The black dog had been pulling at the lead all week.
My work satchel was dragging down on my shoulder.
I was walking towards Woollies to buy the makings for dinner.
Then I saw it.
The massage therapy place in the shopping centre.
It was clean.
It was respectable.
It was affordable … with minor adjustments
And it was THERE!
And in only a moment so was I.
“Do you have an opening?”
There was an opening.
What did I want?
“Upper back, shoulders & head please.”
Back, shoulders and head I got.
I went in with my muscles aching, my shoulders set like concrete and my neck so tight that I’d not been able to comfortably look over my shoulder in days.
I came out uncrimped and able to move.
I happened to be lucky last week. I had a little money that I’d not budgeted on having. I couldn’t always just do that. Besides, I’m not usually the type to let someone I don’t know give me a massage. (Seriously, if you’d heard me coming on Thursday you’d have gotten out the DW40 ready to get rid of the creaky noises when I arrived)
The problem is, however – I have trouble getting a massage at all. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me – but when I say “massage” around my family and friends, they all turn around and say, “yes please!”
Yep, you’ve got it. I’m the one who grew up with the sooky Dad. The one that played sport too hard too far into his 40’s and 50’s and then moaned about the aches and pains all week. I was trained to massage my father’s legs when I was six or seven … and I am not exaggerating. There is no need.
My brother, who had once helped, grew callous and demanded payment at some stage, but I was still too gullible to get out of it – or figured it was easier to put in 5-10 mins of back or head massage than to listen to him grovel until he gave up. In the end I got to be not too bad at it and when I hit Uni and somebody taught me anatomy, I actually became quite good. Now, this was all fine and dandy for the family and the friends – but it did bugger all for me.
I’ve tried to interest some of them in learning, but do you think I’ve had any success?
The thing is – it’s not that hard to give a passable shoulder massage that will make someone very happy that you took a few moments out of your day to share it. There are only a few basic principles that you need to follow – and these are consistent pretty much anywhere you massage.
Apply pressure in long, slow, firm strokes.
Start light and increase pressure slowly over time.
If you’re worried about whether you’re working your strokes to quickly – slow them down, just keep your pressure even.
Except with specific muscle groups, plan to work the muscle along the grain of the muscle fibres ie the direction that the muscle goes.
Work from the surface muscles toward the deeper ones.
Always stay away from the spine, throat and other sensitive areas.
If it causes pain – stop.
Here is a rough picture of some of the muscles of the back:
If I were looking to spend five or ten minutes just helping someone to unwind, I might start by finding the bony landmarks on the person’s back and think about where the muscles are in relation to those bones. The spine is usually visible down the centre of a person’s neck and back. The easiest way to locate the shoulder-blade is to start at the tip of the shoulder and to trace it around with your fingers. Notice that the shoulder-blade has two bony borders along the top. This is because it’s not shaped only like the 2 dimensional triangle that you see in drawings, it has another edge – a bit like a fin (but not quite).
So, say a person is sitting in front of me – here I start by running my hands straight up the back to the neck one after the other, avoiding the spine and moving from the centre to the edge – first on one side, then the other.
I then follow this by focusing on the muscles coloured red and green on the left hand side of the illustration – initially the red Trapezius muscle which is large and often carries a lot of tension. I would massage predominantly in the direction of the arrows – in upward strokes along the muscle fibres.
After these muscles have been freed up a bit and feel less tense, then I might move my attention to the deeper muscles. If the muscles are not freeing, I would turn my attention to the blue muscle – Latissimus Dorsi. A person’s lat’s are large and often carry a lot of tension also, so you may need to break up some of this to get anywhere with the Trapezius. When working the Lats, I use a wide surface of my hand or forearm with long firm, upward and oblique strokes and then smooth them down and go back to the Traps again.
By now the person’s muscles are warmed up, so they are also tolerating firmer pressure as I target deeper muscles and the upper muscles are relaxed enough so that the pressure reaches them. The principles for the muscles of the deeper layer muscles are pretty much the same as the ones I use for the upper layer ones. The only exception is that I will often spend some time after warming up the Rhomboids (pink) working them across the grain of the muscle (ie across the muscle fibres, not along them because the Rhomboids get really, really stiff sometimes and need help to free up).
The other muscle to have a good look at that people love having worked is the Levator Scapulae. Again, just work it up the grain of the muscle fibres. It’s also helpful to just press on it at about the base of the neck for a few seconds or so. Also working the muscle inside the triangle at the top of the scapula is easier once the muscles are warmed up.
But if the deeper muscles look too confusing, don’t worry – even if all you do is loosen up the upper layer of the person’s back – most people will thank you.
