Living Anxiously Part Four: Mindfulness Practice

The practice of living fully in the present moment— what we call mindfulness— can give us the courage to face our fears and no longer be pushed and pulled around by them. To be mindful means to look deeply, to touch our true nature of interbeing and recognize that nothing is ever lost.

–Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear

When I went to my first yoga class in-person (not with a YouTube video at home), I was petrified. The teacher introduced herself to me before it began and when I told her how nervous I was, she said, “No one does everything perfectly. That is why they call it a practice.”

That has stuck with me, especially because I have a tendency to beat myself up if I don’t do something to perfection. This is why I’ve titled this post “Mindfulness Practice,” not just “Mindfulness.” There is no destination with mindfulness. It is a constant, beautiful growth that never ends.

Mindfulness is the energy of attention. …The fruit of mindfulness practice is the realization that peace and joy are available within us and around us, right here and right now.

–Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Mindfulness

I’ve discovered that mindfulness is really worth all the hoopla. It brings me a sense of calm, a way to connect genuinely with the world around me, and helps me see life for what it is instead of how I try to define it because let’s face it, everyone has their own way to paint the world.

There is a serene beauty in breathing in and out and knowing you are doing it. The quick pace slows down and I can really see the rain drops on my window and smell it through the screen. When I am being mindful and I look into Owen’s eyes, I see things that I had forgotten were there. I see a little person with this incredible precocious personality that fills me with so much joy and pain and love and fear–and none of it scares me. All of those emotions create a meaningful moment where the two of us tell stories or have a real conversation without trying to get out the door or move onto the next item of business. These are rare moments, but as I practice mindfulness, they are becoming less rare and I like it that way.

When I thought about my funeral, I thought about my death. The thought alone is enough to conjure anxiety, which is why I knew I needed to think about it (feel it and do it anyway, right?). Thich Nhat Hanh’s Fear gives a great meditative practice that guides you in thinking about death in a safe way without much anxiety. And if there is, you can feel it and examine it mindfully instead of run from it.

As I’ve thought about death, I’ve realized that when I’m on my deathbed, I want to look back on a meaningful life–a full life, which means filling it daily, maybe even hourly, by moments that create meaning–that FILL me.

If you make a habit of mindfulness practice, when difficulties arise, you will already know what to do.

–Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear

I have read more than eight of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, each one of them better than the one before, and while he is a Buddhist monk, he keeps most of his writing as applicable as he can to people of all faiths. My favorites so far have been Fear (which I mentioned above and is WONDERFUL for anxiety) and No Mud, No Lotus (my favorite and AMAZING for depression).

On days when I forget to be mindful or when I let anxiety rule and I end up in bed, I remind myself of that yoga teacher. Every day is my personal practice. That is all. No one does everything right and I am no exception. Small, meaningful steps, even if on a bad day I move from the bed to the couch and watch a movie and make popcorn with Owen instead of curling up, I have been successful that day. I hope soon I’ll make it much, much further than that. I have big plans! But for now, that is enough because I know that through these small moves the best gifts unfold.

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Living Anxiously Part Two: Feel it and Do it Anyway

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The first part of looking at our fear is just inviting it into our awareness without judgment. We just acknowledge gently that it is there. This brings a lot of relief already. Then, once our fear has calmed down, we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources.

–Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear

I wanted to go for a walk. It was the beginning of spring and the birds were starting to sing again. Sunday morning walks are some of my favorites. But Jeff couldn’t go and Owen didn’t want to go. Go for a walk on my own? Fear struck my heart; anxiety kicked in and threatened many untrue worries about what could happen.

But my desire to go on this walk was stronger than those fears. My desire to enjoy the sun and take care of myself is something I value and want to uphold.

I took a deep breath, felt the air in my lungs, and allowed the whirling panic to touch that air, dance with it, and say hello to it. Breathing out slowly, I put on my walking shoes, loaded my baby into the stroller, and walked out the door. The walk was so lovely and the longer I walked, the less anxiety I felt.

As I align my values with my life (see the next post tomorrow), I’ve developed one phrase that keeps me going in some of my most paralyzing moments of anxiety and depression:

“Feel it and do it anyway.”

Anxiety and depression storms come. Bad weather is a part of life. But bad weather does not define living. Sunshine comes too, but sunshine does not define living either. Weather moves, it swirls, it changes. If you live in Idaho, it changes every minute. Our emotions are the same way. They are only internal weather that comes and goes. We can look inwardly, like we’d look out the window, and say, “Hello, sunshine” or “Hello, thunder,” and keep going anyway.

Fighting the storm is what brings the pain. Fighting the anxiety intensifies the anxiety–sometimes ten-fold. Sure, there are days when the storms are too painful to work through. And that’s okay too. But as I’ve continued with this method, the anxiety and depression are a part of me, but they don’t run my life anymore. Gradually, they’ve begun to step back and give the stage to other more meaningful parts of me.

