As I talked about in some detail in my last blog, I have been suffering from chronic pain, mostly house bound, with a good old helping of anxiety and depression, for a fair few months now. This blog entry is about my addressing that, and what I’ve learnt so far about how to ‘feel better’. I have found it an interesting journey, I hope you might too.
The thing I struggled with most was that when I thought about anything, I was sucked into an infinity loop of worry. It encompassed everything; my career, my home life, my finances, my future, my pain and lack of mobility, etc etc.. It seemed like every thought and decision I made, would feed into the millions of possible problems that I felt were confronting me now and spreading into the future. I’m not a person who is comfortable with ‘not knowing’, and my life was on pause, with everything uncertain.
The Pros and Cons of an Over-anxious Mind
I believe anxiety has helped me, in many ways. My job relied on my ability to foresee and solve problems, multitask and ‘multi-think’, manage stressful situations and look after people. By my brain multi-tasking, worrying about all possibilities and hence addressing them, taking everyone’s point of view into account, I did well. But there was a cloud in that silver lining – I didn’t feel well – I was churning underneath the surface.
Beneath a cultivated calm exterior, was the frantic workings of my mind, which seems to always be thinking about 15 things at once. With at least 5 of those things being wondering whether I approached and handled a scenario in the right way, I was eating away at myself.
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell
For me, what other people were thinking of me was so important. I was prevented from enjoying the simple pleasure of coming home and having dinner with my partner, because I couldn’t get over the fact that the room’s air con system’s foibles had disrupted the day’s work. That was my fault, the annoyance in the room from others, I took upon myself. And all while trying to predict every future problem and how I would handle it. I never switched off.
So my enforced house-bound situation caused me to stop, take stock. Not be thinking about 15 things all the time. And boy has that been hard to learn how to do. At first I was still thinking about every possible scenario, but I was in a primarily static situation, unable to move on – hence the infinity loop. I found out I couldn’t actually switch off.
I believe now that these rollercoaster months, and what I have eventually begun to learn, will help make me a calmer person. I’m not taking away my ability to problem-solve, or look after people, but I’m learning to self-regulate – to do it when it’s appropriate. Be kinder to myself, and thus less anxious and more efficient, happier, and more focussed when I do apply that overactive brain! This is how I’m doing it:
My First Foray into Mindfulness
In addressing the way I was feeling, I came across Mindfulness. Now – I’m pretty sceptical about most things, and I’ve always hated the idea of meditating. When people say ‘think about nothing’ I say ‘how?!’ It seems an impossible pursuit, especially for someone always thinking on multiple levels. But then I tried a bit of Mindfulness; an app called Headspace. And one thing struck me completely – it acknowledged that your mind would wander, and it didn’t tell you off for it. It accepted whatever you were feeling, but helped you not to be drawn into it.
That changed my outlook a bit – I had spent months beating myself up for feeling depressed and anxious – but in being told by a disembodied voice through my iPhone that it was ok to feel this way, I felt a bit better. The therapist I was seeing heard my story and said ‘no wonder you feel awful – you’re in an awful scenario’. I began to realise, perhaps the way I felt was allowed. It felt good to talk about it in a set place with someone, I thought could manage the feelings by putting them off until a set time.
Now, I am awful at keeping up with things I’m ‘supposed’ to do regularly for myself. Especially with my current circumstances having no set routine, I forgot about the Mindfulness for sometime. I was also put off slightly having found that it’s approach of ‘body-scanning’ wasn’t enjoyable to me, because I was in pain. I didn’t want to focus on the thing causing me all these negative feelings.
Sometimes it doesn’t stick
I lapsed in doing it, my NHS therapy sessions ran out, I felt a little better and Christmas was a beautiful distraction. But, come January and the good news of my surgery being scheduled, I was slumped back into beating myself up and feeling bad. But now I had no real ‘excuse’ for it. So I beat myself up more. My anxiety got so bad that my ability to manage everyday situations was minimal. I cried at the drop of a hat. I didn’t want to socialise, because I didn’t have anything good to say.
I have not, in life, been very kind to myself. The ability to see everyone else’s point of view can be a blessing and help; I always come up with possible reasons to justify others actions, take into account their feelings and needs and act accordingly. I’m very good at playing devils advocate, presenting alternative view points. So why wasn’t I letting myself off the same hook? I was in fact looking at myself and saying
‘why aren’t you managing better – many people are in worse cases and they can get through every day situations’
When I got into a full blown crisis situation, thinking I just can’t feel like this, I need a fix, unable to get through a day without crying for no apparent reason, I applied for more sessions with a therapist. I’d asked my GP about medications, but we couldn’t find one that wasn’t contra-indicative with my painkillers, or other conditions.