What part of your hand you use is up to you – I often knead with the flat edge of my thumb while I rest the heel of my hand on the person’s back. I might sometimes use the heel of my hand to massage. Depending on the person and how long I have been massaging for I may gently use my knuckle. You can also use your forearm.
None of the stuff I’ve shared today is particularly scientific or text-book. Simply hands-on learning. But I think that people being able to help each other break up muscle tension is worthwhile. So is nurturing.
When it comes to massage, all I can say is that lots of people like a treat. See if anything that I have learned adds anything to what you know – and please … you’re welcome to share your tips with me.
There’s something centring about looking after yourself. Basic self-care. Hygiene and grooming activities. There are things among them that have qualities that can relax and alert us if we are mindful of what we are doing. A couple of posts ago I wrote about mindfulness and the senses in Send in the Senses . Today I would like to show you some of the ways that these principles can be integrated into everyday activities.
Warm water over the skin is relaxing. It’s soothing. You can just stand there under warm water in the shower or sit in a warm bath and let it calm you. (being conscious of your water consumption of course)
Or if you want to you can make it more soothing you can add a scented cleanser and smooth it on with your hands or a soft cloth. Then again – if you want to jazz it up a little, you choose a more uplifting stimulating scent and a courser cloth or a loofah. And okay – so the guys mightn’t be so into the scented soaps as the girls – but the rest still works as well for them even without the scents. On top of that are the sounds of the water and visual stimuli of the water running over you and the shower or lapping against the sides of the bath and the intricacies of your own bathroom and showering routine.
After washing, you think about how you are going to use your towel to dry yourself. Vigorous rubbing will invigorate the senses, while gentle strokes with the towel are likely to be more soothing. Alternately, you might wrap yourself in a towel or terry towelling bathrobe and wander around the house until you dry naturally.
If you’re looking for a basic activity that is inclined to stimulate the senses, then look no further than brushing your teeth. A toothbrush in decent condition with toothpaste on it brushed over the teeth and gums will arouse the senses of touch, taste and smell. Flossing is great if you’re anxious or need to slow down or focus because you have to do it deliberately and if you want to do it properly, you can’t do it quickly – so it forces you to slow down and focus your attention but gives you a task to do it with.
Painting your nails is great for the same reason. There is a need for controlled movement – so you need to slow down and focus your attention. Great for regulating anxiety. It is also something that can make you feel nice after you’ve finished. So nail painting incorporates controlled touch, slow and controlled movement, a stimulating smell – which is not necessarily why you’ve chosen the task – but it won’t put you to sleep. I was stuck in one city while the rest of my family were in another when my Grandfather died and I couldn’t be with them. I was very unwell with depression at the time and quite distressed. In the end, painting my toenails is what I did to calm myself down to a point where I could think reasonably. Then I could start to deal with my situation and emotions more logically.
For those who like a face mask – this is a beauty. Deep touch is relaxing, so you apply the mask with a firm touch. You follow the directions and wait while it sets, then when it is done you rinse it off. Now to rinse it off, follow the directions on the packet but remember: warm water – calming, cool water – alerting; and soft cloth and/or gentle strokes with firm pressure when rinsing will be calming, while a courser cloth and/or more vigorous or uneven strokes while rinsing will be more alerting. My own preference when using a mask is to rinse with a course cloth but gently with firm, smooth strokes in warm water.
If you need to shave, this is a good example of an activity that involves slow, deliberate movement. Focusing on the movement and the sensations of the shaver on the skin can be very effective. Most would find that this would alert touch and movement sensations, potentially smell also depending upon things like shaving creams and so on.
Another one – very touch and movement based that I find therapeutic at time is waxing. Great for anger management. Rip into the leg waxing. It’s systematic. You have to regulate it. You eventually slow down because the waxing process requires you to. But it’s also a useful buffer for stress, a way of alerting the senses to wake up when you’re weary or just getting rid of unwanted hair… Waxing is rich in touch (temperature, pressure etc), it involves controlled movement and you are using your sight to inspect your work.
Brushing or combing your hair can be either relaxing or alerting depending upon how you go about it, although if you use a comb it is more likely that the result will be an alerting sensation. When using a brush however, if one uses long smooth strokes the effect is quite different to brief, sharp strokes. The former is calming, the latter more alerting. Experimenting with different styles of brushing can be a great way to explore ways that touch influences the senses.
Think about all of the self-care activities that you do on a regular basis. Washing and drying yourself, washing your hair, styling your hair, cleaning your teeth, washing your hands, washing your face, moisturising, using deodorant, brushing your hair, shaving and/or waxing, cleaning your ears, dressing, cleaning your nails – anything you can think of … Take some time to think about what sensory qualities there are to the tasks. What movements, use of vision, scents, smells, touch, sounds, tastes are associated with them? How are you positioned for them? Where is your balance? Your centre of gravity? Which of these have alerting qualities? Which have calming ones? Are there qualities to any to the tasks that you do regularly that could be useful to you in other ways?
