One of the factors that I have spoken of recently that has affected my mental state is the change of season. I become more vulnerable to symptoms of Depression and need to be careful not to be taken captive by them and dragged back under the control of the black dog as he strains upon the lead. October this year has been fraught with tension as the dog hauls away at the lead while I wrestle endlessly to bring him to heel and keep him there. While each time he strains, I have brought him back – it takes a lot out of me and he knows it as he waits impatiently at heel for the next opportunity to pull away. I have had a tiring month.
How do I know when things are starting to get too much?
One of the things that I have decided to work on is paying closer attention to the cues that my body gives. It’s very easy not to be aware of these until I have a nasty headache, my shoulders ache, my muscles are all sore, I have a noticeably palpitating heart rate that makes my chest feel hollow and heavy or I feel exhausted.
I commented in my last post in closing about Mindfulness that one of the areas that I need to work on is that of noticing what is happening in the moment. This is what I am working on at the moment. To start with – to notice the cues that my body is giving me. For instance, when is there a change in the level of tension at key points in my body like my neck, shoulders and jaw? Am I breathing deep, medium or shallow breaths, what kind of rate am I breathing at? Am I aching anywhere? What is my heart rate like?
Now I don’t do this as a checklist and step through it or try to determine these things in a specific way. What I am learning to do is to try to do what is called – in Mindfulness language – a ‘body scan’ at regular intervals.
What does a body scan involve?
Essentially all I do is start out by observing my breathing until I am into the mindset of observe – not control. I then move my attention to my heart and notice and feel the rhythm of my heart beating inside me and the sensations that arise from that and enjoy that for a little bit. From there, I start by noticing the feel of the clothes on my skin, the shoes on my feet if I’m wearing any and then move my attention to my muscles. To scan my muscle I start by placing my attention on my toes of one foot and paying attention to them, noticing any tension or pain or other sensation, acknowledging it and – if it is tension, consciously releasing it from the muscles by either picturing it draining away or stretching and/or wiggling them. I then do the same for the other foot and move on to the next section of my leg and do the same thing. And doing this throughout I might move through the body in a pattern something like:
- Lower legs
- Lower back
- Upper back
- Upper arms
- Lower arms and wrists
I figure that since the shoulders bunch up so easily, it doesn’t hurt to check them again. It doesn’t really matter what order you do it in though, nor how big or small the groups you break them up into are to a certain extent.
After scanning and relaxing all of the muscle groups, I then observe my breathing again for a moment or three before drawing my attention back to what is in front of me to do. It doesn’t take very long, and with practice it should take perhaps a minute – maybe less. If I try to do it when the little ‘beep’ goes on my watch on the hour (when I hear it), I should get lots of practice and stay well on top of these cues.
The goal is to be able to notice the tension before it becomes problematic and to be able to question whether I am becoming stressed before I get there. A lot of people who do this regularly swear by it. I guess it’s a bit like paying attention to when there is tension growing on the dog’s lead when walking a dog. As it grows, it cues us in to the idea that the dog is growing more likely to want to get away from us. Thus it is living with my black dog. I must be wary of tension.
So – here’s to my next excursion into the world of mindfulness. Noticing physiological changes and discomfort and either accepting them or letting them go without blame for their getting there.
Here’s to the next step into managing my Depression. Noticing the cues that early warning signs are present so that I can act. Perhaps October will improve from here on in.
Heel, Dog. Heel. I’m onto you.