The last therapist had focussed on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – and my problem with that had been that the distancing techniques felt like things I was already doing. I already looked at all my thoughts and had ‘meta-thoughts’ about them, analysing whether they were skewed, accurate, trying to find evidence in life for the way I felt or wanted to feel. And I would mostly find evidence that backed up the negatives. I wanted to not think. I wanted quiet in my brain.
The Books that Helped Me Calm Down
This new therapist suggested I read a book on Mindfulness; remembering that it had had some appeal in it’s non-judgemental attitude, I went with it.
This is that book – Mindfulness – a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. It comes with a CD of ‘meditations’. Buy it here
Now I mentioned I was sceptical about most things – and I am, so if you are too – hear me out. But I went home that day and read through the starting chapters – and my eyes opened widely. Metaphorically and literally.
I think at one point I said “ohhhh” out loud.
Now honestly, I’d suggest anyone and everyone reads this book, even if you don’t want to actually do the 8 week course. It opened my eyes to a different way of thinking. I can try and explain these myself, but the authors have done a fantastic job in themselves.
“Mindfulness meditation encourages us to become more patient and compassionate with ourselves and to cultivate open-mindedness and gentle persistence. These qualities help free us from the gravitational pull of anxiety, stress and unhappiness by reminding us what science has shown: that it’s OK to stop treating sadness and other difficulties as problems that need to be solved. We shouldn’t feel bad about ‘failing’ to fix them. In fact, that’s often the wisest course of action because our habitual ways of solving such difficulties often make them worse.”
I learnt how the pathways in your brain are physical, they are easier to travel if they are gone down more often. It made me see that the attempts I was making to ‘solve’ my problems and stop my thoughts, were in fact falling into traps.
Although it would take time, I could re-train my brain to follow new paths.
I have also read Ruby Wax’s ‘Sane New World: Taming the Mind’. She talks frankly and openly about her struggles, and in her lovely turns of phrase I found so much that made sense. And within both books, the empirical evidence is astonishing.
Mindfulness started with a scientific study about relieving chronic depression, and many studies into an array of conditions have been done since – the statistics that show how it can help with these are stunning; from immune system recovery, to skin disorders, IBS to physiological stress responses.
Where I initially turned away from it because of the focus on the body, and my not wanting to look at the pain, I now find that there are some benefits to this. I have found not necessarily pain relief, but acceptance. Pain isn’t always a horrid shouting thing, sometimes I can look at it from a distance.
Our stress responses are being constantly triggered in life, but no longer by that huge sabre toothed tiger, by the worries and thoughts from within. Our thoughts themselves are triggering physical reactions. The stress-pain link is strong; I can attest to that. When anxious, so many of the muscles in my body were permanently poised for flight.
Now that I am less anxious, my pain is reduced due to more relaxed muscles.
Breaking Mind Habits
My unkindness to myself, my finding evidence to back up the negative emotions and thoughts I was having when trying to ‘solve’ my feelings; this was a habit. It was my brain following pathways that were easier to travel; as with paths through a park, the more times they are walked, the easier they are to walk. I knew that my depression had been skewing my thoughts, and I was questioning them already, but I wasn’t really aware of this physical action in the brain. By focussing on the negative thoughts and trying so hard to change and challenge them, I was in fact just reinforcing those pathways, getting embroilled in them again.
I am more accepting of the negative feelings when they occur, and thus somehow, they stick around for less time. Fighting them was apparently what made them stronger.
Instead of straining to change my emotions, criticising myself for having them, I try to just, let them be. Instead of trying to chase the thoughts away when they come, ending up entangled within them; I am learning to just watch them appear, and then hopefully disappear. It’s about allowing myself to be present in this moment, not fretting about the last and the next ad infinitum. It’s allowing me to see more clearly, and make decisions without being stuck in that old loop.
I even managed to stop a form of anxiety attack in it’s tracks the other day – caused by a mention of something particularly anxious-making. I went into full blown rabbit in headlights, before becoming attacking and irrational. About 4 minutes in something went ‘ping’ in my head, and I realised what I was doing. Just being aware of the response, calmed it. I took myself off, did a bit of mindfulness, and sure enough, I was able to talk about it a little more rationally, apologise and explain my crazy response.
It’s a slow process, it’s not going to happen overnight, but I can already see the benefits.
Ruby Wax tells this story:-
“One evening, a Native American elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside pople. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride and superiority. The other is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion.’ The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf wins?’ The elder simply replied ‘The one that you feed’.”
I am choosing to feed the right wolf. It doesn’t mean the other magically goes away – but I’m learning how to not give in to the howls.