I have dreadful memories from when I was 4 or 5 and onwards of feeling terribly frightened and anxious about anything and everything.
Going to sleep was the worst. Ideally I would have liked to stay at my mother’s side day and night. I didn’t want to go to school because I was feeling scared of being in a big group of children I didn’t know, I didn’t want to be in a car with more than three people in it because I was feeling terribly anxious about the car breaking, I did not want to be on a boat for fear it would sink, I didn’t want to be at home with a child minder because I was worried that my mother was not coming back.
Many things terrified me. I constantly believed that something bad was going to happen to me, that I would get lost, that I had to go to hospital, that I was going to be separated from my mother and sister, that I was going to be in a lot of pain, that I was going to die…
Those were some of my catastrophic thoughts that kept me in a constant state of high alert and worry. Life felt very scary to me.
Anxiety – worrying about what has not happened yet - has inhibited me from fully living.
Of course I had therapy when I was a child; also later when I was a student and as a young adult. It reduced the level of anxiety I was suffering from considerably.
Still, anxiety had been a constant unpleasant companion in my life for almost four decades until I was introduced to the practice of mindfulness in 2008 – when I was forty.
Thanks to mindfulness practice I understand myself better and the cause for my anxiety. That in itself is not a remedy but it helped me bring understanding and compassion to myself and that has helped me to come into a different, more supportive relationship with myself.
My parents divorced when I and my sister where two and three years old. My mother never remarried and brought us up as single mum needing to work full-time. It meant that we had to grow up quickly, to get on with life, and that felt deeply scary and unsafe. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was certainly not a bad mother – this is not about blaming my parents – it was just that she wasn’t around enough to reassure me that I was okay.
Mindfulness has helped me become more and more aware of my stress pattern.
When I feel anxious and then stressed I have a narrative in my head that goes like this: It’s too much, I have too much work to do, I can’t cope, I won’t be able to do it. These thoughts trigger my mind’s alarm system which in turn triggers more tension in my body and makes my breath shallow and inhibited which in turn impacts on the choices I make; what I say to my colleagues, friends, partner, family etc and how I say it, aka knee-jerk reactions.
Then, to top it all off, I beat myself up for being so stressed, inefficient, grumpy or moody which adds another layer of anxiety and stress. And this is the crucial bit that was a complete eye-opener for me that mindfulness has taught me: harsh self-criticism or self-judgement is the very thing that puts most pressure on me, on us, that creates more stress, anxiety and can potentially lead to depression.
Mindfulness practice has helped me to see things more for what they are. Yes, I have work to do, and deadlines that perhaps are unpleasant but they are just deadlines and work is just work and giving a talk is just giving a talk – no more no less.
It’s called primary experience. What we do with it, ie how we interpret what happens to us is called secondary experience and that’s what can cause us a lot of pain depending on how we interpret, judge, and analyse life’s events.
Mindfulness has helped me become more and more aware of my stress and anxiety pattern. So when I feel stressed or anxious, I now notice my breath getting shallow, I recognise the thoughts racing through my head, and the feelings in my body (eg tightness, racing heart, anxiety, sweating, panic, overwhelmed, too muchness) and take some deeper breaths and let my breath find its natural rhythm again which allows my mind and body to calm down and relax.
Mindfulness has transformed how I experience myself, and has helped me see and understand my helpful and unhelpful habitual ways of thinking and behaving which in turn has helped me respond differently, more kindly and compassionately to myself, others and life’s challenges.
Today, I still suffer from anxiety occasionally, particularly in the early hours of the morning when I wake up sweaty and with my heart racing. The difference is, today I know what I need to do. I expand my in-breath and slow down my out-breath.
I feel my body on the mattress, my feet, legs, bum, back, back of my head. I become aware of whatever catastrophic thought is going through my head, I ask myself: Is this true? 99% of the time the answer is ‘No’. I’m back in the here and now and continue to sleep.
Mindfulness is not an idea, it’s a practice. It requires daily commitment, faith and stamina. The pay-off is huge and can be life-changing. It certainly has given me back my life.
Karen Liebenguth is a qualified life coach in London. She offers 1:1 coaching while walking outdoors in green space, where she believes insight, change and creativity can happen most naturally. Karen is also an accredited mindfulness teacher and MBTI facilitator. She offers 1:1 mindfulness training, tailored mindfulness workshops and courses for the workplace. For more information on Karen’s work visit her website here