First Steps – The Mindfulness Bike
I’m sure everyone has heard of mindfulness meditation, but how do you use it for calm and reducing anxiety?
Mindfulness is like learning to ride a bike, practice until you can ride then, ride the bike when you want to. Some will tell you to practice mindfulness all the time, I personally think it is excessive, a little at a time when you can, gets you where you need to go and at your own pace
A bit about mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation trains your brain to focus on the here and now, and it also trains self awareness. The end result is clarity in the moment and detachment from thoughts. Living in the exact moment is a place of calm, if you worry about something in the past you can ruminate constantly (“I should have done this, I shouldn’t have done that”, if you worry about the future, you can ruminate about it constantly. Future worry is also called “What-If” thinking. “What if (insert problem or event) goes wrong”
In the present moment, there is no past, no future, you can observe what is going on around you with clarity and choose how to respond.
Ever driven a car, and on the journey you’ve driven safely through normal traffic but you have no idea how you completed part of the journey? Or worked so hard on something that you zoned out and the hours flew by? Then you have experienced meditation!
Quick Exercise: You will need one piece of chocolate (you could use a fruit pastille as well) and a timer (optional)
Sit somewhere quiet – it won’t need to be quiet forever but if you are just starting it is important.
- Sit in a relaxed position (set the timer for 1 or 2 minutes if you have one)
- Breathe normally, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Place the chocolate in your mouth on your tongue and close your eyes.
- Do not chew or swallow the chocolate yet, just focus on it on your tongue, feel the sensations , when your mind wanders (and it will) bring it back to focus on the chocolate again, ask yourself what does the chocolate feel like, taste like
- Once you have focused for around a minute to two minutes you can open your eyes and swallow the chocolate.
Congratulations you just meditated. Even if you could only focus for a few seconds at a time. You Meditated. Well done you, treat yourself to some more chocolate as a reward.
Its important to note at this point what Mindfulness is and what it is not.
What mindfulness is: “Strength” training for your mind which once you manage to attain a basic level allows for something else we’ll come to a bit further along on the page.
What mindfulness is not: a magic bullet, clearing your mind of thoughts
Mindfulness requires practice, not much practice but at least five to ten minutes a day to start with. It is not sitting cross legged on a mat for hours, inhaling incense and trying to become a New Age hippie.
Hold on a minute! I can see a raised hand at the back of the class. Ah, I see it’s Mrs “I can’t meditate because (insert reason here)”. I have just the thing for you. Guided meditation. It’s how I started and a little help gets you where you need to go.
Headspace is the app that worked for me, the free first 10 lessons are enough. No need to subscribe. After day 10, keep using tracks 9 and 10 for a few more days to a month and you’ll start to notice the benefit. The Calm app is also good if you prefer a calm setting while you meditate, like the sound of rain or the ocean. As with Headspace the free meditations are enough.
When you feel like you have a solid handle on mindfulness, then I highly recommend trying the Insight Timer app (also free though they have paid courses). Lots of free meditations, some are mindfulness based others are relaxing music, some involve MBSR practices (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – the scientifically studied form of Mindfulness) others are more spiritual and even a bit ‘woo woo’ in parts. Find what works for you in the anxiety, stress or relaxation sections and leave the rest, if it’s not for you don’t listen to it.
You will notice it’s working when you are able to catch yourself in a moment of live action stress (middle of an argument, feel anxiety ramping up), and stop, breathe to calm yourself and reset, even if just for a little bit.
NB: You do not need to meditate all day everyday, you are not trying to become a monk (I’m guessing you don’t anyway!), just like learning to ride a bike, once you can ride
How does this help
So that’s great but how does this help with anxiety?
First of all, calm breathing will help trigger our chilled friend the parasympathetic nervous system. Helping return you to calm. Repeated practice though helps you reach a state where you realize you are not your thoughts. That your thoughts will arise anyway and that you don’t have to react automatically to them as you probably have to this point. Now some of your thoughts are heavier than others and come with a payload. Think of thoughts as clouds, you get light floaty clouds but you also can have big ass storm clouds that bring thunder or even a tornado…time for a story…
Lets look at our friend Jan (from Part 2), Jan is a bit older now and working as a manager in a business. Jan hasn’t thought about snakes for years, not since the panic attack at the Zoo. There was a dicey moment with that film she watched with her boyfriend that time but she made a cup of tea when the scary bit was on (phew…disaster averted). Jan recently did a mindfulness course at work and has started to identify when she is stressed, she takes a moment to breathe, refocus, most of the time this is enough for her to return to balance. Today however is different, today Jan has to visit a customer, as she goes in to the clients office she sees him standing over an Aquarium…or she thinks it is, as she goes over to have a look at the little fishies the client turns around holding his pet python……
Hell on toast time, Jan is face to face with her nightmare, what should Jan do?
a) Run away crying?
b) Attack the snake and her client, show them who’s boss and turn the snake into a handbag?
c) Something else
If you chose (a) you just reinforced the snake fear, Jan’s brain now knows that running away kept her safe twice now, hooray
If you chose (b) – you’re an idiot, the snake will still be seen as a threat to Jan’s brain but next time she’s more likely to attack on autopilot. Also next time her boyfriend is feeling amorous in a dark room, he better be very careful where his gentleman sausage goes…
If you chose (c) – you’re right! But what do we use?
Allowing is the gold standard approach to fear, especially if you have fearful thoughts. If you take nothing else away from this website, take this. If you’ve used the apps mentioned above you will have done another mindfulness technique called a body scan, this and allowing intertwine to become a superpower. Let’s go back to Jan and see what she does:
…Jan feels fear, right down to her boots, her heart is pounding, her tummy is rolling, she has the urge to leave and go to the loo urgently, her brain is going nuts trying to get her to safety.
Using her mindfulness training Jan is totally aware of all this, she takes a breath through her nose and allows herself to feel the fear, any in a matter of moments has scanned for the feelings in her body. Jan realises that there is a really tight feeling in her gut, that is the core place this particular fear resides, she welcomes the fear and lets it do it’s thing. Let the storm rage. She may even imagine giving the fearful place a hug.
The client is oblivious of all this going on other than the initial startle response on Jan’s face, as it is all momentary from his perspective. Jan explains she has a fear of snakes, she’s working on it but could he put his snake away (sure there’s a joke there…). Customer puts Benji (the python) back in his tank and they have the meeting. Jan’s brain keeps hammering her to check Benji is still in his tank the whole time. The urge to keep checking is almost overwhelming, but Jan stays the course using mindfulness to keep her on point, the client has no idea this is going on. The meeting ends and Jan leaves.
Jan has just started to retrain her fear response to snakes. Next time she goes to visit, the fear will be there but may be diminished, after a few more visits the fear is manageable. Eventually the fear is reduced to nothing.
Note that none of this is instant it requires you doing very little but it does mean everything is uncomfortable for a while.
- Recognise what is going on
- Notice where you have the problem
- Feel it, allow it to be there
- Be kind to yourself, it’s okay you feel this way
- Breathe through it mindfully
If you have fearful thoughts, the same applies, relax and let the thoughts come, notice where you feel them in your body and focus on the sensation, really get into the sensation, describe how it feels, does it move, is it in more than one place. Get comfortable with it. When you do this repeatedly your subconscious and your body will start to de-program the anxiety response.
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