OCD, Mindfulness and Me

When I say “mindfulness” people hear “meditation” and often they’ve zoned out already, imagining long haired hippies, free love and no alcohol. But mindfulness is for everyone and anyone (whether you’re of the long haired hippy variety or not).

Following a conversation with a lovely person on twitter (@RoseWiltshire who blogs here )  I decided to put together a FAQ to mindfulness.

I’ve heard of mindfulness but I don’t really know what it is? So what is mindfulness….In simple terms it’s about being present in the here and now. We live so much of our lives in the past or in the future without being aware we’re doing it. How many times a day do we replay conversations we’ve already had with people or plan the conversations we intend to have, thinking about the hilarious anecdote we’re going to tell or the sarcastic riposte to someone who’s been annoying us (or is that just me? ). Our minds are experts at jumping out of the present moment. What mindfulness aims to do is help us bring it back and cultivate more awareness of the patterns of our minds and an awareness of the present.

So can I just decide to be more mindful? Well deciding to be more mindful is a first step but unfortunately our brains are their own masters so it will continue to be unruly and follow it’s usual patterns unless we make a conscious effort. Just saying that we’re going to be more mindful isn’t usually enough. This is where meditation comes in. Mindfulness is often described as a practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to bring mindfulness to your every day and so sitting down and actually practicing mindfulness is quite necessary. “Boring” I hear you grumble and yes sometimes it is a little dull but it’s also one of the most illuminating exercises that you can do.

OK so I’d like to do some practice, do I just sit and say “ommmmmm” a lot? A frequent misconception about mindfulness is that it’s all about being zen, having no thoughts and chanting. Seriously, people at work who know I practice mindfulness are frequently asking me about whether I’m really chilled out (my usual response is baahahahhahah). So let’s just be clear, mindfulness is not about getting rid of thoughts or existing in a constant state of calm, it’s about bringing more awareness to what is actually going on for us. So that constant feeling of panic? Thoughts that nobody likes you? Great, notice it, observe it, be aware of it. That’s mindfulness.

Ermmm that actually sounds pretty painful, thanks anyway but I think I’ll give it a miss. Yep that was my first response. Who wants to sit and actually draw their attention to what’s going on in their inner world which is frequently difficult? Mindfulness is not about flooding yourself with difficult experience or about sitting and really dwelling. It’s about just observing some of what’s going on for you. The thinking is that we exist in a paradox. The more we push away difficult thoughts or feelings the more they plague us. Mindfulness suggests that actually if we turn towards these experiences (even slightly) then we become less trapped by them, we can get some distance from them and maybe just maybe they loosen their grip on us. Mindfulness practice helps us notice the thoughts or feelings but not necessarily get caught up in them. A thought is just a thought but so often it becomes a whole story. Mindfulness can help us recognise the thought before it becomes a story that’s dragged us down to the pits of despair.

So how has it helped you? I have OCD and generalised anxiety (if you’d like to read more about how they affect me click here and here or indeed any of my previous posts). They’re disorders which are pretty much all about hyper fondness/attachment to our thoughts. An OCD sufferer experiences intrusive thoughts – these are usually unpleasant, terrifying and impossible to turn off. Prior to doing mindfulness, I really thought every thought I had must be true, that it must say something dreadful about me. I did everything in my power to try and get rid of the thoughts. I tried thought suppression (turns out they bounce back louder and in technicolour), I tried avoidance of things that trigger the thoughts (turns out that just makes life pretty small). It wasn’t until I did mindfulness  (and intensive CBT too) that I could just see them for what they were – rather weird, creative neural impulses. Mindfulness doesn’t get rid of the thoughts- in fact just yesterday at a meditation workshop run by Buddhist monks I had numerous intrusive thoughts about punching all the Buddhist monks in the back of the head. Time was when I would have run out of the hall sweating and panicking about what it all meant but instead I just sat and watched the thoughts pass on by (and smiled a little at the incongruity of it all).

So what do you think the best way to get into mindfulness is? 

There are several ways you can get into mindfulness. There are lots of great books with excellent audio guided meditation which you can do at home. Of course that takes discipline and it’s easy to just not do it. One of the best things I did was an MBCT course. This stands for Mindfulness based Cognitive Therapy and is an 8 week course. There are also MBSR courses (mindfulness based stress reduction). Doing a course provides the framework to get you used to practice as you have daily homework to do. For those that are worried that it’s some kind of group therapy session and that you’ll have to share, it really isn’t. The focus is on mindfulness and your experience of it, not what’s brought you to the class or what you’re struggling with. If a group really isn’t for you then you can also find teachers who do one to one classes (see below for links). For those with OCD and Anxiety I would emphasise that I don’t think that an MBCT  course is an alternative to doing CBT and ERP but it’s an excellent add-on that helped consolidate everything I was learning in CBT.

