By Sheila Bayliss
After 7 pregnancy losses and finally becoming a mum, I thought I’d learned plenty about the power of mindfulness to help you cope with powerful feelings. Little did I guess that there was so much more for me to learn – about how adding compassion into my mindfulness practice would super-charge my coping skills. Here’s my story about how it transformed my relationship with anxiety from outright war to acceptance and befriending. For the first time in any blog I’ve written, I’ve included excerpts from the personal journal I kept during this journey – I hope this gives you an idea of mindful learning in action.
I’d always suffered from anxiety, so having recurrent miscarriages certainly intensified those feelings. I’d been on a mindfulness course after my 3rd loss, and I continued with informal practice after the course finished. When we were finally expecting our little boy, I doubted that I’d enjoy my pregnancy at all – I anticipated feeling petrified every moment of every day. However, the mindfulness skills I’d learned meant that amazingly, I actually did enjoy this time. A couple of key approaches helped me to cope with the constant worries about my unborn child’s safety. I was able to recognise that my thoughts were not facts. That my thinking something did not in any way make it likely to actually happen. I would spend time focussing on what was actually happening now, in this moment. I was also able to accept that for me, anxiety would be an inevitable aspect of my pregnancy experience (and later, of motherhood). So although anxiety was present throughout this time, I didn’t feel distressed or overwhelmed by it. I was able to embrace it as one part of my experience, alongside my joy at finally becoming a mum. I felt so grateful that I was getting the chance to deal with the challenges of being a mum – anxiety about my child being one of them. Even when I miscarried again just before my son’s first birthday, I was able to hold my sadness alongside my blissful absorption in our amazing little boy.
A new normal
When our son was 18 months old, we suffered a devastating loss that was particularly traumatic. Once again, I turned to my mindfulness practice to help me grieve, and to come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t have any more children. I re-established a daily sitting practice, and embraced the feelings of sadness and loss that I’d found mindfulness had helped me with in previous years. However, this 9th and final loss seemed to ratchet up my anxiety to new levels. I was terrified of losing my son aswell, and I felt surrounded by threats to his safety. I came to a point where I was hardly sleeping because I was getting up so often to check on him. Routine tasks were taking me a long time – my fear of ‘contamination’ from cleaning chemicals or dirt meant that I would become paralysed when doing household chores, trapped in extra measures designed to eliminate any imagined risk. Simple outings to the park could feel like an ordeal for me, and I began to worry that my son would pick up on my anxiety and feel the world wasn’t a safe place.
One day I had what I call a ‘What if?’ moment. We were out and about, and I had to put our rubbish in the bin. I stood paralysed, calculating how I could eliminate any risk of ‘contamination’ from touching the bin (bear with me if you’ve never suffered anxiety – I know that doesn’t sound ‘logical’). And I suddenly wondered – ‘What would it be like to be free of all this, to just put my rubbish in the bin without giving it a second thought? What would a life that be like?’ This moment planted a seed of possibility. I began to wonder if mindfulness could help me further. It had enabled me to cope with a level of sadness that I’d never thought I could withstand, so I wondered if it might have a similar effect for this now-debilitating anxiety.
Being a coach, I approached it like an experiment. I thought about what I would do, what would help me feel motivated, and how I would know if anything was making a difference. I also knew I’d have to build my confidence up slowly. I decided to ‘step up’ my sitting meditation practice, and to take small opportunities in daily life to challenge my usual responses. That instead of always taking action to eliminate tiny or non-existent risks, I would practice noticing that and delaying my reaction. I identified typical situations that I wanted to handle differently, like compulsively checking and re-checking that I hadn’t left a stray nappy sack in my son’s bedroom, or not letting him step foot on any square centimetre of the park that I hadn’t personally checked first for dog mess. And I would use a journal to record my experiences both during meditations and in life. Obviously, I didn’t want to stop protecting my son from real danger – that’s my job as a mum. But I needed to learn to how to assess that more realistically. My dream outcome was that “I would be a confident and relaxed parent. I would be able to do practical tasks with less effort, leaving me with more energy for having fun as a family. My son would grow up feeling secure and confident to explore and have adventures.
Much quicker than I’d dared to hope, the extra meditation seemed to change something. It strengthened both my awareness in daily life, and my capacity to tolerate anxious feelings – here’s how it was reflected in my journal: “During today’s breathing meditation, I felt very uncomfortable – like low-grade, non-specific panic: fast heartbeat, gulping for breath etc – with no obvious cause. I found it very challenging to ride out the waves of discomfort, and not to judge it as ‘bad’, or something I needed to ‘get rid of’ by calming down.” What is really striking is that the very next line in that journal reads “I’ve noticed that outside of meditations – generally in life – I’m much more able to notice my anxious thoughts without acting on them. For example, I can let go of compulsive ‘contamination/safety’ behaviours that only a short while ago I would have felt compelled to carry out.” For me, this was a revelation – that you don’t need to feel calm during meditation to experience the benefits of mindfulness practice in your life. The skills you practice in sitting sessions do eventually transfer into everyday experiences.
