How mindfulness has helped me cope with anxiety
Do you have a constant inner voice narrating your every move and second guessing you at every turn?
I certainly do.
In fact: this voice may actually be a whole panel in a sort of discussion about every choice you make no matter how banal. Is this inner narration “you”?
This inner voice is what often gets in the way of happiness. It constantly worries about the future or regrets the past. We spend very little time in the present moment. Our minds are mostly fantasising, planning, stressing or worrying. This could mean a route to distraction, dissatisfaction, unhappiness and, in its worst form, suffering.
Mindfulness is a method to train the mind to be present. It is a practice which helps to calm the inner chatter. It can help you feel connected to yourself, other people and your environment.
This post is about how I discovered Mindfulness meditation and how it helped me deal with depression and anxiety.
I needed to write this because I know that life can be dark and I know that there are ways to find light. I have found some wonderful support in reading people’s blog posts. It is important to have a community – no matter how remote- and to know that you are not alone.
Losing the self
When my daughter was born I had immense difficulty in separating the concept of having been pregnant and the reality of now having a baby outside of me. It simultaneously felt lonely and strangling. This being needed everything from me. There was overwhelming love for her and so much fear of this new responsibility.
The difficulty came in understanding where she started and I ended. Every sound she made drove me to react anxiously. I didn’t sleep, not because she was a bad sleeper, but because of a fear that I would not be present if she needed me. I lay awake whole nights. Was she breathing? Yes. Next breath. Yes. Next breath. Yes. Every one until I was released by daybreak. Then I would switch to zombie mode for the day fearing the moment the sun would set and my mind would take over again and relentlessly refuse me any peace.
I forgot my own needs. Sleeping and eating became something my husband had to remind me to do. And with this came a loss of sense of self and purpose.
I suppose this is what is called postpartum depression. I was breastfeeding and thus refused to take medications that might harm my baby. I had taken antidepressants some years before which did help me. This is not criticism of the idea of medication, or the use of it. I just really needed to be able to breastfeed and not fail at this too.
I remember feeling that I was missing everything. I was missing my daughter’s development. I was missing out on life. I was missing. Where was I?
And everybody else seemed oblivious. Other people with children seemed like they could cope just fine. Why was I so weak?
There was no ’me’ anymore- just a void. Was this what life would be from now on?
The problem with this way of thinking is that the focus and obsession is very much on protecting the self whilst constantly trying to locate this self. The sense of self is easily lost in circumstances, like becoming a new parent, where roles and identities have shifted. Especially when all one’s focus is on trying to keep someone else alive and happy.
Empathy seemed to overwhelm me so easily. I have always found it difficult to bear other people’s problems. I always want to help, yet other people’s difficulties weigh on me so heavily that I become obsessed by them and feel like I am being dragged down and swallowed whole. I take on the stress and pain. So I attempted to stay away from everyone besides my child and husband. Other people seemed to make me feel smaller and more useless. They seemed to completely drain me. Even less of me left. I became very isolated.
Every time my child cried I would become confused and sad: taking on her emotions until I had relieved the issue. If she had been hungry and then fed I would feel satisfied and fed – even if I hadn’t had any food all day. Then she would cry about something else and the panic would spread through my whole body until I had changed her nappy – relief. Where was I?
Anybody else who expected something of or from me or needed me in any way became a huge burden. I was not coping.
My husband, who is a very rational en calm person, took me to see a psychologist. This helped immensely. Her advice and care was priceless. She gave me some guidelines to follow. These were difficult for me at the time but I followed them:
My daughter was moved to her own bed in her own room.
No baby monitor.
I wore earplugs.
My husband took responsibility for my daughter during the night.
This had an enormous impact on my mental wellbeing. Suddenly I was forced to give over responsibility and I could feel the relief. It was important to sleep. And the psychologist kept reminding me that my daughter needed me to be sane more than she needed me to be hyper vigilant. She was fine. I wasn’t.
It seemed to take forever but eventually I was sleeping some hours at night. This made an incredible difference.
Unfortunately seeing a psychologist was not a financially sustainable route. And I still found myself dwelling on my weakness more and more. My anxiety has always been out of control but now it was taking over. How would my daughter become a strong independent woman if her mother was this ‘pathetic’?
Needless to say, I had to break free from this mental trap. If not for mine, then for my daughter’s sake.
Finding the self
Out of sheer desperation I wondered whether a self-help strategy could work? After all: we have so much information at our fingertips. I would not, however, try things that had no scientific basis. So I started investigating Positive Psychology. This opened up some new insights into my state of mind. Somehow I would have to change my cognitive default setting. Slowly I started working on viewing things differently and on being who I wanted to be.
