(…no offence Peter Pan!)
**Disclaimer: Just want to begin this post by saying I am in no way a medical professional, and everyone is different in how they respond to things. This is just a discussion about something I have found to be useful, in the hope it may benefit others too**
As you will know if you’ve been reading my previous posts, my blog is about mental health. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for a long time, and have tried many different techniques for coping with these issues.
I am currently taking an antidepressant called Mirtazapine which is proving to be quite effective, but in my experience it is very important not to rely on antidepressants alone to do the job – they need support from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to achieve the best possible result. Today I want to share with you the single most useful cognitive strategy I have come across, which I am currently trying to master:
Ever heard of it? I hadn’t until very recently but I am so glad to have come across it. Before I explain what it is, I want to explain the many things it is not. SO MANY people suggest these things, as if they will magically transform you into an ecstatic pixie, frolicking through meadows of candy-floss while showers of glitter and sprinkles rain down upon your permanently elated self. If any of the following sound familiar to you, you’ll know what I mean:
- Mindfulness is NOT “think happy thoughts” (WOW, thanks for the pro tip, I never thought of that!)
- Mindfulness is NOT “look on the bright side” (again, thanks SO much for pointing that out! What truly ground-breaking advice!)
- Mindfulness is NOT “there are children starving in Africa and you’re feeling sad for no reason, pull yourself together.”
- Mindfulness is NOT “just be grateful you have a job/family/food on the table/roof over your head/any other privilege you should be jumping for joy about AT ALL TIMES.”
- Mindfulness is NOT “just be glad you’re not Mrs. So-and-So, she lives in a cardboard box with her seventeen children, in a toxic waste disposal area, right next to a den of rabid skunks. And she scrapes roadkill for a living. AND she has no arms or legs. You’ve got it easy…”
In short, mindfulness has nothing to do with “positive thinking” and everything to do with observation. You can try to force feelings of happiness/gratitude/optimism/yada-yada-yada until you give yourself a stomach ulcer, but it’s not going to have any effect aside from make you feel even worse when, surprisingly, it doesn’t work. No, the beauty of mindfulness is that you get to feel whatever you feel, but you train yourself to observe that feeling from a distance. With mindfulness, there is no judgement if you are feeling sad, or anxious, or panicky, or any other emotion. It is simply the practice of observation. Russ Harris defines it in “The Happiness Trap” (a wonderful book which I heartily recommend) as: “consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, receptiveness, and interest.”
For example, if I wake up feeling that familiar chest-crushing, throat-tightening sensation that signals I am about to cry (for no reason that I can pinpoint), mindfulness asks me to focus completely on the feeling. Instead of trying to force it away, I am to observe it: take note of the physical sensation with interest, jot it down on a mental note-pad, just as a botanist would observe a butterfly. “I notice I am feeling very sad”, I am to say to myself, even out loud if it helps. “I notice my chest feels strange – sort of fluttery, and almost as if it doesn’t belong to me. I wonder if this feeling will last all day, or only half an hour. Let’s wait and see.”
Mindfulness asks that I take these mental notes with interest. We are not made of our thoughts and feelings. They are visitors in our head and sometimes may stay a long while, but they do not make us who we are. If a feeling of sadness has settled into my body and mind for a long visit, no amount of pushing and shoving with frantically assembled happy thoughts is going to make it leave. In that case, I am better off just seeing it for what it is – a visitor – until such times as it decides to leave.
Now, I’m not saying this is easy. Shifting the way we treat our thoughts and emotions is a big ask, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a while for habits to form, and good habits always seem to take longer, but I am slowly getting there. Just like anything, the more you practice mindfulness, the more natural it becomes. So go easy on yourself!
Mindfulness has been the single most useful skill I have come across in terms of mental health, and I wanted to share it today because I think it is still a relatively new concept. However, it is rapidly gaining popularity across the world and some doctors are even prescribing mindfulness courses instead of antidepressants. The fact that it is backed by the medical community as well as the psychological community gives me a lot of faith in its benefits and I’m looking forward to mastering it completely. If you would like me to write more on this subject please let me know! I have barely scraped the surface today – this post was just an introduction for those who may benefit from it. Please let me know what you think in the comments, I love your opinions and would be interested to hear any techniques you guys have to share!
Thanks so much for reading,
All my love,