Mindfulness (2)


If you missed Part One in the Mindfulness series (that sounds so official, but it’s just me sharing my thoughts and experiences), you can catch up at Mindfulness (1).

Flying home from Florida last Friday, I had the chance to use Mindfulness to overcome one of my most anxiety-producing activities. Flying.

I knew from experience that Mindfulness could be helpful with everyday anxiety, social anxiety, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and even some PTSD symptoms, but for some reason it never crossed my mind it might be helpful with my fear of flying.  I’ve lost a number of people to plane accidents over the years.  In one crash, I lost four people who were important in my life.  Oftentimes people would talk about how flying was safer than driving in a car, but it just didn’t register for me because I’ve lost more people in planes than in cars.

After each loss, the anxiety grew exponentially until I reached a point where the crippling fear would begin weeks before I had to fly.  And then when the time came to travel, I’d have a full-on panic attack.  Travel by air became impossible.  I planned all trips around cars, trains, or busses.

Long story short, when talking to a new doctor I’d started seeing, the topic of my flying phobia came up.  He told me he didn’t like seeing me missing out on so much of life when there was a quick and easy treatment that would enable me to fly again and give me back my travels.  Xanax.  (More about that at the end of this post.  I want to get onto the Mindfulness practice that helped me last week.)

Our flight home was almost delayed due to severe thunderstorms, so I spent the pre-flight time looking lists of flights that were being delayed or cancelled.  Fortunately, ours was on schedule.  A couple of minutes into the flight, I felt some turbulence, and I my stomach did it’s thing that signaled a coming panic attack.  Uh, oh.  I’d forgotten to take my Fly Happy meds!

I’ve been practicing Mindfulness so much lately, that my first response was to think, “I need to calm myself down so I can think clearly.”  I closed my eyes, took several long slow breaths.  I focused on my feet pressing firmly on the floor.  I felt my thighs against the seat of the chair.  My arms on the armrests. My head on the back of the seat. I took a few more long slow breaths, and then opened my eyes.  I was calm.  I was peaceful. I was flying on a plane in turbulence. And I wasn’t panicking!  I wasn’t even afraid.

I decided to put off taking my meds until I felt I actually needed them.  A couple of times during the flight I had momentary pictures in my mind of worst-case scenarios.  But I just asked myself, “Is this fearful event in my mind happening now?  No.  Now I’m quietly watching a movie [or eating, or reading].”  Deep breath in and out.  And I’d be fine again.

This may sound like silliness to people who don’t experience fear of flying to the level I do (did?), but for me, it felt almost miraculous.

I was so surprised — and happy — about newfound calmness when flying, I’m still in a bit of shock.  But if I hadn’t been practicing Mindfulness everyday when I didn’t necessarily need it, I wouldn’t have had the habit so instilled in me that it took over automatically in a severely stressful and anxious situation.

There was a reason it took me many years to be willing to try a medication to help me with my fear of flying.  In the somewhat legalistic church world I was living in at the time, it was considered sinful, and showed a lack of faith, if someone used a “crutch” or medication to handle a fear of flying.

Many times in ladies’ Bible studies, women would be in tears as they asked for prayer for their fear of flying and their family’s upcoming vacation.  It was a common theme.  And always they cried and expressed their guilt and shame.  And always the apologies for not having enough faith.

One day, I was that woman asking for those prayers, and an Elder’s wife came up to me quietly afterward and said she believed that God could lead us to doctors who could help us with our weaknesses.  She said that being afraid and being weak weren’t sinful, they were just conditions of being human.  If I hadn’t had that conversation with her, I don’t think I would’ve been open to the idea of the doctor’s medication suggestion.

Just telling someone to calm down isn’t effective if they don’t have the tools.  Mindfulness can be one of those tools to bring calmness in the midst of the storm (or the turbulence).  🙂

When I feel like practicing something I already know how to do, like Mindfulness, I tell myself , “Practice when you don’t need it, and you’ll have it when you do need it.”

Hope you had a great Easter!

~Debi

This is Rufus the Rabbit.  🙂

 

Mindfulness …


After a number of significantly difficult events, I’ve been meeting with a therapist for about two years.  She’s become like a best friend who has perfect listening skills. And I get to talk to my heart’s content. 🙂  Anyway, she recommended I attend Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) classes to help me handle the overwhelming emotions I’d been experiencing related to the events of the past few years.  After several of my regular blog readers had asked about DBT, I decided I’d share some of the things I’ve been learning.  Just those things that have been particularly meaningful to me.  My sharing will probably be more storytelling than teaching, if that makes sense.


