby), applying make up and rewiring a lamp (which I did recently).
Then there are the specialist websites offering information in a whole range of areas. One of my favourites is Life Edited (www.lifeedited.com) which sends me a regular newsletter on “Designing your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy”. (Oh, I wish!) To be serious, what appeals to me is the focus on simple living in low impact, efficient dwellings. Check it out.
These are three things that I have found help move me forward each day – despite the ups, downs and restrictions created by the state of my mental health. Above all, they all support my desire for life-long learning.