Mindfulness really does work!
It’s #MentalHealthAwareness week and following on from Steve’s recent blog “The crying game” this is a personal blog about my mental health and how I cope with anxiety. My sole reason for writing this blog is in the hope that just one person who has maybe struggled over the years will read this and think “yes that’s me and how I feel”, “that’s why I feel like I do” and “there is a way to stop feeling like this”. Feel free to write comments below – obviously you can remain anonymous if you like. Remember if you feel like reaching out for a chat with me at any time please do so!
The journey to anxiety
My journey to discover mindfulness started about 24 years ago. In the Indian summer of 1995, I got mugged at knife-point near the city centre whilst studying at the University of Leeds. I don’t need to go into all the details but suffice to say it was an ordeal but one that I thought I would brush off given that I wasn’t physically hurt.
To cut a long story short – it is believed I suffered Post Traumatic Stress from this incident (I can still picture the long sharp knives of the 3 assailants to this day), to the extent that I didn’t want to live in Leeds any more or carry on with my studies (I nearly did give up my studies in 1995). This event I believe has pushed me from a mildly anxious person to a very anxious person. By the way – I did finish my studies thanks to amazing support from my wonderful parents and brothers, The Hepworths (Great friends of the family who I lodged with for 2 years) and my University tutor at the time (I wish I could remember her name).
My journey now rolls on to 3 years ago and my now late Mother Susan (Mum died 14th February 2019) was diagnosed with Vascular Dementia. Dementia is such an unforgiving illness and I sympathise with anyone having to deal with this terrible disease – for all of us connected to Mum it was like 3 years of hell and cruelty seeing such a beautiful, caring, perfect woman deteriorate mentally and physically over time and all of us powerless to stop it. If you are still reading this and you are lucky to still have a Mum – do give her a big hug next time you see her (And to Steve’s recent blog – I really am actually crying now as I type this and it actually feels great).
Just after Mum’s diagnosis I’d had enough of working at BT (That is another blog) and with the opportunity for voluntary redundancy I decided to go for it and set up Red Tiger Talent with Steve as we had seen the opportunity, but we had also decided it would give us the flexibility to help care for our Mum and support our Dad through what was to come.
How does anxiety feel?
The major point I want to make is this – sometimes we just carry on and know something may be wrong, but we are not quite able to put our finger on what it is that’s wrong. We don’t feel the same but we don’t really know why. So how did I feel? Here are a list of some of the things I felt/experienced – you may well be experiencing the same:
- Unable to sleep (I got off to sleep but I would wake up at 4am every morning and my mind would be racing with worry).
- I couldn’t relax and enjoy things as much (Some things when I look back are almost a blur – basically my mind had got into a habit of constantly racing).
- I couldn’t even sit and enjoy watching a film with the kids – my mind would be racing and just wouldn’t switch off.
- I didn’t feel I could enjoy social occasions – I absolutely love socialising but at times I didn’t really feel in the moment.
- In and out of work my mind was struggling so much I even worried at times that I had early on-set dementia.
- I would worry about the slightest of things – things like the possibility of missing a train would stress me out far more than I knew it should.
All of the above are like a snowball effect and unless you work to stop that I am sure it can consume you and can just get worse. The great thing is that you don’t have to feel like this and there are ways to train your mind. Obviously do make an appointment with your doctor to discuss how you feel and get a diagnosis. Don’t put this off as it’s OK to go and discuss these things, it may be useful to write a list like the one above (I did).
My recent situation (I went to the doctors about 3 weeks ago) has been a mixture of grief and stress that has added to my current anxiety. In layman’s terms my doctor (who is excellent) explained that the chemicals in the brain alter over time with constant stress. He has mentioned that through exercise and mindfulness I can start to go some way to helping rebalance these chemicals. The other option is medication for maybe 6-12 months but he wants me to try the mindfulness and exercise for now.
How do you overcome this stress and anxiety?
Before I jump into what I found mindfulness does, I also try and exercise regularly (Running, cycling and Hot Yoga). I find exercise releases endorphins which also helps to lift up your mood. I also have a very supportive wife and family that I feel I can talk to about how I feel which also lifts a weight off my shoulders.
Six months before I left BT my mood and experience of anxiety had got so bad that I needed to do something about it, and I thought “why not look into this ‘Mindfulness stuff’ that people are going on about”. I did my research and bought a book entitled “The Mindful Way Through Stress” by Shamash Alidina. The book takes you through an 8 week course of mindfulness and explains some of the theory behind it. It has great examples of meditations and brain exercises that can help to train your mind over time to think differently (basically given time it really does re-train and re-wire your brain). It also has some great online guided meditations – see the following link (Give them a go if you like but the book helps add context): https://www.guilford.com/companion-site/The-Mindful-Way-through-Stress/9781462509409
My mind has a habit of overthinking and constantly worrying when I am under extreme stress. I have found that mindfulness (It doesn’t work instantly – as Ruby Wax said, you don’t get a six pack overnight) over a period of weeks does start to work. My first experience of mindfulness at BT enabled me to lift the “fog” and realise I could do something about my unhappiness (I left BT and set up Red Tiger Talent).
It’s now been 3 months since my lovely Mum passed away and I will admit I have hit some really low moments in that time (It’s only natural), but I have found that mindfulness (and re-reading the book) has helped to calm my stress to a point now where I feel “normal” and very happy again (I still have my moments but I need to keep up the meditations). The key for me now is to keep mindfulness front of mind (excuse the pun), rather than letting it slip when I feel good. Regardless of how I feel I will make a commitment to doing meditations (You only need about 20 minutes a day – and if you feel you don’t have the time, then you really do need to make the meditation a priority).
The benefits I have found through mindfulness are (if you don’t feel you suffer from stress you should also give it a try anyway):
- I feel I can participate and enjoy family life a lot more – I try not to pass off a daughters request to tell me something because I am ‘busy’.
- I am a lot calmer about all situations now.
- I can concentrate far better at work and in general now (My mind before was becoming really foggy, basically racing).
- I feel generally good about myself, like I have found a really happy moment (and many more to come) in my life. My mind currently just doesn’t constantly race or worry (I still have my moments), it is generally calmer and clearer.
I hope you have taken something from this blog and that you at least become self-aware of your own mental status. Do be mindful of others, sometimes it is hard to spot who is suffering (As many do in silence) and if you are being silent – do speak out – it’s easier said than done but you’ll feel a whole lot better!
Author: Paul Halsall, Director, Red Tiger Consulting
Images: Wokandpix and Brenkee at Pixabay