What is ‘Mindfulness’ and why should you care?

Firstly…a simple definition:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, famous teacher of mindfulness meditation at the University of Massachusetts

Mindfulness wasn’t something I’d ever considered I needed to know about until I was diagnosed with UC last year. My doctor suggested that a lot of the problems I was experiencing within my body, were likely to have been induced by stress and anxiety.

As an unmarried, footloose twenty-something, you kind of think – “yeah right…how stressed can I be?” But then I thought about it and considered the following factors which had collided within my life in the months leading up to my illness…

  1. Working excessive hours at my ‘dream’ job within a top London agency, constantly feeling the pressure to perform and dealing with clients who were outright rude to me on a daily basis and made me feel prettty worthless
  2. Worrying about money and how on earth me and my partner were going to save the gargantuan amount we’d need to buy a house (still an issue)
  3. Personal problems and arguments at home which had been stressing me out and causing me anxiety in social situations
  4. A bout of food poisoning which had wiped me out for weeks and eventually led to the early symptoms of UC…which in turn was very stressful  – as anyone who’s seen blood in their poo on a daily basis will confirm

And lots of little things, like missing a train, missing a deadline, getting into a silly argument with the boyfriend, feeling negative about my body, obsessing over my social media feed and having FOMO about everyone else’s lives….it all adds up.

So yes, actually despite not having any kids or a mortgage or a drug problem or violence in my life – which I might have considered to be ‘true’ stress factors – I was stressed. I’d gotten so used to the above being part of my ‘normal’ day, that I didn’t see or view myself as stressed or not coping – no more so than anyone else I knew anyway.

I decided that no matter why or how I got UC, the only power I had over the situation was to look at the stress factors in my life and reduce them. So..in the weeks that followed I did the following:

  • I Allowed myself to be really upset about having UC. Dealing with the diagnosis that I now have a life long auto-immune diease, one that could potentially be life-limiting or fatal if it escalates dramatically in the future. Dealing with the fact I could do nothing to prevent it and indeed can take no magic pill to cure it
  • Took a two-week holiday and stayed well clear of my phone or social media. I just enjoyed the simplicity of sitting in the sun, reading some good books, eating pasta and not worrying about the overhang in my bikini the next day
  • Disconnected from the negative people in my life who had been causing me anxiety, and no longer felt bad about not going to certain social situations which I knew I wouldn’t enjoy – because you only need to spend time with people who make you feel good about the person you are 
  • Quit my ‘dream’ job in London and made a move to a local agency closer to home, after seven years of living the city ‘dream’ – which was a HUGE decision but one that has proved immeasurable in terms of the quality of life it’s given me back
  • Changed my diet habits in order to help my body to repair
  • Started this blog as a way to express myself and discuss the world around me

AND…got some books on mindfulness…

 Rick Hanson talks about ‘taking in the good’ and not letting good experiences pass you by. There are practical ways you can do this, and essentially it involves looking at a good thing as it’s happening and really noticing it, activating it in your brain and training your brain to remember the experiences and grow an overall more positive outlook over time. For example:

You’re on the tube and an old couple sitting opposite you are holding hands and looking lovingly at each other. On a normal day you might not even notice them, or you might see them but look at them with envy, if you yourself don’t have that kind of relationship. Mindfulness teaches you to look around you, see these things and take note of how they make you feel – good or bad, at that moment. You can then decide to ‘let it be, let it in or let it go’.

In this situation instead of staring blankly into space I’d try to notice this couple, smile to myself and enjoy the feeling of love that these two strangers have for each other. I’d let in happy thoughts about the people in my life who love and care about me. Hundreds of good moments like this pass us by every day because we’re so busy rushing from one place to the next, overstretching ourselves and allowing very little time to live in the present.

Contrary to popular belief, these good moments don’t need to be big ones like a party or an engagement  – in fact, noticing and ‘taking in’ the good from tiny examples of love is far more beneficial in achieving a state of longer term happiness. For example:

  • A friend sends you a text to ask how you are
  • You wake up and it’s sunny outside
  • You watch your children play together
  • Your partner gives you a kiss goodnight
  • Your mum calls to ask how your week has been
  • You sit by a crackling fire
  • You finish a good book
  • Your family makes you a meal
  • Someone holds a door for you or gives you a seat on the bus
  • You read a good piece of news in the paper

When these things happen, Mindfulness is about stopping to notice them and how they make you feel. For example:

When I wake up and feel my partner roll over to cuddle me in the morning, I try not to take those acts of love for granted. I notice my heart rate increase, my goose pimples, my feeling of calm and contentment. Don’t just fall back to sleep, notice how it makes you feel and hold onto that feeling for as long as you can. 

Books like the one by Anna Black are also a great way to get you thinking about Mindfulness as more than just a word, doing practical exercises each week to get more in tune with your mind and body. It’s laid out like a text-book week by week, so you can write notes in it and actually see your progress.

It’s also not about shutting out the bad and ignoring it by only participating in good experiences, you also learn to notice your physical and mental reaction to bad situations too – in order to learn that you can cope with them and you can acknowledge when you’re experiencing anxiety or stress. As I mentioned before, it’s not always that easy to see for yourself when things are becoming too much, and our natural reaction is to say “I’m OK” or “it’s fine” when actually it’s probably not.

I’ll certainly continue to share how I’m getting on with this ‘journey’, and share my struggles with you. I’d love to hear your stories on the subject too.

Currently I sometimes find that even reminding myself to continue working into these books and reading them can be a challenge. Working late, being tired, all these things contribute to nights where I just zonk out and don’t pick up a book at all.

I also sometimes struggle to remind myself to notice a bad thought or situation forming before I react to it, I’m naturally quite outspoken and headstrong so learning to see a negative situation or feeling arising, and try to be ‘with it’ without letting it take over can be hard. Especially when life sometimes seems completely unfair, but that’s part of the process and looking at myself in a non-judgemental way, is all part of coming out the other side a more balanced person.

I’d recommend anyone to read more about it, it’s not a load of hooey – it’s actually pretty life changing stuff if you give it half a chance.

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