I don’t know about you, but I was very sceptical about relaxation exercises for a long time. I would always think back to school days when guidance counsellors would take us through guided imagery sequences featuring a calm blue ocean or some such scenic place and tell us how we relaxed we were while the class clown made farting noises, his followers giggled, the teachers reacted and everyone else just rolled their eyes and waited for the session to finish. At other times, attempting to relax has been more stressful than relaxing because the facilitator just wasn’t on the same wavelength as me. I find it annoying when that happens.
It took a long time to realise that relaxation was a skill that required practice. It has taken longer still to discover that there are many different types of relaxation exercises that you can do. Recently while looking for a site for someone, I found one that had a variety of sound tracks for relaxation exercises ( http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/index.html ). I decided that I would sample all of the relaxation exercises on this site to see what I thought of each of them – to give each a chance. Today, I’d like to share with you a little about the exercises that I did and my thoughts on each.
I thought that these were very useful. Each of them was effective, and they were particularly effective when used in series. The educators recommended that for those with anxiety disorders, your levels of anxiety will reduce by doing breathing exercises regularly as maintenance – and I can believe this given the difference that it made in the amount of tension in my body.
For those who do not have anxiety – like me … I did my mood diary scoring after I did relaxation exercises and my scores were significantly higher than they had been on any of the recent days leading up to these times. I have been experimenting recently with http://www.moodscope.com which is a computer based system – so I was not simply giving myself a better score out of 10.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a favourite of mine. It essentially involves tightening a group of muscles, holding them tight and noticing the tightness, then releasing the tension entirely and noticing the absence of muscle tension. You then systematically work through to the next group of muscles and do the same thing.
I will usually start with my toes, progress to the soles of my feet and calves, the upper foot and shins, my thighs, my butt, then my hands, wrists and arms, elbows and biceps then shoulders; then I go back to my trunk and tighten and release my abdomen, then lower back, upper back, chest, shoulders (again), front of neck, back of neck, tilt neck left then right, then I work through my face so my forehead, nose, cheeks, mouth, jaw and tongue (pressed against the roof of my mouth). Then I finish by either breathing exercises for a while or by standing and shaking out my arms and legs and stretching. But that’s me and that takes anything from 10 to 20 mins depending on how many repetitions you do of each muscle group. Sometimes for really tight groups, I’ll repeat the actions a couple of times eg shoulders.
The progressive muscle relaxation sequence on the All About Depression site goes for 8mins40sec and is nice and efficient while still covering what needs to be covered (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/pmr/pmr1QT.html ). I found it satisfying and was pleased with the result at the end of the session.
I need to be frank here and admit that I am not someone who is a great fan of guided imagery sequences. I find someone else’s descriptions of a place that they think should be relaxing for me to be kind of distracting. I’d much rather be left to breathe or if there needs to be an image, then I’ve done sequences where the person guiding the sequence has left room for the person relaxing to select a place they like and guided by asking questions like “what can you see?”, “What can you smell?”, “Look around you and explore the colours.” I found that kind of guided imagery more engaging.
I came to this exercise expecting it to be grossly annoying and to loathe it. It was actually one of my favourites. I’m not sure whether it was because of the sequencing of the exercise, or the conscious repetition of phrases (I repeated most of them in my head because I found that doing it out loud made it difficult to breathe deeply and evenly), but this exercise really worked for me. I want to go back and learn the phrases and the sequence to use at any time. http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/phrases/phrases1QT.html
Mindfulness Oriented Relaxation Exercises
Mindfulness is about being ‘just in the moment’. In this context, the relaxation exercise is about focusing oneself on relaxing just into the moment. A lot of the rationale for this is that a lot of distress occurs surrounding things that have already happened or have not happened yet and that sometimes the sadness, anxiety, pain or negative feelings are easier to bear in the immediate moment if we are not contemplating past or future at that point in time.
This is one of my favourite relaxation exercises. It starts out with breathing, then gradually asks you to notice things with your other senses, in particular where your body has contact with other surfaces, the feel of your clothes and the sense of the weight of your arms and legs as you’re supported by your chair (in my case) or where ever you are resting. I loved the sensation of my clothes on my skin as I was breathing – I was wearing a particularly soft shirt the day that I did the exercise for review. A definite must in my books (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm21QT.html ) although regulars will know that I’m a fan of mindfulness as a strategy in general.
