I decided to take a small break from our series on movement as this past Sunday (10th October) was World Mental Health Day. This was a day set aside for the promotion of awareness, education and advocacy against the stigma of mental health. Sadly this stigma still remains and is a huge stumbling block for many people getting the help they need.
I have struggled. I have felt the suffocating sensation of drowning in my own body caused by intense anxiety.
People are often surprised when I tell them of my own struggles with my mental health.
“But you’re always so chipper and upbeat” people tell me. And it’s true, I am.
Except when I’m not.
When I’m not, the world doesn’t see me. I’m locked away from view, huddled in a ball beneath the duvet, unable to grasp fully what has triggered me, unsure of when this will pass. IF it will pass.
It always does. I feel a heaviness removed. My mind regains the room to think. Emotions flow smoothly. I’m chipper and upbeat.
Over the years these cycles have varied but as time has gone on, I have been able to better understand them.
I have accrued a number of ‘tools’ that I have utilised many times to help me reduce these cycles of anxiety and depression, and to aid me in my journey through them when I cannot avoid them.
So what follows are some of the techniques that work for me. They may not work for you, after all we are all wonderfully different. But some might, so here they are.
I think if had to choose just one tool from the list, breathwork would be the one.
What is breathwork? It is simply a practice where we focus on our breathing patterns in a variety of different ways for a variety of different outcomes. The breath has been utilised in pretty much every culture as a means of physical, mental and spiritual health for millennia.
You don’t have to get ‘woo-woo’ with it either, so don’t panic. It’s basic physiology.
When we breathe in we activate more of our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The SNS is the fight or flight system, the nervous system that kicks in when ‘shit gets real’. Our heart rate elevates, our pupils dilate, our digestive system slows or stops, adrenalin pumps, hearing can be reduced and vision tunnels, sphincters tremble, and we can be left shaking uncontrollably. All good news when being chased by a Sabre-toothed tiger. Not so good when your boss has just reminded you that you have a presentation to give in 10 minutes.
The flip side to this is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This is the nervous system response that occurs when all is groovy – the ‘rest and digest’ mode. This is the chill mode that enables the body to regulate all the bodily functions as normal. It is also activated when we breathe out.
You can see this happen by checking your own pulse whilst you breathe. It’ll quicken slightly on the in breath, and slow on the out breath. These differences are what is known as heart-rate variability. The greater the variance, the healthier the individual generally.
And while our breathing pattern is changed in reaction to the nervous system response we can also reverse engineer it.
By breathing in a pattern that is associated with a particular nervous system response, we can actually bring that system into play. So when you feel ‘jacked up’ and in a state of near panic (SNS), slowing your breathing down to easy, deep but gentle breaths with extended exhalation, all preferably though the nose, can flip the switch over to the PNS, thereby calming the whole system down further. My go-to is some form of box breathing.
Just following the animation above or one of the myriad apps available can work wonders when it all starts to get a bit much. To level up this practice we can combine it with the following.
Mindfulness is a term banded about all over the shop nowadays. But what does it mean?
Essentially, it is a practice of bringing ones’s attention into the here and now. For me, anxiety is often focused on the future; the great unknown. And while it is good to make future plans and to have goals, fixating on things that might happen, and then worrying about it is less helpful. For others it is a focus on the past that causes them suffering.
Mindfulness seeks to put that focus right here, right now. Not 5 seconds ago, nor 5 seconds in the future. Now!
When we are focused on the present, fully, we physically cannot dwell on past events or project imagined futures. The constant movies and chatter that stream endlessly into our minds are momentarily hushed. And the more we do this the more compounded the effects, and the easier it becomes to enter this state.
So we can combine our breathwork with mindfulness by simply taking a more active role. Rather than solely relying on an app to time your breaths, you can count the seconds in your mind as you breathe in and out. You can also focus on the sensation of the breath; where it enters your body, how your abdomen rises and falls, etc.
This is essentially what meditation is all about.
Many people are confused about what meditation is and how to do it. Add to that the huge array of techniques on offer, not to mention the vast amount of bollocks spoken about it, and it’s enough to leave you in a fight or flight response, frantically counting your breaths whilst hyperventilating.
