Friday, 2 March 2018

Learning to appreciate the present moment

I used to think mindfulness was a load of mumbo-jumbo. It was one of those things I thought might be a nice concept for other people but would never work for me. However, now that I've got a better understanding of what mindfulness is and what it's trying to achieve, I feel as if it could make a huge difference if I give it enough of a chance.

I started seeing a counsellor from Macmillan last summer during a very low point. It was the one year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis and I was struggling. I was dreading the sessions because I didn't feel strong enough to talk about and delve into all my feelings, but these sessions were very different to the previous counselling I'd experienced and were based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

The counsellor focused on finding ways to help me to live life after cancer in a meaningful way and to enjoy what matters to me, rather than dredging up the past. As part of these sessions, she encouraged me to look at mindfulness in a completely different light. She also referred me to a few group sessions run by Macmillan on 'Living with Uncertainty' which further helped to quash my skepticism about the topic.

Let's start by talking about what mindfulness ISN'T (and what I used to think it was).

- Mindfulness isn't about trying to stop, block or change your thoughts.
- Mindfulness isn't about trying to control your thoughts and feelings.
- Mindfulness doesn't have to take up loads of your time.
- Mindfulness is nothing to do with relaxation.

Mindfulness is all about anchoring yourself in the present moment. If you're anything like me, your brain spends an awful lot of time in the past and even more time in the future. There have been times when I've got to work and can't remember anything about my drive to the office, or when I've eaten a chocolate bar and haven't got a clue what it tasted like. I hardly ever focus on the present moment because my brain is always frantically flitting between the past and the future. I'd never thought about it in that way before, but it means I'm missing out on all the pleasurable things the present moment might have to offer.

Crucially, mindfulness isn't about stopping those thoughts about the past, the future and everything in between. If it was, no one would be able to do it. As much as we'd all love to, we can't control our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is about acknowledging that your thoughts have drifted, noticing where you've drifted off to, and bringing yourself back to the present moment (if you want to).

Different things work for different people when it comes to mindfulness. I find that focusing on my breathing helps to bring me back to the present moment, but others find that focusing on sound,  smell or taste is more effective. Whenever I feel myself spiralling off into an anxiety chasm which won't end well for me or for anyone else, I'm trying really hard to take a few deep breaths and focus on my breathing. How it feels, how it sounds, how my lungs expand and contract.

I'm getting a little better at realising when I'm about to spiral, rather than only noticing when I've wasted half an hour and thought about every possible worst case scenario for the next twenty years. However, I've got a long way to go and I need to make sure I persevere with it and try to bring myself back to the present moment more and more often.

On that note, the great thing about this simple 'grounding' method is that you can do it anytime and anywhere. You can do it at your desk in work, on the sofa while you're drinking your hot chocolate, on your daily commute, while you're eating out, or while you're in bed trying to get to sleep. It only needs to take twenty seconds, and the more you do it the more it'll become second nature.

Along with trying to be more 'mindful', I'm finding that writing everything down helps me to process my thoughts and to get to grips with why I'm experiencing such strong feelings. To help with this, I've got a 'thought journal' where I write down why I'm anxious, angry, sad etc when it all gets too much. I find that writing down my thoughts takes some of the power out of them, and I also feel as if I've got a lot out of my system when I sit and pour my brain out on paper for half an hour.

I also bought this daily journal from Next a few weeks ago and it's helping me to reflect on each day, rather than only reflecting when I remember to do so or when I'm in the right headspace. It's very easy to go to bed thinking that you've had a terrible day and everything is awful and you're rubbish at everything, when actually there will most likely have been a positive glimmer in there somewhere.

Even if the only good thing you can think of is the nice baguette you had for lunch or a smile from a random passer-by, make sure you write it down! I also love the 'three things I'm grateful for today' section as I don't think any of us are ever appreciative enough about what we've actually got. My 'good things' and 'things I'm grateful for' entries are often very simple, and it's making me realise how important it is to appreciate those little things in life and to fill your time with what matters most to you.

This journal is helping me to think about why I might have felt a particular way on a particular day, rather than just accepting it. I'm starting to recognise triggers for certain moods which might eventually mean I can avoid them happening so often if I work hard on changing my mindset. I do try to put the 'what I'll do differently tomorrow' pledges into practice, and if I completely forget about them I move them over to the next day's entry to give myself another chance.

Although I tend to frantically say 'I haven't got time!' when it comes to any kind of self help or self improvement, I'm learning that self reflection is important and can teach you a lot about yourself. And believe it or not (and I'd never have believed this myself six months ago), it can help to make a bad day very very slightly better. I've never said 'I haven't got time' when it comes to worrying about anything and everything, so why should making time for self reflection and/or improvement be so difficult? If I can easily waste half an hour of my energy wading through nightmare scenarios that might never happen, it makes sense to try to put that time to better use.

Have you tried any of these techniques to try to appreciate the 'present moment'? Have you got any more tips for me? Let me know!

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