My daughter had to see that it is possible to follow one’s dreams and that this meant working at it no matter the obstacles.
My obstacle was (and still is) my critical inner monologue. I realised that I never judge other people as negatively as I would myself -in fact – I hardly ever judge others at all. It would completely stifle my work. When painting, to shut my inner voice up, I then started listening to lectures on interesting topics. This would keep my mind occupied. Suddenly I could work again.
My parents started babysitting my daughter two days a week. So I was relying on ’my community’ for the first time and not trying to do it all alone. Suddenly I had some space and time. Audiobooks and lectures occupied my mind and I worked. Things were looking up. But I was still petrified of my inner critic.
Being a failure in my daughter’s eyes was unacceptable.
This drove me to keep trying and seeking and reading. I read and listened obsessively.
The first thing I tried was a gratitude journal. This is an amazing way of forcing yourself to focus (however briefly) on the good things in your life (however small). I became more and more grateful and noticed things outside myself. I was so grateful to my husband, my child, my parents. And this mindset has grown ever since.
Letting go of self
One of the topics that kept coming up in my research on happiness was Mindfulness. I started listening to this course:
Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
The research on meditation gripped me. Here was something that could be practiced in a secular way and seemed to be able to satisfy a spiritual need I had always had. It also had very strong scientific support in helping people cope with all manner of mental states. Could I do this?
I started by doing 3-5 minutes of guided mindfulness meditation practice every evening after my daughter had gone to bed.
Meditation was not what I had thought it was. It started off being something that was very difficult and frustrating. After a month or so it became very calming. Later I managed to glimpse moments where my mind would settle somewhat. My thoughts became thoughts; nothing more. I even started feeling empathy for the parts of me that were being so critical. This was the key. More and more reading about mindfulness ensued.
Slowly I built up to doing more minutes per sitting. Giving my mind some quiet focus.
Here are the thoughts, the emotions, the breath. And this is ok. No fighting or fear of their presence. Just acceptance. Then judgement would arise. Then accepting this too. It was so simple: these were just thoughts. This was not the self. The obsession I had had with trying to find this coherent ‘self’ was starting to fade. And that even this was ok. This mind was just doing what this mind would do in this situation and I could observe this.
This is not a claim of any kind of enlightenment. In fact keeping focus for more than a few seconds still does not happen and that is fine too. This is only a realisation that feeling pain did not mean I had to suffer. It is okay and it is temporary like everything in life.
Now I have tools. If the voice criticising voice appears – she often does- I try to notice it and let it go by focussing on what is happening now. Sometimes it takes a while to realise that you are caught up in mindless thinking. This is also ok. Every time I do notice it I realise that it is a step in the right direction. Nothing has to be perfect and stumbling is learning.
My mind is still an anxious and highly sensitive one. But now, a year and a half later, I know that this is just the way it functions and that in turn calms me sooner. It helps to stop the downward spiral. I do 25-30 mins of mindfulness meditation a day.
Work is easier now. I still listen to audiobooks very often but I don’t need this constant distraction anymore. I just try to stay mindful if the self-criticism creeps up.
Mindfulness meditation and especially Loving Kindness meditation (Metta Meditation) increases empathy. This was a scary thought: empathy seemed to be my downfall before. Yet with mindfulness you can be mindful when dealing with other people’s emotions. They are just what they are. They are not you and feeling them is fine. This is an incredible skill to learn. Empathy and compassion grow, yet your ability to see things in perspective does too. I can be mindful of other people’s feelings without becoming overwhelmed (most of the time) and now there is more of me to give because I am letting go.
Family and friends are so important. It really does take a village to raise a child. It is difficult to hand over the steering sometimes but we need to let others in and let the illusive ’I’ go. It is a work in progress.
We cannot function alone. We need other people no matter how introverted we may be. Especially when we are going through a difficult time.
There are some amazing people in my life.
My husband. I honestly do not know how to express my gratitude, admiration and love for him.
My parents who support me in every way. They are incredible grandparents. So too are my husband’s parents.
My sister. ❤
I have friends who have supported, inspired and helped me to start pursuing new avenues in my life – Like this blog (another community) and my doll making business.
I have reconnected with the important friends in my life.
Now I spend one day a week crafting, chatting and laughing with my dearest friend and her adorable new baby boy.
…and my daughter is thriving. She is my light and inspiration.