Mindful in May – my journey into stillness (but mostly frustration)

I had this big long explanation (*cough-excuse-cough-cough*) all ready to go about why it has taken me so long to post this particular blog article. Long story short, I am a perfectionist and a chronic procrastinator. I would sit down to finish it, and because I was still not quite sure where I was going with it, I would inevitably wind up fluffing around on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, clean the house…clean the bits of the house that I meant to clean last spring but found something more interesting to do…sort through old magazines, read old magazine articles (funnily enough I stumbled upon a useful one about decluttering and procrastination!)…   …   …You get the picture, basically any form of mindless task that could keep me busy while avoiding the task at hand. So today I have eliminated distractions (as best one can when one lives in an inner city apartment), sat myself down with a coffee, headphones plugged in, laptop fully charged, Yoga done, and committed to a deadline…blog must be published by 3pm! GO!

So, a long time ago in a month called May, I embarked on a challenge called Mindful in May! (That was not meant to be a cheesy rhyme, it just came out that way). So Mindful in May or MIM is a month long meditation challenge, designed to help participants become more present, centred, focused, calm, less stressed, and also, to recruit sponsors and raise funds for Charity Water, to provide clean water to developing countries. The sponsors and fundraising part, I managed to achieve, and for those sponsors I am truly grateful as you helped me raise enough funds to provide 10 people with clean water for life! So I would like to say a special thanks to Mum & Dad, Katie Taylor, Rhonda Lawrence, Alison Crofton, Bianca Leef, Ann McIntyre, Alison Nash and Christelle Molle, for their contributions 🙂

Back to MIM:

The practice of mindfulness has been shown to be effective in assisting the treatment of anxiety disorders including stress and mild anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as well as depression, and assisting with other forms of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Developed initially from meditation principles derived from Buddhism and Hindu Yoga practices, mindfulness is a form of personal awareness meditation, that helps us to reconnect with ourselves, our mind and the sensations of our bodies, while screening out the irrelevant distractions of everyday life.

So this is a little bit of insight into my experience with practicing these techniques during Mindful in May.

While I would love to say that this process enlightened me, de-stressed me completely and I experienced some kind of mega-spiritual uprising from within…unfortunately, I found it frustrating as hell, and it made my perfectionist-self feel like something of a pathetic loser of mammoth proportions. Meditation, is no walk in the park for the faint hearted, motivationally challenged, or the easily distracted (moi)!

I started off on day one with all intentions of being a “good little meditator”. I felt refreshed, calm, relaxed and inspired after my first Mindful in May meditation, yet this was not to last. In fact, after day two, I found myself more aware of all the little things I “should be doing”, and it was hard to kick the feeling of anxiety rising up inside me at how much time I was wasting by sitting here doing nothing and just “being”. Enter the 2 minute “catch your breath” meditation, my little-bit-of-a-life-saver throughout the month of May. It kept me going on the days when I wanted to quit altogether because that annoying point of logic in my head, called my brain, kept trying to derail me by constantly reminding me that I had “more important things to do, you can do this later…the laundry is trickling down the hallway, you have to get to your second job you don’t HAVE 10 mins to clear your mind, you have work and support group emails that need replying to, and some text messages that people are going to get annoyed about if you don’t reply soon…this painting is due in 2 days! We’ve run out of bananas, how am I going to make a banana smoothie?” it just didn’t end.

So after trying desperately to focus my mind for the first week, I decided, that perhaps it wasn’t the meditation specifically or my inability to focus that was the problem (I may have been slightly deluding myself there), and that it might have more to do with the meditation recordings for the Mindful in May program. This was not a cop-out. The first week of meditation consisted almost entirely of the exact same “Body Scan” recording every single day, apart from the mini 2 minute “catch your breath” meditation mentioned above. I don’t have the greatest attention span on the best of days, so to have to listen to the same 10 minutes of relaxing my “feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs…” etc etc every day for a week, I started thinking to myself “what exactly have I signed up for?” To be honest, I expected a little bit more from the program. This program was clearly for absolute beginners, and yet also for those who already had extremely good concentration, and tolerance to boredom. Nevertheless, I had to continue. It was for a good cause, and I already had a sponsor by this point, so I could not let them down!