I struggled for decades to meditate until I finally learnt the mystical secret that evades too many. You can’t really do it wrong. See this post to find out about this ‘enlightenment’.
It’s not about ‘clearing your mind’ or avoiding the ever increasing urge to scratch your arse during the session. It’s about being mindful, being present. Whether that is through focus on the breath or through a mantra, or whatever, you stay focused.
Until you don’t.
This is key. Your mind will wander, thoughts will arrive. One minute you are happily focused on mentally chanting some sanskrit phrase (or whatever), the next you find yourself ruminating on whether gorgonzola or cambozola is the better blue cheese (it’s Stilton you fool!).
This is all normal. The minute you realise that your mind has wandered you are in a state of mindfulness. Well done you. Now bring it back to your breath/mantra/etc. The more your mind wanders the greater the opportunities to regain mindfulness. Win-win.
Over time this gets easier and you can focus for longer.
Meditation has been a huge boon for my mental health. It keeps me present, creates a little still space in my mind for recuperation, and is a lovely way to start each day.
Delving deep into our psyches can of course be a powerful tool to aid our healing, when wielded in the right way by the right hands. But for me, I sometimes get caught in the downward and inward spiral of continued focus on my own suffering. Our suffering is of course totally valid, but sometimes it’s good to get a different perspective on life.
Turning our focus outwards can bring about a powerful respite.
Gratitude is a great means to achieve this. Focusing on things that we are grateful for is an excellent way to stop the negative thoughts from taking over, much in the same way that mindful presence helps stop the chattering mind.
It’s a great way to start and end each day, beginning and finishing on positives. I just list 3 things that I am grateful for. And they don’t have to be profound. It could be the feeling of sun on my face, or my new cup, or the fact that my children actually managed to get their dirty washing IN the laundry basket.
It seems the human mind cannot hold two conflicting thoughts or emotions in place at the same time. So focusing on the positives doesn’t allow room for the negatives. At least for a while. This makes it a great practice to do first thing in the morning and last thing at night to start and finish the day on a positive.
Another practice of shifting the focus outwards is a Metta meditation. In Metta, a Pali word for loving kindness, we visualise projecting a sense of love, peace and joy towards others.
You start by bringing your attention to your breath for a while and when you are ready you initially focus on yourself and mentally repeat something like:
‘May I find love, may I find joy, may I find peace.’
I repeat this a number of times. I then visualise someone I am really close to and say:
‘May you find love, may you…’ again, several times. Then I think of other friends and acquaintances and repeat the process.
Then, and this is the toughy, I visualise someone who I feel has wronged me or hurt me, and repeat the process. The whole thing is repeated for my local community as a whole and then the planet.
It does sound a little tie-dye and flares, I know, but the effect is pretty pleasant and immediate, and it’s a darn sight nicer than the feelings of quiet desperation I have prior to doing it.
The final way I like to turn my mind’s focus outwards is through little acts of random kindness. This to me is a way of paying it forward, a kind of cosmic reciprocity that isn’t dependant on direct obligation. You simply do something nice for someone with absolutely no expectation to get anything back. The reward is the doing.
And the options for this are infinite. Some things that I like to do are:
- Leaving my change with the barista to pay for someone else’s coffee bill, and then disappearing into the shadows (usually wearing a cape).
- Sometimes we might buy a multi-pack of ice-creams/treats and invariably there are too many for us, so we offer the extras to passing strangers. In today’s suspicious culture this is sometimes difficult. If you have the look of a street thug, like me, having children with you really helps.
- Simply sending friends and loved ones a message reminding them that they are loved and in your thoughts.
- Giving some change or food to someone who needs it and making a little time to talk to them and let them know that they too are seen.
But don’t assume that your kind efforts are always appreciated or even wanted. I once got hit by an old lady with her walking stick for holding up the traffic for her to make her slow amble across the busy road. The drivers all found it hilarious, so at least it brightened their day up.
That’s it for part 1. Join us next week for part 2 and more tips and tricks for helping your mental health.
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