Living in Our Heads – Meditation Week 2

Living in Our Headsscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-8-18-50-pm

Before I dive in to week 2 of the meditation series, I thought I’d start off by posing the question, How did it go?

For me, I chose to brush my teeth mindfully. Initially, it felt like a very very long ordeal, but by the end of the week, it didn’t seem so arduous, and I noticed flossing was much easier too.

I also chose to do my body scan before bed. I have been having some trouble with insomnia, so it really did help me to fall asleep. I can remember getting to about my mid-body and zzzzzzz. Getting to sleep easier, has translated to a more relaxed me during the day.

I would love to know how people fared and what you think so far? So post your thoughts in the comments section.screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-8-22-53-pm

Now on to Week 2!

The aim of MBSR is for us to be more aware, more often. The thought that comes to my mind is “Be here, now.” One of the things that can impede us from being present in our lives is the thought that we or something we are doing isn’t good enough or less than we expected some how. These thoughts can sometimes make us blame ourselves or judge things and ourselves negatively. These patterns can often be automatic and therefore “mindless”. What we want to do is interrupt the pattern. When we do that, we can consciously make a choice.

That all sounds wonderfully easy. It isn’t. It requires practice. We are after all trying to break some well-entrenched and sometimes unconscious habits. One of the first steps though is by noticing and acknowledging what our situation is. Just that, noticing, not changing. The body-scan is a tool to help us do that. It allows us to acknowledge and bring attention to an area without changing anything. There is no good or bad, no goal to achieve or not, you just are.

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-8-20-58-pmMindful Breathing is another tool that helps us to ground us and bring gentle awareness to ourselves without judgment or need to change anything about our situation. We simply breathe and notice our body as we do so. I tend to have a challenge doing this one on my own and need to listen to a guided meditation. I find I am able to focus on my breath with more attention having someone guide me than if I did this on my own. Its ok if your mind wanders while you practice, it is completely normal and expected. So don’t judge or think you failed. Just notice the thoughts or the fact that you have wandered, and refocus on your breath. If it happens again (and it probably will) just acknowledge and refocus. That’s the beauty of breathing; every breath is a new opportunity to start again.

AM

Activities for week 2 below. Week 1 can be found HERE.

Activity 1: Pleasant Events

This week is an opportunity to really become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations around positive or pleasant events. So everyday notice and record (for yourself) in detail how you felt. You can use the chart below as a reference.

Day
What was the experience?
How did your body feel, in detail during this experience?
What moods and feelings accompanied this experience?
What thoughts went through your mind?
What thoughts are in your mind as you write this down?
Example
Came home to a happy wiggly dog
Lightness across the face, awareness of shoulders dropping. Smiling
Happiness, Pleasure, Relief
“What a warm welcome”
“I feel so loved”
“I didn’t feel appreciated today until I got home.” “Rufus really loves me!”

Meditation 1: Body Scanscreen-shot-2017-02-02-at-8-19-55-pm

Begin with a 45-minute body scan (see below).

Meditation 2: Mindful Breathing (See Below)

  1. Using a comfortable straight-backed chair, sit in an upright position (not slouching) to help, use a pillow to help you stay off the back of the chair. If you chose to sit on the floor or cross-legged, make sure you are supported by a soft surface (comfort so you avoid numb bum) and that you are elevated enough that your knees are lower than your hips.
  2. Once seated, you want an erect spine, and if in a chair, feet flat on the floor, legs uncrossed.
  3. Gently close your eyes.
  4. Bring your attention to your body; the physical sensations of your body pressure where it makes contact, any tension, just like in the body scan.
  5. Now bring attention to your breath.
  6. Try to focus your awareness on the sensations in your lower abdomen as you breathe in and out (sometimes it helps if you place your hand on your belly).
  7. Try to follow your breath as you breathe in and out. Notice the changes and physical sensations and you breathe.
  8. You don’t need to try to control your breathing in any way, just let it happen.
  9. Sooner or later (probably sooner) your mind will wander. It OK! It happens and that’s what our minds do. It isn’t wrong or a mistake or a failure. It is an opportunity to refocus on your breath again. It ok it this keeps happening too. Just remind yourself to refocus and start again. Every breath is a new beginning.
  10. Continue this practice for 10 – 15 minutes (or more if you like). Remember that the intention is simply to be aware of your experience in each moment as best as you can. Use your breath as an anchor to reconnect you to the moment if your mind wanders.