I persevered!

As I was not unfamiliar with the concept of meditation, (I have been a daily yoga practitioner for over a decade, which always culminates in a short meditation), this particular practice began to lose my attention fairly quickly. By the time I got to week two, I had already downloaded some apps on my phone with alternative meditations to ease my boredom and keep on track.

I started off week two with the “Mindfulness of Breath and Sounds”, which was OK for a couple of days, but again, an entire week of it was just way too much, and to be honest, the meditation was not all that different from the first week, so did not inspire a lot of confidence for weeks 3 and 4 of the program. I decided to simply extend my yoga practice with a 10 minute meditation at the end of each session in Supta Baddha Konasana, AKA Reclining Bound Angle Pose, while listening to a guided relaxation meditation using my “Simply Being” iPhone app, or my “Take a Break” app from Meditation Oasis . I found these apps to have a much better calming effect, subsequently helping me to focus more easily on my relaxation, and bring my mind back to the feelings of my body and breath. I still continued with the 2 minute meditation from the MIM program when I was in a rush, or at work and just needed to re-centre myself for a couple of minutes…it is a really great little meditation.

By week 3 I decided to take another look at the program and see if there was anything new to the recordings. On day 22 I listened to the “Mindfulness of thoughts” meditation. Again, the meditation recording started exactly the same as all the other recordings, so I listened to the first one and then switched to my iPhone apps for the rest of the week. Again, the loving-kindness meditation of week 4 started the same way, and then changed into some self-reassuring mantras which were quite lovely, yet still there was something lacking in the recordings that I just couldn’t put my finger on. After completing the program, and reflecting, I realised what this was. They seemed very clinical, rather than natural and calming.

As I knew a bit about the spiritual aspects of Mindfulness, through my yoga training, I decided it was time to explore the evidence-based therapy technique. Normally this is the first place I would start, however, Yoga is one of my pre-science education pleasures, so this time I started on the “spiritual” side of the fence. I recognise that this may be why I had such an aversion to the clinical, repetitive recordings (one of the benefits of practicing Mindfulness is developing insight into one’s own reactions to things…maybe I got more out of my month than I’m giving it credit for)?
I’m more used to a creative, free-flowing, semi-structured yet with room to drift, type of meditation…this “step into my virtual office and I’ll check the boxes on my Mindfulness worksheet” approach just wasn’t cutting it.

My initial Google search of “Mindfulness” did not inspire confidence in this practice as a therapy.

Mindfulness, is the new buzz word in mental health, and while the Black Dog Institute describes it as:
…not simply a relaxation technique or ‘power of positive thinking’. The technique is based on Buddhist meditation principles but was described by Teasdale and Beck for use in treatment of depression and then used by Linehan as a core skill in her cognitive behavioural therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder. Linehan (1993) describes three “what” skills: observing (simply attending to events and emotions), describing (applying labels to behaviours, emotions and situations) and participating (entering into current activities) and three “how” skills: taking a ‘no judgemental’ stance, focusing on one thing in the moment and being effective (doing what is needed rather than worrying about what is right or second guessing the situation).

My feelings, after completing Mindful in May, are that the Western Therapeutic take on the technique, seems to have sucked the soul out of the practice, which is at it’s core, meant to be a spiritual journey into self awareness and acceptance. I’m not entirely sure that the spirituality of the practice can be removed, and replaced with a clinical distancing, without indeed removing the very thing that makes Mindfulness an effective therapy in the first place. Connecting with the soul, the inner-self, or from a psychoanalytic perspective, balancing the needs of the id with the requirements of the ego and super-ego.