 

One of the most important parts of DBT (Dialectic Behavior Therapy), is learning to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is sort of a buzz word these days. and I’ve discovered different people can mean different things when they say they practice mindfulness. So I’m just going to explain what I mean by mindfulness, which I think is pretty close to what DBT means by it.

Since DBT’s main purpose is to help people regulate their emotions, mindfulness plays a key part in that process. It allows a person to stay grounded in the moment, to stay in touch with each moment’s reality, and by staying in touch with the here and now, helps us take time to breathe and gain control of emotional reactions.

Goals of Mindfulness (in DBT)

  • reduce suffering (we can’t reduce life events, but we can reduce our responses to life events which can alleviate some of our suffering)
  • reduce anxiety, tension, stress
  • increase control of your mind by decreasing worrying, overthinking, ruminating

What is mindfulness?

My short definition is that mindfulness is intentional awareness of the present moment. It shouldn’t be confused with mindlessness (or emptying the mind). It’s a matter of focus to keep you grounded in the here and now. Observation is the goal, not relaxation. Although sometimes it can be relaxing.

There are a lot of mindfulness practices that are taught and even apps to help lead people through the process of being mindful. One of my favorite parts about practicing mindfulness, however, is that it can be practiced anywhere, at any time.

  • washing dishes
  • listening to music
  • walking
  • housecleaning
  • painting
  • hobbies
  • bathing
  • weeding

For a quick way to ease into practicing mindfulness, choose one of the items on the above list and next time you do it, take a couple of deep slow breaths. Then focus on your body’s sensations. Are you washing dishes? Feel the warmth of the water on your hands. Does it feel good? Is the water too hot? Too cold? Feel the sensation of bubbles on your lower arms. Does it tickle? Do the bubbles feel soft? Smell the scent of dishwashing liquid. What smell is it? Lemon? Orange? Listen to the sounds of the water running into the sink from the faucet. Is it a soft trickle?

If you find yourself being distracted by thoughts or emotions, just acknowledge the thought/emotion, and then refocus on your breathing and other sensations again. The goal isn’t to never have your mind wander, or never to experience emotions, or never have thoughts. The goal is just to be mindful of the present moment. I’m washing dishes. The water is warm. I just had a thought to pick up popcorn at the store. I refocus my thoughts back to the dishes.

The purpose of practicing mindfulness throughout the day when you’re not under stress or feeling strong emotions, is so that when you actually are in an heightened emotional state, the skills will have become almost second-nature through your on-going practice of the skills.

Every week in our DBT classes, we practice at least two mindfulness activities together. Last week we did a mindful eating activity. A bowl of snack items was passed around, everyone chose one, and then we proceeded to mindfully eat our item. Mine was a small wrapped chocolate candy bar. We were to look at the food item as if we were an alien from outer space who’d never seen it before. What did the wrapper look like? Was it shiny? Dull? What colors? Were there designs on it? What did the wrapper feel like? Smooth? Ridged? What was it like opening the wrapper? What did it feel like? Did it make a sound? Did you smell anything? Take the candy out of the wrapper. What does it look like? Smell like? Examine it thoroughly like you did with the wrapper. Take a tiny bite. Don’t chew or swallow. What does it feel like in your mouth? Smooth? Hard? Rough? Does it melt in your mouth? Allow yourself to slowly move it around in your mouth, and when ready, chew and swallow slowly, also noticing the processes of chewing and swallowing.

So that probably seems like a long event just to take a single bite of a candy bar. It actually only took about two minutes.

When we did this in class last week, I’d arrived to class a couple of minutes late, I’d had a stressful morning, and I was even a bit out of breath from walking quickly into the building from my car.

After doing the mindful eating exercise, I realized I was calm and ready to be fully engaged in the class. Mindful eating grounded me in the moment, and allowed me to focus on something so intently, that it gently pushed aside the stresses of the morning. My breathing was calm, my mind felt focused, my body felt grounded.

It was such a simple thing, but it worked wonders. I knew about the idea of mindful eating, but I’d always thought of it as a trick for eating more slowly and thoughtfully as a dieting technique. Now I see it can also be used as a regular mindfulness technique to bring down heightened emotional and physical stress-related responses.

As I share things I’ve learned and experienced through DBT classes, I’ll probably return to this idea of mindfulness frequently, sharing examples of various ways it’s proven helpful to me.

Thoughts? Questions? Have you had any experience with mindfulness practice?

~Debi

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