It was only later down the track when I was having a conversation with a lovely friend who happens to be a psychologist that the topic of mindfulness was brought to my attention again, and I actually decided to look into it properly. I got a few books on the subject, downloaded an app on my phone (The Mindfulness App) and got stuck into it. To begin with, I wasn’t super impressed. It seemed a bit like everything I’d tried before – meditation, breathing exercises…you probably know the drill if you’re anything like me. But a few chapters in to one of the books, it started to become blindingly obvious that this wasn’t like all the other ‘treatments’ I’d tried…in fact, it was the complete opposite. Mindfulness wasn’t about getting rid of my anxiety, it wasn’t about learning to calm myself down in the midst of an anxiety attack, it wasn’t even about strategies to overcome panic or float through panic or be friends with panic or any of the other terms you will have become familiar with throughout the search for a cure. It was just about being more mindful.
I know, it seems simple and a bit daft, really. But it has genuinely helped me with my anxiety, and actually has helped me just in terms of everyday life. I’ve been able to deal with stress better – not just stress caused by anxiety but normal stresses like the dogs barking too much or having silly arguments with family. And I’ve been calmer on the whole. I’ve really made an effort to include mindfulness in my daily routine because it’s actually improving my quality of life, and anything that does that is a top priority in my book! To convince you further to give mindfulness a go, I’ve compiled the top 5 keys to mindfulness (in my opinion!)
- Acknowledge & Accept You’re anxious. You know that – it’s not news to you. You feel anxious often, perhaps all the time, and yet you put all your energy into pretending you’re not anxious, or trying to not feel anxious. This is counter-intuitive because you’re still constantly drawing attention to the fact that you are anxious. So how about you just acknowledge your anxiety, and decide to let it be. It is what it is. I’m not asking you to tell yourself “Okay, I have anxiety, but it’s not so bad, or it’s only anxiety, or I can get through it“, because in that respect you are still not accepting the true nature of your condition. Because, for me personally at least, my anxiety IS that bad. Telling myself that it’s not is once again denying the truth of the situation. So instead I say to myself “Yep, I’m anxious as hell and I feel like I can’t do it.” And I accept it, that’s how I feel and it is what it is. I don’t ignore it, I don’t play it down, I just acknowledge it and accept it and that’s it. Really. That’s it.
- Pay Attention To Every SensationWhenever I’m having a panic attack, I try my hardest to ignore what’s happening in my body. I try desperately not to think about the fact that my heart is beating faster, or that I’m starting to sweat, or that I feel like I’m about to shit my pants. But what happens when you try not to think about something? Yeah, it’s suddenly all you can think about. (If you don’t believe me, try not to think about a blue duck right now, and then tell me what you’re thinking about. Blue duck? Thought so.) So I’m fighting a losing battle from the beginning, really. With mindfulness, the idea is to pay close attention to each and every sensation. What happens? Well, a few things. But mostly that you realise the sensations are simply sensations. They are what they are. (Sensing a pattern here?) By focusing on say… your breath going in and out, you notice that it’s just your breath, not the world ending. And as a natural side effect, your breathing slows down and you calm yourself a bit because you’re not focusing on the panic any more, but that isn’t the intention here. The idea is just to be present and mindful, so you aren’t actually trying to change your breathing or any of the other sensations.
- Live in the Present Moment
This may seem like a no-brainer to many, and is definitely a phrase you hear all the time. But I can’t stress how important it is, and how overlooked. When I started practicing mindfulness, it became really obvious to me how I never actually live in the present. I am constantly flicking between the past and the future. Predicting the future with the pain from my past. For example, that one time I drove to the Pines and panicked so bad I made myself sick and couldn’t get home…of course I predict that is going to happen every single time I go to the Pines. (Also known as catastrophising!) But to show an even more basic example, when I was walking my dog the other day down at the river, my mind was running through the list of things I needed to buy at the grocery store on the way home, then what I would cook for dinner, then whether I would go for a walk tomorrow, then thinking back to the time Jordan and I had gone to the river….I wasn’t actually just thinking about what I was doing at that moment. There I was, out of the house on a gorgeous autumn afternoon, sunlight filtering through the leaves, my little dog loving life splashing about in the water, and I was too busy thinking myself into the future and past instead of just enjoying what was going on right then and there. Try it now. Focus on what you’re doing right now. It’s not easy, and you might end up realising that you’re still focusing on the future (or past) and have to redirect yourself back into the ‘now’, but it’s worth it. Why? Because in the present moment, chances are things aren’t anywhere near as bad as they have been. And the more you live in the present, the less time you spend living in what you imagine the future to be, which results in a calmer, happier you.
- Practice Everyday A key part of mindfulness, or any habit really – is to keep it up. The more you practice being mindful, the better you’ll become at it, and the better you’ll feel in general. Don’t have time? You can do it in three minutes. That’s all it takes. I’m starting to sound like an infomercial for an ab product here, but seriously – you can find the time. I have a newborn and I’m finding the time between 2 hourly feeds, keeping a clean house, putting up with two yappy dogs and trying to watch every episode of Real Housewives in one go (exhausting shit.) If you think you don’t have the time, yet you spend at least an hour at night trying to get to sleep with your brain going haywire with worry/stress/anxiety, then you have the time to practice three minutes of mindfulness. Download the app – the mindfulness one I linked earlier costs about $3.79 from the app store (here), but there are free ones available as well. (A Smiling Mind, Mind the Bump and Mindfulness Training to name a few) and get started. It can be difficult to begin with, but really it doesn’t require anything of you except to sit, listen and breathe.
- Don’t Look for the CureAnyone who suffers from panic attacks knows that the goal for them is to not have a panic attack ever again. I know that’s been my goal, and whenever I’ve read a book or received advice from someone telling me that I will panic again, it’s left me frustrated and upset. But the reality is, you will panic again. Your anxiety isn’t just going to go away forever, unless you’re some kind of freak of nature. It’s difficult to get your head around that concept, because for people with an anxiety disorder, panic and anxiety is the enemy. For a ‘normal’ person (I use that term loosely) anxiety is not the enemy, it’s just a kind of an annoying state of being. If you’re like me, and you find the idea that you will panic again super depressing, then don’t think about it like that. But just adjust your expectations so that the goal is just to be more aware. Mindfulness isn’t intended to cure your anxiety, because your anxiety isn’t the problem. Your thinking patterns are the problem. But we don’t want to change your thinking patterns either, because if that was easy to do, then people would be rid of their anxiety disorders pretty quickly. All mindfulness does is make you more aware, more present, and more accepting. As a by product, you become calmer, less stressed, and your anxiety just doesn’t bother you as much. I know that since I’ve been practicing mindfulness, my anxiety and agoraphobia is certainly still present. But I’ve been able to walk a little further from home each time I take pig out, I’ve stopped doing so many habitual coping behaviours before I go out (ie going to the toilet ten times, wearing special clothes, only going out at certain times, making sure I have my phone with me, etc) and I’ve just generally been better at bringing my attention back to the present instead of worrying about what might happen. It may seem like a small improvement, but to me it’s massive. I might not be cured, but I’m feeling a hell of a lot better. (And what the hell is ‘cured’ anyway?)