I have noticed Mindfulness training institutes popping up all over the place, in much the same way as the phenomenon of “Life Coaching”. While I don’t disagree with the use of Mindfulness in therapy, or the practice of Life Coaching for that matter, I do feel that the capitalisation of such beneficial therapeutic techniques by large corporations with the sole intent of making huge profits, has largely contributed to the watering down of these practices into nothing more than a pyramid scheme. It was this type of pre-fabricated, mass-produced detachment that I felt in the recordings for Mindful in May. If this is the style of teaching that is happening with therapists practicing Mindfulness, then I feel that contemporary psychology is dramatically missing the mark. It seems to have taken the “human” out of human behaviour, and is instead focusing solely on changing the “behaviour” while forgetting about treating the “human” behind the behaviour. A human with complex feelings, emotions and a capacity for a mind-body-self connection that is being sadly neglected in contemporary Psychological Mindfulness Therapies.

Essentially I feel that the effectiveness of Mindfulness therapy, as with any therapy, lies in the ability of the therapist to empathise with the patient or client. However, I also feel that Mindfulness therapy itself, should be taught to therapists in the context of it’s history and spiritual basis for centering, rather than as a clinical, detached, step-by-step box checking process, because the heart and empathy within Mindfulness rests in it’s ability to treat the whole person, not just the brain, or the behaviour, but to reconnect the person with their inner-self, otherwise known on spiritual terms as their “soul”.

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RU OK? I wasn’t…

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TRIGGER WARNING.
I feel like I’m laying on a glacier. The ground beneath me is cold and hard and my eyes can’t stay open. I open my drowsy eyes to an all enveloping darkness. No cracks of light, like I have woken to a universal void. Am I still sleeping? Are my eyes still closed? I blink to check. I am awake. My hand touches the floor, then moves to the throbbing gash on my forehead before I push myself up off the cold and unnaturally smooth ground. I am naked. I try to orient myself, but there is no up or down…where is left or right? I feel my heart start beating faster as I start to realise I am awake, and this is reality. My breath gets heavier as I step into the void, searching for a crack in a door or window to colour the blackness. As my hands move swiftly across the walls, my hopes of finding an escape seem to grow more and more distant. Panic sets in, it’s happening again. My movements become quicker, more desperate and I start using my nails to dig at the walls, clawing my way across and up and down the rough concrete. I feel like there are hands clasping my oesophagus and I hear foreign sounds coming from the back of my throat, like an injured animal caught in a trap. My fingers are stinging. I find my way to what seems to be a metal pole across the ceiling and start banging on it to make noise, finally I find my voice, and I start screaming for help, please someone come and find me. I bang the concrete until my hands hurt and pull at the metal bar. I have lost my voice. Suddenly there is cold water raining down on me, I slip, and grab onto some slippery plastic that breaks my fall and I bang my head again. I am trapped, and exhausted. There is no escape. I sit sobbing, wrapped in a plastic sheet, in my concrete cell, devoid of all light, with icy water running over my freezing, naked body, and I wait…

5 years ago, I was not OK. I was diagnosed with PTSD. My first symptoms arose swiftly and unexpectedly while watching a documentary on Thai boxing, my heart started beating as though I had run a marathon, I couldn’t catch my breath, I huddled in the corner of my boyfriends bedroom, rocking myself to feel comforted and safe. My boyfriend entered the room and asked what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain it…so instead of just sitting with me and comforting, he threw his arms in the air and said frustratedly “well what? Get it together, I can’t deal with this” and went upstairs to an easier, more comfortable environment. I eventually pulled myself off the floor and into bed…and depression for months to follow.

The triggers kept coming, and my big wake-up call was a trip to Bali, where after a night of drinking, I had a flashback so vivid and realistic, that I demolished a hotel bathroom trying to escape a concrete cell that I believed I had been put in by my captors, my traffickers. I was found huddled in the bathtub wrapped in a shower curtain, when hotel staff broke into our room to see what the commotion was. I had just experienced a psychotic episode, not uncommon for people who suffer from PTSD. In that moment, and with the alcohol in my system, and the giant flashing trigger of being in an environment very similar to the place where my trauma began, I truly believed that I had been kidnapped again…and this time, I was not escaping.