Home Work:

  • Do the body scan 6x for week 2
  • Record what you notice each time you do the practice.
  • At different times during the week, practice 10-15 min of mindful breathing, 5-6x.
  • Activity 1 – Pleasant Events awareness
  • Choose a new routine activity to do mindfully (see description week 1).

Meditations:

www.guilford.com/MBCT_audio, track 4 (Requires creating a user account)

https://health.ucsd.edu/specialties/mindfulness/programs/mbsr/Documents/MP3/Awareness-of-Breath.mp3

Body Scan

Tips for the Body Scan

  • Regardless of what happens (you fall asleep, lose concentration, focus on the wrong body part) keep practicing.
  • If your mind wanders, just note the thoughts and bring your mind back to the scan or your breath.
  • Let go of success or failure, this isn’t a competition. Be open and allow it to happen.
  • Let go of expectations what the scan will do for you.
  • Approach your experience with non-judgment, curiosity and openness.
  • Your breath is an anchor.
  • Be aware, be non-striving, be in the moment, and accept things as they are.

When life takes you down the rabbit hole…

I’d like to begin by saying WOW and Thank you! I never thought what I wrote would resonate with so many and I want to sincerely thank all of you for all the wonderful comments, encouragement, and for subscribing. I also thought I’d share the results of #BellLetsTalk Day with you.

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-2-13-02-am

You can see here where the funds will be directed.

Besides from being truly humbled by your overwhelming response, it really made me pause and think. There are so many people out there that might be going through a tough or stressful time. I mean life can be really crazy, with or without cancer.

We spend so much of our time rushing around. From our jobs, or school, the grocery store, or carting our kids off here and there that life just becomes so overwhelming and maddening.

Rush…Rush…Rushscreen-shot-2017-01-29-at-5-43-57-am

I promised myself one thing after my first round with cancer, that I would never be complacent in my life again.

For a time, I was hyper aware of all the beauty life had to offer. I know this will sound silly, but it was small miracles like funny cloud patterns or the way my dog would snore, to the way the city was reflected in puddles. I noticed everything. After a while screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-5-47-34-amthough, life began infiltrating these moments and I found myself falling back into old habits. I found myself complaining about the weather (as Canadians will do), feeling my blood boil when I was stuck in traffic, the stars were dimmer, and then I stopped noticing.

I had fallen back into my former life cycle.

Wake up – shower – grab breakfast – grab purse – get in car- eat breakfast – get to work – get a coffee –start the day – work – grab purse – get back in car – drive back home – dinner – marking/planning – pack up for next day – bed. Wash – rinse – repeat.screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-5-52-03-am

Monotony took over and I began living life in autopilot, the thing I swore I wouldn’t do. Maybe before cancer, it was acceptable to just settle in, but not now. I had worked hard to have that life, get that job and build my career. Cancer changed everything. The goals I wanted before, even the ones I had worked so hard for changed, there was no room for being frazzled and stressed, living in a monotonous life.

So upon the recommendation of my psychologist I enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)* course. I was hesitant initially, because really who has time, but I did it. Now you may think MBSR is hokey and all kumbaya, but its one of the only meditation modalities being studied scientifically, and used in hospitals. It was hands down one of the best things I have ever done for myself and my mental health.

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-5-57-05-amIt isn’t for the feint of heart, because of the time commitment (8 Weeks + home practice), but I swear it is worth it. Each week I would meet with a small group of stressed out over worked harried individuals and we would learn a specific practice or a few. Then we were tasked with homework. Typically it was an exercise in attention, some sort of meditation, and a very short “journal”. Initially it was a challenge fitting it in, but somehow if you are committed, you do find time.