Another journal entry shows the way my response to feelings of anxiety and panic was beginning to change. Again, referring to how my body felt during a meditation, I wrote: “When I accepted it the way it is, and just observed it non-judgementally, I noticed it changed – and there were periods of calmer, more relaxed breathing.” I needed to accept the physical sensations of anxiety just as they were, before they could change. Fighting with them just kept me stuck in fear. The more I practiced doing this in formal meditations, the more I was able to practice this breathing meditation informally, during day-to-day activities.
Soon, my awareness of what was happening in anxiety-provoking situations was increasing. I found that during challenging situations, I was able to pause, and create just the tiniest bit of space before reacting. And in that space, sometimes I could find a new way of seeing things, or the courage to do nothing, and wait for the clouds of panic to clear. I was making room for a more balanced response. Here’s what I wrote just after one such situation. “I was able to see that it was my anxiety I needed to tolerate, not an actual risk. Maybe this is what learning to trust feels like.” Mindfulness gives us more choice about how we respond to difficulty. In my case I began making a choice between avoidant behaviours (which protected me from feeling anxiety), and ‘letting things go’ which exposed me to difficult feelings, but which I often felt was healthier all round for my son. The fact that my ‘anxiety’ behaviours became a choice – rather than an unquestioned necessity – felt extremely liberating in itself.
I began relying on mindfulness to help me ‘ride out’ the intense waves of anxiety. I would bring my attention to my breathing and try to just stay in the present moment rather than going into an imaginary and catastrophic future. Then, I noticed “it’s like I can actually feel it start to subside physically. Like it’s the physical ‘fight or flight’ response that’s been triggered, and that’s what changes and subsides. ” All this time, I’d felt like the key to reducing anxiety was to control external events, and now I was learning that I didn’t need to exhaust myself doing that.
A new relationship
This new awareness also opened the door for self-compassion. Which was crucial to letting my anxious feelings pass without getting trapped in compulsive behaviours. At the time I reflected that “Learning to tolerate anxiety doesn’t feel like I’m disowning that part of myself that’s worried. In fact, actions that are designed to push anxiety away are all about shutting up that part of me. When I tolerate the anxiety, it’s like letting that part of me have a voice, listening to it and validating it. Once it’s been heard, it doesn’t need to shout at me any more. And that’s the moment that the feeling of anxiety starts to subside. It’s when I don’t want to listen, and get locked in a battle to disprove that voice, that I get stuck in anxiety and feel trapped and suffocated.” This was the first time I began to understand what is meant by ‘befriending’ difficult feelings.
At this point I incorporated more ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation into my sitting practice. If you’re unfamiliar with this practice – instead of focussing on the body or the breath, you focus on feelings of kindness, compassion and warmth, both for yourself and others. Compassion is increasingly becoming a central part of mindfulness courses, and I began to realise why. Here’s how my journal captured one kindness meditation experience: “It was as if I had to first accept myself – all the parts of myself, including the anxious, the perfectionist and the vulnerable parts – and give them compassion just as they are, instead of believing that I only deserve compassion when I’ve calmed down/have fixed things/am feeling good about myself.”
The impact of self-compassion is evident in my journey, as I noticed that “All the time I’m getting braver at tolerating my anxious thoughts and impulses without always acting on them, and more compassionate with myself when I do act on them. The more I practice ‘loving kindness’, the more compassionate and warm I feel towards myself, and the more I can soothe myself in times of distress.” I found that the anxious part of me was only one part of me – and another voice would kick in saying ‘you can do this, you can cope’. And I started to believe it.
Following these realisations, I noted in my journal that “I’m not putting off unpleasant tasks. I’m accepting that I find them unpleasant, noticing the anxiety but doing things more efficiently – as I lose less time fighting with myself and just get on with it. At the same time I’m being aware of my feelings, and encouraging myself compassionately for doing them even though I find them difficult.” So tasks that had once seemed traumatic, like emptying the household bins, had now become perceived as ‘unpleasant’.
When I began my experiment of applying mindfulness and self-compassion to my anxiety, my dream of family life being relaxed and adventurous seemed a long way off. But within what felt like a short time, my perspective became that “I just feel much less ‘at war’ with myself in general in terms of my anxiety levels – like I’m struggling with myself much less, like I have space to breathe. It just feels like less of an issue than it has been – like my anxiety isn’t interfering with living so much.” Interestingly, I’d revised my wish to be ‘calm’, because “now I can embrace all my fluctuating feelings more skilfully with mindfulness.”
Mindfulness is increasingly becoming interwoven with practising compassion. For me personally, I discovered that with a foundation of self-compassion in place, I was finally able to apply mindfulness skills to transform my relationship with anxiety. I’m not saying that I’ve cured or ‘overcome’ my anxiety, I don’t see it like that any more – I’ve released myself from that struggle with it. Now I embrace anxiety as part of my emotional landscape, but one that no longer prevents me – or my family – from living fully.
Sheila Bayliss is a Mindfulness Teacher-in-training, a Stress Coach and the Author of the eBook Support Your Self. You can find her on twitter @sheilabayliss