The hotel staff were lovely, they assumed I had been drugged and we went along with it, so that we wouldn’t have to pay the damages for the bathroom I had just destroyed. We felt bad, but we just couldn’t afford it, it had taken 2 years just to save for this small holiday with all the debts I still had looming from my last disaster trip from hell…6 years earlier (travel insurance isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, for the record). Who knows maybe I was drugged? But I don’t think so. Not like the last time. This time, it was all in my head, because that is where Post Traumatic Stress Disorder lives. PTSD feeds off the little similarities, the tiny nuances in our environment, that trigger the memory and emotional centres of our brain, the amygdala and hippocampus, to start reliving traumatic memories as if they are happening all over again. Sometimes, they don’t release the memories, just the physical symptoms, the adrenalin, the racing heart, the feeling of anxiousness first thing in the morning when you have nothing to be worried about, the feeling of leaving your body and not being present in your own life…the waking up and wishing you hadn’t, because you just don’t want to be here, in this horrible world where people do horrible things to each other…anymore.

The 3rd and final red flag, came about in a phone counselling class, where a mock crisis scenario involving a student who had been raped, caused me to leave my body and view my life from outside of my body…a classic dissociative experience. I realised this wasn’t the first time I had felt this way. I had left my body several times since my nightmare trip to Thailand that never ended, in 2003. Whenever something about kidnapping or sexual assault had come on the news, or each time I heard a rape joke in passing, or whenever someone made a sexist or female derogatory comment, or when I saw or heard something that objectified women…turning them into objects, not humans, that can be manipulated, drugged, kidnapped and potentially sold…as an object. I feel my heart beating now, as I write this, I feel a sandy grip around my wrist, I can smell J’adore in the air around me, but it isn’t there, it is an olfactory hallucination produced by my brain, telling me to panic, and run…and instead, I shake it off…and I breathe.

I breathe.

When PTSD reared it’s ugly masochistic head in 2009, I had little to no support from those people around me, who were meant to be my close friends, and my partner in life. I was lucky enough however, to have Lin & Megs, who encouraged me to see a psychologist and if it weren’t for their encouragement I would have continued having these horrible reactions to triggers, with no idea what was going on, or how to cope. These people saved my life.

For the next 6 months I underwent counselling, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Exposure Therapy and Journal Therapy…at one point, in the begining, I was so depressed that my psychologist threatened to have me sectioned. I decided right then, that I was not going to live like this anymore…and that I wanted to live a long and happy life, and I wanted to travel again one day. Most of all, I wanted to travel back to the same place, to Thailand, and stop this from happening to anyone else. I also decided to change psychologists, to someone a little more sensitive to my condition. It took seeing three different psychologists before I found one that I really clicked with, and it was worth perservering. I had been prescribed anti-depressants earlier, without any referral for therapy, and they had only made me more confused…not depressed…I just felt empty, with a strange sense of happiness and impulsivity, which was a very odd feeling to me, and I feel this is what contributed to my anxiety about the PTSD, I wasn’t dealing with the issues, just masking the symptoms.

I did fortnightly therapy for 6 months, I read newspaper articles about the things that terrified me, I stopped leaving the room when there was a rape on the news, I started wearing J’Adore again, and while I still get pounding hearts, and flashes of anger at injustice in the world, particularly to women, I cope. I breathe. I fight back or I shut it down, before it escalates into a full-blown break-down. Occasionally I still have triggers that are just too much, persistent people who like to antagonise and push people’s buttons when they see a reaction…I try to avoid those people like the plague, sometimes you can’t avoid them though, so I need to cope, and breathe. Lots of breathing…and yoga has been my saviour. It encompasses a deep connection to body and mind, that unites me back to myself, calms me completely, both physically and mentally, and just generally helps everything seem more manageable 🙂

My therapy did not stop after 6 months though, I use it everyday, and not just for PTSD, but to deal with any difficult time in my life. I don’t believe that anyone can be cured of PTSD, yet we can learn to cope with it, using the skills learnt in therapy. I still see a psychologist twice a year, or just when I feel like I’m forgetting something I’ve learnt or if something comes up that I’m not sure I have the skills to cope with…and just to let her know how I’m going.

