James' story: "Mindfulness isn't all 'airy-fairy' like I thought it was"
I remember the day clearly: I was 17, in sixth form, and on my way to class after a lunch break. I got no more than 100 meters out of the lunch room when suddenly, I was overcome by an intense fear.
I started shaking and feeling nauseous - it took me 15 minutes before I felt like I could actually move. These attacks happened on a few further occasions. In all instances I was sent home, only to be met by my father telling me in no uncertain terms that he thought I was faking it. To make matters worse, my mother, sister, and other family members simply didn't talk about it - I felt very isolated.
Things took a nosedive in my second year of university. My anxiety was getting so bad that I couldn't attend classes and, likewise, missing lessons fuelled my anxiety because I knew that the material I was missing would be on the exam. I suspended my studies and returned home, at my parents' request.
I then became agoraphobic - I spent most days indoors reading, watching TV, or playing video games. Strangely, I became happy with my little rut but, at my worst, I wasn't able to make a 10-minute car journey to visit my Nan. The severity of my anxiety had worsened, coupled with fear and unpleasant physical symptoms. More than a few times I found myself curled up in a ball, on my bed and crying while my parents shouted at me saying things like I wasn't "even trying anymore".
Cognitive behavioural therapy
During this period, I went through three different types of treatment: a support group, a one-to-one version of the support group, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The support group concentrated on dealing with stress and recited the usual mantras: exercise and healthy living combats mental health problems. The one-to-one version of the support group was even less useful than the group setting. However, CBT helped me to make significant inroads into my agoraphobia. CBT is hard; you have to constantly challenge your thoughts and attempt to change behaviours, and that was difficult.
Mindfulness was first suggested to me by the mental health and wellbeing team at my university. I guess I paid lip service to mindfulness at first. It seemed very 'touchy feely' - like an 'airy-fairy', homoeopathic take-on treatment. I thought, "How can breathing slowly and thinking 'happy thoughts' help me in the long term?" However, my opinion of mindfulness completely changed after the session.
Today, I build mindfulness into my everyday life. Breathing, imagery and meditation exercises I find most useful, and I tend to do these once or twice a day. The biggest shock for me was that I could practice anywhere, anytime, and often without other people knowing. It's actually very empowering to know that I can control my reactions and feelings in any situation without others even being aware of it.
A new perspective
Since practicing mindfulness, I have found that I am more positive. It has given me a new perspective on what's important in my life and I feel like I'm a stronger, more resilient person in the face of life's daily stresses and pressures. I've gone from trying to block everything out, to dealing with it as and when it occurs, and through the most effective means available to me at the time.
I'd like to see mindfulness being used more widely in society. As a treatment for stress and anxiety it could be particularly beneficial in learning environments. However, I do think there is a skewed perception of mindfulness and certainly 'meditation' in society. I was once one of those people. For this reason, I think it's important that we are offered a well-rounded view in the media of mindfulness and those who practice - it's a really powerful, yet totally undervalued tool.
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