It’s been a tough week. I’m on hiatus from most online activities at the moment, trying to give myself some headspace to do some thinking about… well, life, I guess.

My health is both fragile and volatile and so I’ve been doing a lot of sitting in my garden, reading and staring into space in equal measure, even though that in itself is a difficult activity. I’m not known for my ability to sit still.

One of the many things I am attempting to learn in therapy is mindfulness. I am not very good at it. Being aware of not being very good at it is an OK start.

I read Ruby Wax’s Sane New World recently and while it is peppered with some pretty lazy humour, it’s an accessible introduction to neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and the benefits of mindfulness practices.

One of the common ways people are guided into mindfulness is by focusing on their breath. Focusing on my breath can sometimes lead me into a panic attack, which is counterproductive. So instead, I try to find the cat. (This makes sense, I promise.)

Mindfulness is about being aware of the present in the most grounded and visceral way possible. Breath is always present (if it’s not, you’ve got bigger problems than I can help you with) which is why many people start there.

The opposite to mindfulness is automatic pilot. This is what happens when we respond using the same old neural pathways we’ve always used. We’re eating dinner and suddenly realise we’re sitting over an empty plate. We lash out at someone and later realise that we could have dealt with the situation differently. We say to ourselves “Where does the time go? We’re six months into the year!” (and then, if you’re me, you freak out and start making massive lists of everything you were supposed to do and hyperventilate because you haven’t done half of it and probably never will).

It’s easy to use these neural pathways. Those synapses know the drill. We consider them “burned in.” In fact, they’re not. They’re just lightly scalded, and with a little TLC, they can be coaxed into something entirely different.

Yup, people can change. Cells rebuild constantly and so saying “That’s how I’ve always been, so I’ll have to stay that way” doesn’t quite cut the mustard. It’s hard to make different choices. I’m finding it close to impossible. But it can be done.

Today, my anxiety built to breaking point and became an awful ball of fury in my chest. Fury at myself, for feeling that way, and for not being able to do the things that would help. Fury at the people around me, for not telepathically understanding how I felt and responding how I wanted them to. Fury at not being able to communicate or find a path through the feelings.

Because of my mindfulness learning, I could see all of this happening. It doesn’t mean I could stop the feelings occurring. It does mean I could know that the anxiety was releasing massive amounts of unused cortisol which was racing through my blood and making me turn Hulk. I was in fight or flight mode and if I wasn’t careful, I was going to have a fight I regretted because no one had done anything wrong and man can I say some bitchy stuff when I get into this space. Who is that person? Not someone I want to be around.

So I flew. I took myself out of the situation and off for a walk. This is hard for me to do because walking is painful and I have chronic fatigue. But the pain was a better alternative, and the walk allowed the cortisol to burn off so I could get some perspective.

Back to the cat. Sometimes, I get these sorts of feelings – anger, anxiety, distress – late at night and going for a walk isn’t a feasible option.

Cats are the queens of mindfulness. Just get a load of them; sittin’, starin’, thinkin’ about shit. They know stuff. They are totally aware of their surroundings and their needs, and they also know how to ask for what they want.

What they want, often, is your attention. Totally and completely. Not half of it, while you make dinner, or quarter of it, while you watch TV. If I stroke Carina absentmindedly, she’s as likely to bite my hand as she is to purr. “Hey, you! You ain’t payin’ enough attention! I want a rub between the ears, not a chin scritch!”

So, when I feel distressed, I look for Carina. Like I said, I’m not good at focusing on breath, so I need something else to ground me. When you’re starting mindfulness, it’s best to try to get a hold on the physical present before you try to see what’s happening in your mind. I do this by going through all my senses and using Carina as a guide.

What does her fur feel like under my fingers? Is she purring?. Is she looking at me? Does she look grumpy? (if she does, probably don’t proceed). Does she smell like woodsmoke from sitting by the fire?

Once I get a hold on my physical surroundings, the cortisol and adrenaline can start coming down. There’s no immediate threat, unless Carina has decided it’s past dinner time. I don’t need to fight or fly away.

Cups of tea are a staple of mindfulness. About this point I usually make some chamomile. Focusing on the small act of drinking the tea, how it tastes, the warmth of the cup, can all help to bring you back down.

Visualisations can also be helpful. Mine is a freight train. I picture myself standing on a narrow grassy rise, and there’s a training rushing by at a million miles an hour. I can feel the wind of it on my face, but my feet are firm. That’s my emotions, screeching by. It’d be harmful to try and get on board. They are finite, and they will pass, and I will still be standing in the grass when they do.

For me, learning that stress and anxiety are actual physical neural reactions helped me combat them. They’re literally “in your head.” They happen because our brains try and protect us. Anxiety is survival mode conditioning. Unfortunately, our brains only care if we’re alive – they don’t care if we’re happy or not.

I’m reading another book now called “Reinventing Your Life” which sounds sort’ve like a cross between something someone wrote when they were high and idealistic in the 70s and some millennial zealot trying to sell you a survivalist bunker. It’s actually an incredibly helpful psychotherapy resource written by two doctors. It talks about “lifetraps,” which are patterns we learned in childhood to keep ourselves safe, but that are actually self-destructive.

There are 11 lifetraps. Somewhat unfortunately, I seem to have all of them. Anyone would think I want to survive or something.

This is the sort of knowledge that will help my mindfulness. The first step to changing patterns is seeing them. I can’t change anything if I can’t be aware of what’s happening while it is happening. Knowledge really is power.

The other things I find helpful is this: failure is normal. This is not an easy game. I’m trying to rewrite stuff that’s been written the same way for a very long time. I’m going to fail multiple times – but I know what I’m failing at. Maybe I could (very optimistically) say I’m on Chapter 3 of Portia Nelson’s “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.” So, I’ll leave you with that.

 

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

 

 

3 Responses to Walking down the other street

  1. Tariqa says:

    Thanks for this post. Mindfulness was a huge help for me when I had a soul-crushing bout of major depression in 2011, but I’ve fallen back into bad habits of late. You’ve reminded me how important it is to focus on now, especially when things are looking grim.

  2. Somebody says:

    The best example of mindfulness I ever saw was at a play group/pre-school of 2-3 year olds.

    Everything is Now. Frustrations are fleeting and momentary. Grudges are never held. Otoh everybody wants the swing Now.

  3. […] * At Writehanded, Sarah Wilson shares some tips about mindfulness, something I think we can all benefit from: Walking down the other street. […]

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