Mindfulness, a rope only you can climb

Photo by Valentin Lacoste on Unsplash

I hit the bottom. Again.

My existencial dread dragged me down hard. It wasn’t this bad since 2014. In the last month I had one big panic attack and half a dozen smaller anxiety spikes. Maybe I’ll talk about it in another post.

Apparently the only “medicine” is learning and practicing mindfulness, so my therapist recommended the book “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World”.

The book has two theory chapters and I found so many “that’s how I feel!” moments that I decided to share this summary. If you are struggling with similar issues, give that book a try. I’ve highlighted my issues ⚠️ and my coping mechanisms ✅.

⛈ Attitude: Understanding the problem

We try so hard to be happy that we end up missing the most important parts of our lives and destroying the very peace that we were seeking.

If you rely solely on outside circumstances changing in order to feel happy and energised, you’ll have to wait a very long time. And while you wait, you suffer.

You told yourself “don’t worry”, but suddenly you discovered countless new things to worry about.

⚠️ “I should be happy. I used to be happy. Where did it all go?” Nothing is changed, but the joy has somehow gone out of life and been replaced with a sort of generalised distress and listlessness.

You constantly tell yourself “I should be happy”, as if saying this alone is enough to drive away unhappiness.

When you are under stress, you tend to remember only the bad things that have happened to you and find it difficult to recall the good. If you’re feeling a little stressed or vulnerable, a minor emotional shift can end up ruining your whole day.

When you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.

The brain’s alarm signals start to be triggered not only by the current scare, but by past threats and future worries. People who find it difficult to stay present and get so focused on goals that they lose touch with the outside world, have an amygdala that is on “high alert” all the time (even when the danger is gone).

The body is very sensitive to emerging unsettling feelings when you are becoming too goal-focused.

⚠️ We re-live past events and re-feel their pain, and we pre-live future disasters and so pre-feel their impact.

🔄 (Negative) Feedback loops

Emotions are like a background color that’s created when your mind fuses together all of yours thoughts, feelings, desires and body sensations.

⚠️ Your moods can drive your thoughts. Much of what the body feels is coloured by our thoughts and emotions, and everything that we think is informed by what’s going on in the body.

You can become trapped inside your own thoughts. You begin to overthink. You ask yourself endlessly the same questions.

⚠️ A brief moment of sadness, anger or anxiety can end up tipping you into a “bad mood” that colours a whole day or far, far longer. If your spirits sink far enough, you’ll worry too much and miss the small, but beautiful things that would normally cheer you up.

If you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. This usually makes things worse.

⚠️ You can easily end up thinking, working, eating, walking or driving without clear awareness of what you are doing. You don’t notice what’s going on around you. You miss much of your life in this way.

☀️ Attitude: Finding solutions

Context has a huge effect on your memory. The world is full of (memory) triggers. Has a song ever sparked a cascade of emotionally charged memories? Or an object? Or a place?

Mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It gives you the ability to shift gears (Doing vs Being) as we need to, rather than being permanently stuck in the same one.

⚠️ The Doing mode narrows attention down to the gap between the “real” world and the “desired” world, so that you can end up with a toxic variety of tunnel vision in which only perfection will do. The Being mode suspends judgement, standing aside and watching the world as it unfolds, while allowing it to be just as it is for a moment.

⚠️ With mindfulness we start to see the world as it is, not as we expect it to be, how we want it to be, or what we fear it might become.

  • ✅ If you sit for a minute with your shoulders slumped forward and head down, notice how you feel by the end. Now try the opposite.
  • ✅ Just the act of smiling can make you happy (even if it’s forced). And if you smile, others will smile back at you, reinforcing your own happiness.
  • Act with kindness and compassion toward yourself and others, even if it feels a bit artificial at first.
  • “I should be able to handle this. I’m weak. I’m a lost cause.” You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them go away.
  • ✅ Mindfulness teaches us that thoughts are just events in the mind. They are often valuable but they are not “you” or “reality”.
  • If you simply accept life as it is, you will be a lot more fulfilled and increasingly worry free. Mindful acceptance is not resignation. If any action should be taken, then the wisest decision will not come by overthinking it under stress.
  • ✅ When we are stressed and exhausted, we often give up the things that nourish us, to make time for the more “urgent” and “important” things. Avoid this.