Mindfulness with Guided Imagery
Remember what I wrote earlier about guided imagery? Well it’s no less true where the imagery is attached to mindfulness strategies. That said – in the first exercise Sending Thoughts Away on Clouds (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm31QT.html ) I found the clouds a great way to dismiss unwanted or intrusive thoughts – the idea being that where a thought that was a distraction from the scene or your breathing came into your consciousness, you were to send it away on a cloud. I could picture this as though just blowing the thought away. Sending Thoughts Away on Leaves (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm41QT.html ) didn’t feel as natural, although it kind of worked. In this guided image I was taken to a clear forest stream to enjoy it.
The final image was quite different in what it did with distracting thoughts. In this the idea was to be Sorting Into Boxes (http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/mindfulness/mm51QT.html ) thoughts that intruded, the boxes being one for thoughts, one for emotions and one for sensations eg aches and itches. This was more bizarre to start with and I found myself distracted by the boxes – but after a while I settled down and just focused on my breathing again and that helped. For a while however, I think I was almost inventing itches and filing the thought ‘this is stupid’ over and over again. Once I went back to breathing and visualisation the boxes became background scenery – a bit like a picnic basket when you’re not actually eating. I can imagine this being helpful though if you were being flooded by intruding thoughts and feelings – you could just label them without processing them and put them to the side by the rules of the exercise without it being an intrusion on what you’re supposed to be doing – which is staying in the moment, just breathing and picturing a scene.
MY TOP 3
My favourite three out of these audio tracks in no particular order would have to be:
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Why not take the time to try a few? What were your favourites?
I have been reading a lot lately that has reminded me how frail humanity is. How vulnerable we are. Our bodies, our nervous systems, the balances of the chemicals in various systems that keep us functioning are so finely balanced. And so, so often is our sense of self. Our sense of our own competence and worth. We become vulnerable to so many thoughts and perceptions that we may once have never thought possible – may once have thought weak once this is penetrated.
I have been reading people’s writings – people who are feeling worthless, yet working daily at moving forward – at overcoming illnesses that sap energy and personal reserves like parasites. For as surely as I breathe Depression and Bipolar Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorders, Psychosis, Schizophrenia, Personality Disorders and Anxiety are parasites that draw upon the heart and soul, the will and desire, the sense of purpose and confidence in one’s own capacity.
And yet as I read I see evidence that these illnesses and disorders are liars. I read words written by brave people who are still wrestling, still fighting, still entering the ring round after round. Sometimes they come out on top. Sometimes they come out feeling hopeless and defeated. But I say this. While people are still willing to step into the ring, they are not losing the war.
The human body, while fragile is also amazingly robust. We survive enormous things. Our bodies fight infections. It is well designed to protect its more fragile organs. It is our sense of self that is the fragile part.
Each person is unique.
Each person has a different combination of qualities – of strengths and weaknesses to the next.
Each person has something about them that is admirable. Worthy of respect.
Each person is entitled to dignity.
It is hard to breathe, hard to grow, hard to believe any of these things amid the lies of mental illness when it is out of control and where it has left its scars. It is hard to believe that friends still care when they are getting on with their lives while you are feeling stagnant and stuck wrestling just to keep your head just above water. If they haven’t been here they can’t possibly understand that you are feeling left behind. And so friendships grow fragile too.
Families tell us anything from we “just need to try harder” to telling us “not to push ourselves” because we’re too fragile. Sometimes they expect the world of us – and sometimes they seem to expect nothing at all. I’m not sure which is worse. Those who push too hard make us feel like we are inadequate and seem to think that we are just lazy – and that does wonders for our sense of self. Those who seem to think that we are too fragile to try don’t inspire hope that anything will ever get better although they mean well. How hard it is for a family to understand if they have never been here. They usually mean for the best – which leaves us feeling guilty for being annoyed by at their lack of understanding. How do we deal with this? Most of the time when we’re not well we’re not in a state where we feel eloquent enough to express ourselves well and we fear that it will all come out the wrong way. Sometimes it has before. And so some of us feel that our family is far from us.
And so we stand; feeling as though we could break at any moment. Our lives, our friendships, our relationships with our families, our very selves.
Hear me say – I believe that people who make it to this point can still be strong. Simply deceived.
Yes, your situation may be fragile. This does not mean that you are weak, undeserving of hope or inadequate.
You don’t have to believe me. You don’t have to believe it’s true as though you have had some kind of epiphany.
But treat the thoughts with the suspicion they deserve. Perhaps the same suspicion that you treat my claims. Keep stepping up for another day. Keep looking for tools to arm yourself with – mindfulness, sensory strategies, CBT, relaxation (see the link in today’s poll), self-affirming statements, support people, distraction, your medications – whatever is positive and works for you.