So finally do you have any links to resources?

Yes, yes and yes!

If you would like to do an MBCT or MBSR course then you can find them online. You can find one in your local area by going to this website. There is usually a cost to them although some GP’s or Community Mental Health Teams do refer to mindfulness classes too. If you are going to do one privately (either in a group or one to one) then ensure that the teacher has a good grounding in mindfulness. If all they’ve done is read the book and done the 8 week course themselves then I’d steer clear. Be on the look out for teachers who have studied to teach through the Mindfulness centre at Oxford University, Bangor University or Exeter University. Don’t be afraid to chat to the teachers and ask questions as you’ll get a good feel if they’re the right people for you.

If you’d like to read some books on the topic then here are ones I’d recommend:

The Mindful Way Through Depression – I love this book. It’s so easy to read and to be honest I think it’s a good one for anybody, depression or not. It also comes with guided audio meditations.

Mindfulness workbook for OCD – A great book with practical tasks to use mindfulness in overcoming OCD

Finding Peace in a Frantic World – A book I’ve dipped in and out of and used some of the guided audios. It’s a very popular mindfulness book.

There are so many others. I’ve got some of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided audio meditations and he’s also written a number of books, he’s a big name in the mindfulness field. Click here to see a selection of these.

Phew so that’s probably enough info for now! If there’s anything I haven’t answered or you’d like to know more then feel free to post in the comments and I’ll try to answer 🙂

Emily x

What’s in your tool kit?

As I’ve been winding down my CBT therapy my therapist keeps saying to me “you have all the tools you need” and you’ve got a number of “tools at your fingertips”. I quite like imagining that I’ve got an actual tool bag that I can carry around at all times and so it got me thinking about what’s in it to help me overcome my Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

I have found that thinking about this has actually helped me feel more confident about facing the future without having regular therapy (which after all can be a daunting prospect and may be an entirely separate blog post!).

So here are the tools that I will be turning to again and again as I navigate my way forward.

Professional help: Knowing when to access professional help is really key. I know that it can be difficult to accept that things have gotten to a point where outside help is needed but to be honest I think if the insight is there that this is a problem that isn’t going away then you’re half way there. Helping yourself through accessing professional help is a really powerful tool (It’s the equivalent of a power saw in my kit!). We all deserve to feel better and that first step in reaching out for professional help will tell yourself that you matter. I also know that if in the future things become difficult that that resource is always there and that is what it is there for. It is not ‘bothering people’ or ‘weak’, it is necessary and a large part of recovery. I will be using all my CBT lessons as time goes on including worry postponement, exposure techniques and more (this will also be a separate blog post!)

Walking: At the beginning of the year when things were starting to fall apart I started to walk. I walked through my lunch breaks at work and I walked in the evenings until I could walk no more. I only ever started to feel settled and soothed when I walked. I don’t know about you but when I am highly anxious I start to feel like my head is separating from my body and is drifting off up towards the clouds. Walking helps me to feel grounded. It also releases endorphins which is vital for mental health but was a good compromise at a time when I didn’t have the energy to run or do anything that required anything more than putting one foot in front of the other.

Exercise: This has only become relevant since I’ve started to feel better and have regained some strength. When I am highly anxious I cannot eat and I often vomit through panic. Please don’t exercise if you are in this state as it will make you feel worse. However, now that I have a full appetite exercise is a vital part of my week. Sometimes it’s a jog, sometime’s it’s a cheesy aerobics class, sometimes it’s yoga – it doesn’t really matter what it is –  it just helps to be out and about in the real world. I am distracted from my thoughts and my worries when I am doing exercise and doing a class of some kind often lifts the spirits. As long as it puts a smile on your face then do it.

Meditation: In all of my frantic researching about “cures” for anxiety and OCD I came to mindfulness meditation. A staple of recovering from OCD and anxiety is to realise that you are not your thoughts and your thoughts are not you and guess what mindfulness meditation says…. yep you’ve guessed it our thoughts are not facts. Through mindfulness meditation I have learnt how to better watch my thoughts rather than getting tangled up in them and then convincing myself that to untie the knot I need to “figure out” the solution. There is no solution and if you’ll let them thoughts will just pass on by like clouds in the sky. I also find that meditation helps me to sleep which can be an errant friend when anxiety strikes.

As I write I realise there are so many other things that I have learnt and picked up along the way. Plenty of sleep, good diet, natural remedies such as Rescue Remedy to settle the anxious feelings in the stomach, being outside in the natural world, writing, and sometimes the hardest one of all… feeling the fear and doing it anyway!

So what about you…. what’s in your tool bag?

solar tool bag

Image courtesy of Daniel on Flickr