PTSD brought up new memories for me of an experience I thought I had forgotten about, those memories had been hiding inside my brain, waiting for a trigger to bring them to the surface. I believe that this is a protective mechanism, I do not believe I would have coped as well, or even sought help, if these flashbacks had started sooner. It’s not the same for everyone, but when those symptoms start, it’s your brains way of saying “you’ve reached your coping capacity, you need some help to get you through the next part of your journey”.

I will eventually share the full story of what happened in Northern Thailand…that is a story for another day.

I share this story today, because today is RUOK? day and 5 years ago, I wasn’t OK, but today I am, because I had some good friends who asked if I was ok, and I got help with something that I was not equipped to deal with on my own. There is no shame in mental illness, it is only a shame to see someone losing their happiness because they feel like they can’t talk to anyone about it.

If you are struggling with depression, anxiety or any other condition that might need psychological or medical help, please take a look at some of these resources:

https://www.ruok.org.au

http://www.beyondblue.org.au

http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au

You can also see my post of free or low cost psychological services here:

https://thescienceofhippyness.com/2014/07/01/low-cost-psychological-resources/

Me and these amazing kids in Northern Thailand 2003
Me and these amazing kids in Northern Thailand 2003 the day before my friend and I were kidnapped…I escaped soon after, she did not until the next day, I live with that guilt everyday

 

Low cost psychological resources

I just posted this in my Au Pair Support Groups, but I feel this information is useful to many people, so I thought I would share it here also.

Hi Au Pairs,

I have had some au pairs asking about free mental health services.
Here is a list of mental health resources in Australia, where you can get free phone or internet therapy, or minimal cost private therapy.

Generally speaking, most Universities in Australia have a public Psychology clinic, where FREE or dramatically reduced rate therapy sessions are conducted by Provisionally Registered Psychologists (post-graduate psychology students, who have already completed 4 years of undergraduate training to register with the Australian Psychology Board, and need to complete another 2-4 years of clinical and research training, depending on their specialisation). Sessions range from FREE to $20-60 per session. Some clinics base the fee on your income, others it is a flat-rate.

Please note this is not a comprehensive list. If you do a google search for “University Psychology Clinic” including the main city you live in or near, or any local universities you know of, then you will probably find one at your local university. I know there are clinics in Canberra at universities there also. There are many many more free or low cost psychological services available to people on low incomes and you do not need to be an Australian citizen or covered by medicare to use most of the university clinics.

Online help for anxiety and depression:
https://virtualclinic.org.au/

Emergency counselling hotline:
https://www.lifeline.org.au

Online resources for finding help:
http://www.headspace.org.au/

Online resources and helpline:
http://www.beyondblue.org.au/

Online resources for mental health:
http://www.sane.org/

The University of Sydney Psychology Clinic $20 adult psychology sessions with Provisionally Registered post-graduate psychology students:
http://www.psych.usyd.edu.au/clinic/adult_service/adult_service.shtml

UNSW Psychology Clinic, sessions with Provisionally Registered post-graduate psychology students:
http://clinic.psy.unsw.edu.au/Clinical_Services.htm

Student-intern counselling clinic Pyrmont, have drastically reduced therapy sessions by supervised counselling students:
http://www.jni.edu.au/clinic

Other University run reduced-rate psychology clinics:
Macquarie Univeristy – near Ryde area:
http://www.psy.mq.edu.au/clinic/services.htm

University of Western Sydney – for those out west – this is a FREE service:
http://www.uws.edu.au/ssap/ssap/psychology_clinic

Bond University QLD:
http://bond.edu.au/about-bond/facilities-services/psychology-clinic/clinic-hours/index.htm

University of QLD, Brisbane:
http://www.clinic.psy.uq.edu.au/

University of Adelaide:
http://health.adelaide.edu.au/psychology/clinic/CTAD/

University of Western Australia, Crawley WA, first session $35, all after $30 (they also have a clinic specific to eating disorders):
http://www.psychology.uwa.edu.au/community/clinic

Monash University, Melbourne ($20-60 per session depending on income):
http://www.med.monash.edu.au/psych/research/clinics/mpc/ref.html20140701-152614-55574580.jpg

The Science of Hippyness – and the dangerous yet enlightening adventures of fence sitting!