You too have strength within you. Even you – the one who doesn’t believe me yet.
An area that is starting to grow in mental health is an intervention called Sensory Modulation. It is used in a number of different ways and some people use it only in part. Some people may have come across ‘grounding techniques’ and ‘self-soothing techniques’. There is a cross-over between Sensory Modulation and distraction as a technique to deal with difficulties. It is a sub-branch within the world of Mindfulness and involves use of activity and engagement of the senses for therapeutic purposes. It is a big area for Occupational Therapists, Diversional Therapists and is starting to feature in Nursing literature, particularly for use in hospitals to try to find ways to reduce people’s levels of distress without having to resort to extra medication and seclusion. Studies are showing promising results.
Despite the way that we usually talk about five senses, we have actually have seven senses. We are used to thinking of our senses in terms of taste, touch, sight, smell and sound. However there are two more that we very rarely talk about.
The first of these is called proprioception. Proprioception is communication between your muscles and your brain. This is how your brain knows what your muscles are doing – when they are stretching, flexing and where your body is in space. It is proprioception that enables you to match the position of one arm to the position of the other with your eyes shut.
The second is a vestibular sensation. This is what gives us our sense of balance and the sense that we are moving in space like when we are in a car. It is also the sensation that gives us the feeling of dizziness and nausea when it is out of kilter.
Some people also differentiate between deep touch and light touch when working with the senses because your body often responds differently to the different types of touch. Think of the difference between being massaged and being tickled.
What is Sensory Modulation & how does it work?
Sensory Modulation involves using different types of activity or stimuli to calm or alert one or more of the seven senses. This in turn can feed into the way that a person is feeling or reacting to a situation, a stressor or the environment. So if feeling anxious and having anxious thoughts churning over through ones head someone might choose to do something that they know will engage the senses in a soothing way for them eg using a rocking chair, listening to music that they like that has a tempo of approx 60 beats per min whilst being mindful of the sensations; or they may choose to ground and/or distract themselves with something that alerts the senses and redirects their attention, perhaps using the tension in their muscles by going for a run or walk, again engaging awareness of the movement of the muscle groups and the engagement of the senses with the environment around.
Essentially, you take control of your senses and use them to serve your advantage.
Mindfulness & the Senses
Some of the ways that you can use your senses with mindfulness include:
Grounding techniques are active techniques to help you to orient and focus on the present and to distract or self-soothe when you’re feeling distressed. When you are feeling ‘out of sync’ they can help emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. If you know what you respond to best – you can even be prepared for times of crisis or for prevention if you are feeling triggered.
Some activities that people use to help ground themselves include
A hot or cold shower
Eating hot balls or sour balls, chilli, lemon – alerting tastes
Using a balance ball
Wearing weighted item eg back pack, ankle weights
Petting dog or cat
Warm or cold flannel to the face and neck
playing with a stress ball
Holding or chewing ice
Jumping rope or doing star jumps
Running or walking
clenching and unclenching muscles (isometric exercises)
playing drums or other musical instruments
Rocking in a rocking chair
Listening to music
Other activities that can be used for self-soothing or for orienting and alerting oneself capitalise on the calming and alerting features of the stimuli. Some examples of these include:
Calming Sensations Alerting Sensations
Hot shower/bath Cold or cool shower/bath
Holding/petting a pet Holding ice in hand or to face
Warmth of fireplace Being in a cool room
Wrapping in a heavy blanket Wrapping in cool bed sheets
Soft materials/textures Rough or prickly materials/fabrics
Rocking in a rocking chair A bumpy car ride
Swinging on a swing Spinning on a swing
Slow rhythmic motions Fast and/or jerky movements
soft/low lighting Bright or flashing lights
Decaf herbal teas Drinking coffee
Chewing gum Biting into an icy-pole
Chewy or crunchy foods/ lollies Sour or hot foods/ lollies
What to do with these activities – A bigger picture
The idea then is to consider the primary areas of difficulty that you encounter. Do you
Struggle with negative thoughts
feel triggered by something …?
Think about a) things that you can use to alert or distract yourself;
b) things that you can use to do to calm or comfort yourself;
c) things that you can do to help improve the moment; (something you enjoy, a treat, something to make you feel better)
Often you may need to do all three in that order – but not always. Regulating your reaction, however, may be more than a single step process.
What senses do you respond to most strongly?
Different people are more responsive to different senses. Some people love touch. Others squirm. Some love movement. Others enjoy scents. We’re all wired differently. How do you think you are ‘wired’? What are your preferred senses for comforting and alerting yourself?
