It was around this time last year when my mental health was really beginning to take a downward turn.
Having gone through the ordeal of a brain tumour diagnosis, haemorrhage and life-changing surgery, I had put much of what I had been feeling to the back of my mind in order to try and focus on the here and now.
I thought that was a good thing to do. I mean, if I didn’t think about it would go away, right? Wrong.
You can only put a lid on those thoughts for so long before they come simmering back to the surface.
The first anniversary of my surgery came and went. Shortly after, my mood began to spiral. Neuro fatigue was continuing to be an issue no matter what I tried. Added to that, I would soon lose 2 good friends to cancer, then just before Christmas, another close friend to suicide. I began to feel incredibly guilty for still being here when others weren’t, and just getting through each day portraying business as usual was getting harder and harder.
Now had this been any other part of my body, I’m sure I would have asked for help sooner, and I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t, then those around me would have made me. Why is it, that because we can’t see what’s going on in our heads, we somehow feel it is somehow less important than any other ailment we might suffer? I mean, you wouldn’t continue to try walking around with your leg hanging off would you?
Eventually, I reached out by email to Andrea, my skull base nurse at Salford Royal. I really just wanted someone to understand how I was feeling, as so many of those around just don’t get it. I explained that I felt I was just falling further and further into a bit of a black hole, where nothing seemed to work anymore. I didn’t feel like I was recovering anymore. Quite the opposite in fact. I felt like any progress I had made was unravelling.
Exercise, that had always been a bit of a coping mechanism for me, was becoming impossible as I was just so tired all the time. My already compromised balance seemed to get worse. I struggled to do two jobs and then find the time and energy to be there for others, and for a little self care. I wasn’t in a good place. I felt totally alone.
Together, we thought it would be good for me to speak to a neuropsychologist and so a referral was made to my local Acquired Brain Injury team.
It wasn’t long until I met with the case manager, to discuss what kind of help they could offer; it wasn’t long until all those thoughts and feelings I’d tried to keep a lid on bubbled to the surface.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, for the last six months or so, I have been meeting regularly with the ABI team. They have taught me a number of strategies for managing fatigue, and we have also talked through lots of other things that have been an issue for me. It has been a really helpful experience and I have learnt a lot from it. If you ever feel this way, you really should talk to someone.
Now, I want to share with you something simple that has really helped me with those racing thoughts. Mindfulness. It might seem airy-fairy to some of you, but it really isn’t. It’s a technique that takes time to master.
You see, I thought actually dealing with my feelings was wrong; that they were best swept under the carpet. Those thoughts and feelings are real though. Those things really did happen to me, so they should be accepted and validated. Mindfulness practice is a way of doing this, accepting them as they pop into your head, and then moving on.
Whether or not you need mindfulness for the reasons I do, or just as a means of relaxation, merely taking a few minutes out of your day has been proven to have real benefits to our health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness improves well-being. Increasing your capacity for mindfulness supports many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life. Being mindful makes it easier to enjoy the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.
Mindfulness improves physical health. If greater well-being isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have discovered that mindfulness techniques can help improve our physical health in a variety of ways. Mindfulness helps to relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep (another issue of mine!), and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.
Mindfulness improves mental health. In recent years, psychotherapists have began to consider mindfulness practice as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Some believe that mindfulness works by helping people to accept their experiences, including those painful ones, rather than avoiding them.
There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment.
Basic mindfulness meditation – Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing or on a word or “mantra” that you repeat silently. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment and return to your focus on breath or mantra.
Body sensations – Notice subtle body sensations such as an itch or tingling without judgment and let them pass. Notice each part of your body in succession from head to toe.
Sensory – Notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Name them “sight,” “sound,” “smell,” “taste,” or “touch” without judgment and let them go.
Emotions – Allow emotions to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions: “joy,” “anger,” “frustration.” Accept the presence of the emotions without judgment and let them go.
Urge surfing – It helps you to cope with cravings (for addictive substances, behaviours or even food!) and allow them to pass. Notice how your body feels as the craving enters. Replace the wish for the craving to go away with the certain knowledge that it will subside.
Mindfulness can be developed through developing a systematic method of focusing your attention. You can learn these techniques on your own, following instructions in books or online videos or apps. You may prefer to learn as part of a teacher-led group. If you do, then look for someone using meditation in a way compatible with your beliefs and goals.
If you have a medical condition, you may prefer a medically oriented program that incorporates meditation. Ask your GP surgery or hospital about local groups.
Getting started on your own
Mindfulness meditation builds upon your ability to remain focussed. Here’s how it works:
Go with the flow. In mindfulness meditation, once you establish concentration, you observe the flow of inner thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without dismissing them, judging them as good or bad.
Pay attention. You may also notice external sounds, sights, and touch that make up your moment-to-moment experience. The challenge is not to latch onto a particular idea, emotion, or sensation, or to get caught in thinking about the past or the future. Instead, you watch what comes and goes in your mind and discover which mental habits produce a feeling of well-being or suffering.
Stay with it. At times, this process may not seem relaxing at all, but over time it provides a key to greater happiness and self-awareness as you become comfortable with a wider and wider range of your experiences.
Above all, mindfulness practice involves accepting whatever arises in your awareness at each moment. It involves being kind and forgiving toward yourself.
If your mind wanders into planning, daydreaming, or criticism, notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present.
By practicing accepting your experience during meditation, it becomes easier to accept whatever comes your way during the rest of your day.
Eventually, you can learn to develop and apply mindfulness to many everyday activities. This might be whilst eating, or even during exercise.
Mindfulness running has become an important part of my weekly sessions and the results of this seem to be paying off, with me more able to focus on pace, without feeling the urge to outrun everyone else I might come across!
So there it is. Spend a few moments each day being mindful, and see what benefits it brings to your life.
I have found the app Headspace to be really useful, but there many other resources out there. Have a look around and see what works for you.