In case you’re interested, here’s a quick run-down of how I treat a mild to moderate anxiety attack:

  1. Anxiety hits, flames begin to build inside my chest
  2. Start to panic
  3. Remember it’s okay–the weather is changing (sometimes it takes a while for me to remember this, but with practice it’s becoming easier)
  4. Say “hello, anxiety” or “hello, depression, I wondered when I’d see you today. I’m going to do the dishes, come along if you’d like.”
  5. Then, and this is the most important part, I let the anxiety or depression stay. Instead of fighting it, I cradle it like I would my little baby, and then I become engaged in the task at hand. I take a few breaths and mindfully wash the dishes–feel the bubbles on my fingers, watch the stream of water run down the cookie sheet. All of it while breathing in and out mindfully. I used to hate washing the dishes. It isn’t so bad when I do it this way.
  6. Usually in a low to moderate anxiety attack, this is enough for it to say, “I’ve been seen. Time to go on my way.” If it isn’t, that’s okay. I feel it and keep going anyway. Small steps. That is all that matters.Small, meaningful moments create a meaningful life. Small is all I need.

As you read, please remember that I am not a therapist. I am not qualified to say that this will work for everyone. My goal in writing down all of this is mainly for me to remember and to maybe, just maybe, help someone else. I forget about these steps a lot, so writing them down on this blog has helped me to remember.

I have learned a lot of these ideas through my therapy sessions and through my reading. If you are interested in learning about defusing difficult emotions, from anxiety and depression to anger and pain, you might want to read The Happiness Trap and/or anything from Thich Nhat Hanh (Fear and From Mud to Lotus have been my favorites so far). They have helped me learn how to recognize the storms and defuse them–and most importantly, to learn that most storms are normal and absolutely and totally okay. Like I said, fighting against those storms will make them much, much worse, so most of the time it is easier to just sit back and watch the rain.

Living Anxiously: My Story

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Ugh. Anxiety. Am I right?

It seems to be the topic popping up everywhere and so many of those near and dear to me experience it regularly–myself included.

I have been away from this blog for nearly a year and a half, my entire pregnancy and life of my new little boy. With my first baby, postpartum depression hounded me for nearly three years. I still struggle with it. I was so nervous about getting it again that I went to weekly therapy sessions and practiced mindfulness and meditation as often as I thought of it. It helped tremendously. Depression is dark and terrifying. It kept me chained to my bed most of the time and when not my bed, my house, because I was too lethargic to do anything else. I thank God every day that the same lonely darkness did not come back after the birth of this new joy in my life.

One thing that did come, however, was severe anxiety. I don’t often write so personally online. I try to avoid it, but as I’ve struggled and learned new skills, I have felt this tug to share and maybe help someone else or, at the very least, experience some kind of catharsis through writing about it.

Beginning a few months after my baby’s birth, I developed crippling anxiety for no reason that I could understand. My chest would fill with painful flutters with usually no triggers. It was like I was surrounded by fire, but everything around me was happy and bright and normal. I went from depression to anxiety, from darkness to fire. Neither pleasant, neither something I wanted to have in my life, and I found myself retreating again. It’s what I do when things get too hard, I find my sanctuary, my bed. The same one I’ve had since I was fifteen. And I disappear. I disappear into television shows and don’t come back until I am forced to.

The funny thing about coming out of a depression (I’m not totally out yet, but have made so many strides) is that I find myself wanting to take care of myself more. It’s not funny, really. Just really, really amazing. I am discovering what I value and it’s real and genuine and worthwhile. Because I wanted to take care of myself, I decided to take an anti-depressant which would also help with my anxiety. I started it in January. After three weeks, I was starting to feel pretty good. Until I wasn’t.

The fire around me turned into fierce, blue flames and attacked constantly. Even a funny show that had me laughing out loud would quickly turn my laughter into a full-blown hyperventilating panic attack. I lived on the edge of life-halting anxiety for another month before finally deciding to wean off, which was a difficult process too. I have had difficulties with three other anti-depressants in my life, and my therapist and I have concluded that maybe my chemical makeup does not handle SSRIs well. Maybe. That is not the point of this blog post, especially because so many people do so well on them, and I am so happy for anyone who has found peace, medicated or not.

After spending so much of the last four years crippled with depression, I was determined not to go back, not to let this be an excuse to crawl back into my bed again and not live. During this time, I upped my therapy sessions and started reading. Reading like crazy. I want to share some of the things I’ve learned here and include some of my favorite, most helpful books with reviews eventually. I am going to sum it up in four categories, making this a five-part series.

  1. Storms will come, but they will pass too. 

  2. Define my values. 

  3. Mindfulness and practice. 

  4. Living Slowly

There is so much more to learn. So much more to discover. And so much life left to live. I will release each post every other day for the next four days. If anyone does read this, please comment with what has helped you in your own struggles and let’s learn from each other.

I also hope if anyone reading this needs help, is struggling, and can’t find hope, that they will look for it, really look for it, because no matter the weather, hope is there. If you are really struggling and don’t know how to go on, please seek help. Go to your doctor, call a close friend, call the national suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255), do something. You are worth it. Life is beautiful on the other side, I promise. Even a very small, very simple life can be a very satisfying, romantic one. You are not alone. I promise that too.