Think about what kind of movement you enjoy (eg exercise, rocking chair, doodling, shopping, cleaning, theme park rides, skating, building, sports activities)
What kind of Touch & Temperature do you like (eg massage, sitting by fire, shower/bath, knitting, sunshine/shade, lotions, playing instruments, art, fiddling with things, doing your hair, heavy blankets/quilts)
What kind of auditory/listening stimuli you like (eg silence, running water, music, rain, relaxation soundtracks, wind chimes, theatre, a purring cat, people talking)?
What kind of visual stimuli you like to look at (eg scenery, photos, lava lamp, movies, window shopping, reading, fish in a tank, art)?
What kind of scents do you like or respond to (eg scented candles and oils, coffee, perfumes and aftershaves, flowers, fruit, herbal tea, fabric after being hung out to dry, chopped wood, forests)?
Think also about what kind of gustatory, tastes and chewing sensations you respond to (eg chewing gum, crunchy food, sour food, sucking a thickshake through a straw, yawning, deep breathing, listerine, blowing bubbles, hot balls, drinking coffee or hot chocolate, fizzy drinks, sucking a lollypop)
Making a Plan
When you have thought about the types of activities that you respond to. Make a note of half a dozen things that you think would be most helpful when you are distressed.
Why not set aside a place or a kit where you have some if not all of those things ready to go and on hand when and if you need them?
Knowing how your senses work can help you tap into them better for relaxation, recreation and for giving yourself a jolt if you need one. I have found ideas from studying this stuff that are great for my recreation, rest as well as helping me when I am worked up or struggling to focus. I hope that it’s useful to you also.
If you are interested in more information, information about making a sensory kit or a questionnaire about your sensory profile, please leave me a message in the comments and I will get something back to you.
(Credit to a lot of the lists goes to a combination of published resources that I have referred to, some of which have no author attached, majority of examples listed resourced from Tina Champaign’s website)
My parents have come to visit – so I didn’t think I’d have time to blog.
But here’s the thing …
I’m too interested in the things I blog about to leave it alone.
I’ve enjoyed sharing some of my early experiences of Mindfulness. I hope that some people have found it valuable and that it has helped some to grasp a little more clearly the concepts behind it.
Being present in the moment, self-aware and able to be aware of your environment or choose to filter what you attend to. Being able to focus your attention, your thoughts and meditate on or observe things. To be deliberate in all of this.
It is a refreshing experience and helpful for many things from distraction to relaxation, to stress management and through to managing early warning signs and symptoms. If you’ve not had the chance to learn it, I would highly recommend it. It is a more concrete skill than it sounds at times.
I have had fun today. I enjoyed having my 5 and 3/4 year-old niece do my hair for me this morning (one must not leave out the three-quarters!). When I got home (after driving for a quite a distance and stopping to get out of the car and fill up with petrol) I believe that I pulled 7 elastics and 2 clips out of my not-so-very-long hair (ie it had bunches sticking out in all directions).
I don’t think that she believed that I was really going to leave it all in until I actually left.
Playing hairdressers with one’s niece is a lot like a dare. She knew I looked silly, and didn’t really think I’d leave her handiwork in – but wanted to see if I would.
What she doesn’t know is the kind of things I did to my own hair for the hell of it when I was in my teens and went out with still in just because I was bored.
My niece is good therapy for me. When I am with her I forget to be anything but open to what she wants to do (except if it involves running too far or something against the rules). I lose most of my inhibitions and allow myself to play like a kid again. She lets me enjoy the moment in her company for just that little while – and while I am with her I feel whole.
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 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.
One of the therapeutic approaches that I use to help manage my Depression that regular readers will have come across previously when reading my blog is Mindfulness. Among other things it is helpful for dealing with thoughts, coping with stressors and managing physiological symptoms. It has been used to help people manage symptoms of a range of mental health issues including Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, psychotic illnesses, Personality Disorders and Eating Disorders.
My first experiences were vague explanations by people who I worked with about being present in the moment and awareness. These are true and make a lot of sense now – but Mindfulness made the most sense to me after my first experiments with it with my Clinical Psychologist when I was, myself, in therapy. The experience itself made an enormous difference to my understanding and appreciation of the discipline. For this reason, I thought that I’d share with you some of my experiences with the use of Mindfulness.
The first exercise
My introduction to mindfulness included eating a mandarin. The exercise involved taking the time to notice all of the sensations that were involved. The scent of the fruit, the feel of the skin, the firmness of the mandarin before it was peeled, the colour, the weight, the sensation of peeling the mandarin. I was to notice the texture of the inside outside of the skin and then the feel of the fruit without the skin on, the look of the fruit with its segments and the white stringy bits, the juice. While eating it I noticed not just the flavour, but the texture in my mouth and the sensation of swallowing. I paid attention to the sticky juice on my fingers and the sweet smell that it left on my skin before I washed my hands. The idea was to be fully in the moment and to engage and experience all of the senses. To be mindfully – deliberately into eating that mandarin.
