A few months ago I was stretched thin and not handling anxiety well. I wasn’t sleeping, my mind was constantly racing, I couldn’t concentrate at work, I was (at that time) barely scraping by in my last graduate class, and in working on my book, I was reliving all the devastation I went through in the last year. All of that together meant I was always worried about my performance – or lack thereof. Then, I started worrying about worrying.
Though I have anxiety medicine to help with these feelings I use it sparingly, partly because it is addictive and partly because my treatment goal is to be on as few medications as possible. Always looking for alternative coping mechanisms, my therapist suggested I enroll in a mindfulness group over the summer. I’ve heard mindfulness is a great therapeutic tool to handle stress so I decided to give it a shot.
I was attracted to this particular group mostly because the curriculum didn’t center around meditation. Though I’ve always been curious about meditation, it also seemed to me like a bunch of mumbo jumbo for hippies. So when the facilitator interviewed me to see if I would be a good candidate, I was intrigued when she said mindfulness is not meditation. Meditation is just a tool to become mindful, but it is only one tool of many out there.
She also commented that many people misconstrue mindfulness with reaching a state of relaxation when in fact the true intent is to just be aware of what you are feeling in that moment without judgement. Though she did state the more you practice mindfulness the more relaxing it becomes, she was also realistic in the sense that as a beginner you will find it uncomfortable and frustrating and you will most certainly find your mind darting every which way. If my intent was to reach relaxation then I was not going to be an ideal candidate for the program. However, if I was willing to just observe my emotions and practice using different tools to divert my attention from negative thoughts, then I might actually find it useful.
Her candidness and honesty sold me. I didn’t feel like I was walking into some misguided spiritual practice. All I needed to do was be open to learning and committed to practicing. I felt more comfortable knowing it was okay that I wouldn’t always be successful and that of the eight tools she would teach, if even one of them proved to be helpful then at least I found a healthy way of dealing with anxiety instead of cutting or pulling out my hair.
So far, I’ve completed two of the eight classes. The first week we focused on deep breathing exercises and this past week we learned about body scanning. What helps me buy into the tools (which is probably intentional on the part of the facilitator) is that she explains the science of how each tool positively impacts our brains. Like how deep breathing engages the Vegas nerves in our back and stomach that release serotonin and dopamine into the body (aka feel good neurons). Though I consider myself spiritual, it isn’t in the traditional sense you might think. So, if you try to convince me to do something for the sake of being connected to a higher being or even to my inner self, I’ll probably brush it off. Actually, I might roll my eyes.
Of the two tools I’ve learned so far, there is no doubt I prefer body scanning over deep breathing, which is essentially bringing awareness to every part of your body and feeling the sensations that awareness brings. I will say, though, that bringing attention to the breath has been more useful in moments where I feel anxious.
Last week I had severe chest pain, numbness in my body, and difficulty breathing – a side effect of a medication I was taking (it’s really difficult figuring out the right combination of meds that work for you). When the panic set in, I took a couple of deep breaths and the only thing I focused on was inhaling one, two, three and exhaling one, two, three. My heartbeat slowed and I found it easier to breathe as time went on. I know during that moment, body scanning would have done me no good. I understand now why we learn so many different tools – because some may be more helpful depending on the circumstances.
Compared to deep breathing, body scanning is more time intensive but it is so helpful at night when laying in bed – the time when my mind is constantly darting back and forth between the events that happened that day, what I didn’t get done, and what I still need to accomplish. It can take me hours to fall asleep or, as is the case many nights, I sleep very light. With body scanning, I have found that I actually do reach a state of relaxation and it’s easier for me to fall asleep quickly. Perhaps because of that, it’s why I like it so much more.
I won’t say I love every part of the mindfulness workshop, but I do feel it’s important to give alternative methods of treatment a chance. As someone who believes people are over-medicated it’s important to me to make sure I’m not solely relying on that to get better. We’ll see what these next few weeks bring but I’m definitely looking forward to learning more.