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I used to be a hippy.

I know...this may come as a shock to those who only know me through Facebook, and groan over my umpteen sciencey-based article rants daily (yes, it's an illness, this blog is my therapy)! Yet, I assure you, that those who know me nearest and dearest, can attest to my seemingly enduring love affair with floaty sari-skirts. My free-spirited, yoga studying, bindi wearing, herbal medicine experimenting, Wiccan-goddess worshipping, faery card reading, artist-musician loving (and oft-times dating - that's an affliction for a whole other blog post), Jesus-sandal wearing, laid-back camping festival going, political protest rallying, oil paint stained and scented...self.

So what happened? You want the short story or the long story? Well, I'll give you the short story, because I intend to post the long story as a bit of a narrative somewhere in the "I'll eventually get around to that" future. So the short story is:
I finished art school, broke-up with my high-school sweetheart, travelled (parts of) the world, had some "life altering" experiences, came home, studied psychology and neuroscience... and became a skeptic.

So why am I writing a blog about "hippyness" if I'm such a skeptical science nut? Essentially, this blog is my attempt to find some equilibrium between my once relaxed, free-spirited self, and my new science educated, life experience "enlightened", critical, uptight self.

No-one tells you when you start a science degree, that you will never see the world the same again. That everything will become a problem to be solved, that everything you see or read will be questioned with intense scrutiny and that every hypothesis will be tested...whether literally, or metaphorically.

Lately, I have found a longing for my prior-self. My blissfully ignorant, all things artsy, peace-loving, hippy-loving self.

So often we find ourselves sitting on one side of the fence or the other, and it is drummed into us with the repetitive precision of a military marching band, that fence sitting...is bad. I have finally concluded that this hypothesis, is in dire need of testing!

Lately I have been witnessing what is really happening when we sit firmly and unwaveringly on one side or the other. Blindfolds. No matter which side we are on, we become so wrapped up in our perception of what we know to be right and true, that we become blind to the perfectly valid perspectives of the people on the other side.

This reminded me of when I was a kid, my sister, neighbours and I would play volleyball over our front fence. Now I'm not sure we played by any specified rule book, however, we decided what was fair, was for each team to swap sides, and also team mates, after a few losses on each side...I can't remember the specifics, yet you get the gist, yes? So our yard was a bit higher up and a somewhat flatter surface than our neighbours, their yard ran down a slope and was a bit more hilly, so we seemed to have an advantage. Changing sides and team mates, gave us a different perspective for each game, made it fair for everyone, and all round more enjoyable. We also had a random neighbourhood friend or visitor, sit on the fence to keep score...I was banned from sitting on the fence after falling in my mother's hibiscus bush and badly gashing my leg, and another incident involving fence sitting where I hung from my school dress with it hoisted around my armpits, in the 6th grade, until the boy of my dreams had to come over and lift me down from the fence, (not before practically wetting himself with laughter), braless and with my little boob-buds on display for all to fall to the floor in hysterics over (thank God iPhones did not exist in those days)!

hmmm...maybe fence sitting is not such a good idea for me? But I digress...

So back to my point about fence sitting; maybe I didn't master the art of it in my early volleyball days, and quite possibly the fence-hanging incident of '91 made the idea of planting myself firmly on one side or the other a very appealing prospect, whatever the reasons, I find myself always firmly choosing a side, when quite probably, I would have a better view from the fence.

That is the whole purpose of this blog, to help me get back on the fence, with all of it's danger, and splinters, and the likely possibility of falling into a hibiscus bush, or baring my raw, human development to the world...to find my balance, reconnect with my inner skeptic, my equidistant zen, and hopefully, become a better scientist-practitioner...and general all round person for it.