The breathing exercises
After learning about the need to experience the full extent of whatever I was doing, I did some breathing exercises with my Psychologist. The idea was not to control the breath, but to observe it – pay attention to the movement of my muscles, the sensation of the air in my body, the sounds of the breath and to concentrate my focus on that. If I was distracted, I would just think to myself “oh, I’m distracted” – or whatever – and return my attention to the breathing. It was hard not to start controlling the breathing – but relaxing. It took focus, but was refreshing and left me alert.
My homework was to practice this and I also had an exercise where I was to start out with the breathing exercises and then imagine the breath that I was inhaling circulating all the way to my toes and paying attention to my toes and then following my breath as I exhaled. From here attention moved, with my breathing, progressively from the toes to the feet, up the legs, along the other leg and then through my body and my hands, my head and back to just focusing on my lungs. If you have ever done progressive muscle relaxation, the process is similar – however this was more to do with gradually moving awareness through the body. Again, the instructions were to allow yourself to just dismiss distraction and go back to the exercise at hand. I also felt more self-aware and awake after the exercise. That one lasted about 15 mins.
The Wii game
There is a game on Wii Fit where you have to sit really still. The graphic on the screen is of a candle and from time to time you get annoying things like a fly or mozzie and footsteps and so forth that come to distract you. But you need to sit upright and still on the balance board for 2 mins to win the game.
I have found that this is a great exercise for my Mindfulness skills. I sit in an alert and comfortable posture. I focus on my breathing and I use my skills that dismiss distractions by acknowledging that they are there and accepting it to deal with the insects and so forth. I can sit for the whole 2 minutes using my Mindfulness skills!
A while ago I was staining a piece of furniture. I needed one hand to hold the tin of wood stain. I was using an elbow and shoulder to stabilise myself in the most awkward position ever (!!). The other hand was occupied with cloth working the stain into the grain of the wood. And there was a fly buzzing in my face throughout.
Now, the same way that you consciously turn all of your senses, you may choose not to do so with some – so I am not focusing upon the fumes. But again, with the discipline to focus on the here and now and what I want and is important, I can also notice and dismiss what I don’t want. The fumes. More particularly in this instance, the fly that just wouldn’t go away. Rather than let it get me irritated and waste all that energy, the practice allowed me to focus on my work and when the fly was distracting just acknowledge “There’s that fly again. That buzzing is loud. I wish it would go away.” Yes I would blow at it to try to discourage it – but no, I managed to deal with the fly without it driving me mad. I considered this to be an achievement!
The job interview
I had a job interview at the other end of town. I had a horrible time getting there. There was more traffic than I anticipated, I think the tail end of a blockage after there had been a prang. Plus I had been pushing the clock harder than I had wanted to be to start with. The end result was that I was late to my job interview.
I was so flustered by the time that I got there that I couldn’t think. My mind was pumping in circles. They handed me the interview question for my preparation and all I could do was think,
“How am I going to pull together to do this?”
So I stopped myself. And before I even looked at the questions I took 2 minutes out of my prep time to do my breathing exercises. I then gradually brought myself back into awareness of the room around me and focused on the task at hand. I was alert. I was focused on the task and I was calm. I had also put myself into a position that I could acknowledge that the situation was less than ideal and just accept it to focus on what I could do something about. I could have compassion on myself for finding myself in an embarrassing situation, yet function within it and set myself to do my best in the here and now. I prepped my questions briefly in what time I had left although I didn’t have time for much depth and then did the interview – again thinking clearly, because I was able to focus on the here and now.
In the end I think the fact that I pulled myself together worked in my favour. I was offered the job, but turned it down. Mindfulness got me through the job interview but it would not get me over the travelling time in peak hour traffic any quicker.
The terrible, no good, very bad day
Then there was the day that nothing went right. Well it seemed like it. I slept through my alarm. Right through. Things went wrong at home after I got up. The trip in was slow. I was very, very, very late for work. Lunch time late. I missed several appointments and was flustered about what was left of the day. I had no idea how I was going to finish the day or face anyone. After freaking out when I finally got to work, I finally stopped and thought, “I know better than this.”
So I paused. I took a deep breath in and let it out, focused my attention and started observing my breathing. I then started to pay attention to the feel of the pressure of the chair that I was sitting in and the sounds around me – not listening, just noticing – the clock, various voices, footsteps; I paid attention to the feel of the clothes on my skin and then turned my attention to my muscles and which ones were tense. I relaxed my shoulders and my jaw and went back to my breathing and did a short version of the breathing exercise where I imagined my breath reaching every part of my body and then just focused on how it felt to breathe for a couple of moments.
After this I allowed myself to think about what I should do next. I had to accept that I was late and that I’d missed morning appointments and that because of that my afternoon wasn’t going to work as well as I had planned. But I could now, thinking in the moment accept that just as it was and act in a manner that was compassionate toward myself, rather than sit there blaming myself for things that I might or might not have done. It was okay that I was a bit frazzled, that was understandable – so I just needed to plan for that too. From there I was able to return to the moment and begin the rest of my day, planning things out and actually achieved a reasonable amount – something I wouldn’t have done in the state of mind I had been in when I arrived.
The road so far …
It has taken a while to learn some of the basics of Mindfulness and get used to putting them into practice, but the journey has been infinitely worthwhile. I still have a long way to go. I’m not good at meditation – I tend to be more utilitarian in my use of it. I still need to remind myself to start and could prevent some situations by starting earlier. However, it helps me to focus and to be able to be where I am, doing what I need to or want to be doing at the moment of time that I’m at. My next step in the journey is to become better at noticing things about myself in the moment. I think that this would prevent a lot of difficult situations and to help me to monitor my early warning signs.
I was reading from a collection of blogs not long ago about becoming mindful of gratitude and how positive this is for your health and well-being. Now I’m not a big one for karma or positive and negative energies or things like this – but with gratitude this is true. It has you thinking positively about things and when you reflect upon what it is you are thankful for there is a physiological response. Your body reacts to gratitude too. So helpful are the effects of your gratitude on your mind and your body upon you that experts beyond religious and philosophical teachers are now convinced that time spent meditating upon those things that you are grateful for and allowing yourself to reflect upon your gratitude is enormously worthwhile.
Now meditation does not have to involve any special costume, or ceremony. Simply a place where you can sit in peace for a few minutes in an alert posture and reflect in a focused way. If you find your thoughts straying – that’s okay too – all you do is bring them back to focus. If sitting doesn’t work for you try a slow walk or standing – but the goal is that you can be alert and not distracted from thought.
To begin with thinking of things they’re grateful for might – to some – feel a bit like Pollyanna’s ‘Glad game’. But it becomes easier if you are not used to it and will feel less of a reach with practice. To others it’s a bit hard to focus oneself on a manageable amount of things to meditate on instead of just churning out a list – either out of a genuine or obliged sense of gratitude. But the point is to reflect on them also. If you need something to help you limit your choices – pick a theme for a day and work with 5 things within that theme.
And so on that note:
5 Things that I am grateful for today:
1. My family. I have a really helpful and supportive family and even though they live all over the place we are in constant contact and any one of them would drop everything if they thought one needed the other. There is trust amongst us and love and fun and we like each other. That’s pretty awesome. My family has seen me through some pretty tough times and I’m extremely grateful for that. It’s not something they expect anything in return for. It’s just family to them. I have a lot to be grateful for in my family.
2. Faith. I have a faith that is new every morning and even though I don’t deserve it I have confidence that there will be peace for me in the end in heaven with God because of Jesus. Even in my darkest hours when I doubt myself I can believe this. For this I am grateful.
3. Sunshine. Today is gorgeous. The sky is beautiful and blue and the sun is bathing my yard all lovely and warm – getting ready for the summer to come. It’s been raining for a lot of the week so with the sun out my flowers are blooming and looking spectacular. When I go outside it will feel beautiful against my skin too. There is so much life sustained and nurtured by the sun. It always puts a life on my mood. I am thankful for a beautiful day.
4. Work. I have a job to go to. After the last 12 months I wasn’t sure that I would. I actually enjoy working. Sure there are parts of my job that I don’t like – but I like the job most of the time. I like to go and earn my own keep. I am grateful that I am able to work in a job that I enjoy and earn the money that I need. I like working with people. I am thankful for the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and also for the things that I learn from them.
5. You – my readers. You keep me thinking and looking into what I think about things. I am grateful to you for keeping me on my toes and exploring what is out there for people with depression around the globe. You remind me that I am lucky to live in a country where the government subsidises health care heavily and the standard of education of most of our health workers is good – as is the access to ongoing education. (Not saying that it’s not elsewhere – but grateful that it is here). I am grateful for the interested or curious minds that keep turning up to read what I have to say. You remind me that we can never get too comfortable in what we know and that we should always keep searching to understand more. You, by reading hold me to account to my opinions and knowledge. Because of you, I take my own advice and my health improves as well. This is something to be grateful for.
I live with a black dog. It follows me everywhere. My philosophy now is that I need to plan for its needs when I plan for my own. I also need time out and restful places to enjoy the warmth of the sunshine on my shoulders.