That was 5 years ago. I can tell you that the skills I learned in those 8-weeks saved me a few times. Like the day they told me my cancer had come back, and that there wasn’t much they could do (at that time). I had meditated while waiting for my oncologist, so I was calm and able to be rational and breathe. It allowed me to be clear headed and coherent enough to ask questions, something I likely wouldn’t have been able to do had I been extremely emotional.

As with anything, you need to practice or your skills get rusty. I have to admit that over the years, my practice hasn’t been what it used to be and once again life got in the way (dating, marriage, dogs, house, travel), so last year in September, I took the course again, this time a very willing participant. I will tell you, my mental health has been better since. I won’t lie, I don’t practice everyday (although I should), but I use it when I need it.screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-6-02-08-am

What I was thinking is, there are some online resources that are open-sources, so I thought that if anyone was willing, I would start with this post, and then the next 7 to “lead” a very rudimentary Mindfulness Group, by posting what each weeks lesson is, the practices and leave it up to you to try it out.

There is no right or wrong way, it is about learning to notice, becoming aware, and taking a moment to breathe. If you are game, Week 1 Resources will be posted below.

AM

*In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn founded MBSR at the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts and nearly twenty years later the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine. Both these institutions supported the growth and implementation of MBSR into research and hospitals worldwide.

 

Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to things as they are.

– Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn (2007)

 

Week 1 Mindfulness: Awareness & Automatic Pilot

  • When we are on Autopilot, we are more likely to become annoyed or have our “buttons pressed”.
  • Becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, we can choose not to go down “the rabbit hole” or mental ruts.
  • The aim of MBSR is to increase awareness so that we have more choices when we respond to situations, rather than react automatically.
  • To achieve this, we practice becoming more aware of where our attention is and deliberately changing the focus over and over.

Activity 1: Raisins

Take a raisin, or any small edible item. On a piece of paper, write down your immediate thoughts about that item. Next, use each sense to examine the item. Eyes, ears, fingers, mouth. Do each for a good minute. Now write down what you notice.

Meditation 1: Body Scan

Begin with a 45-minute body scan (see below). I suggest a quiet place where you can either sit or lay down. Its ok if you fall asleep. I did.

Home Work:

  • Do the body scan 6x for week one
  • Record what you notice each time you do the practice.
  • Choose one routine activity (washing your face, brushing your teeth, lacing your shoe, etc.) and make it deliberate, just like the raisin activity.
  • Eat one meal mindfully (i.e. Like the raisin activity)

Meditations:

www.guilford.com/MBCT_audio (Requires creating a user account)

https://health.ucsd.edu/specialties/mindfulness/programs/mbsr/

Suggestions/Tips:

  • Learning suggestions
  • Dress comfortably in loose-fitting clothing (sweats or yoga-type clothing work well).
  • Use a mat or pad that you can lie on the floor with.
  • If the temperature varies the room you are using you might want to dress in layers.
  • Choose a quiet spot or time when others will not be interrupting.
  • Download meditations to an iPod or other listening device for easy listening.
  • Good Luck

 

Even Warriors Get the Blues #BellLetsTalk

Today is #BellLetsTalk Day, a day where, here in Canada we have a chance to talk openly about mental health. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be talking about it every other day, but on this specific day Bell Canada will donate 5¢ for every mention of (#BellLetsTalk) in social media. So please share this, a text, or a tweet for mental health.screen-shot-2017-01-25-at-3-49-45-am

Even before being diagnosed with cancer, I battled with depression and anxiety. As early as my late teens in high school, when it felt like I had an elephant on my chest, or when my heart would beat so fast it would take my breath away. I didn’t know it back then.

It came around again after a time I had gone through a number of changes and losses (the diagnosis and death of my father from cancer, the break up of a long term relationship, changing universities and losing a year, graduating, finding and losing a job, finding another albeit crappier job) and hadn’t realized I was depressed until much later. It literally took not being physically able to get out of bed for three days for it to click that there was something very wrong. When I did get up, I promptly sought the help of my GP who referred me to a psychiatrist and put me on medication. I chose to go to therapy in addition to medication, which helped me reclaim my life.

So when I received the earth shattering news that I had cancer, I anticipated that depression might creep back into my life, so I wanted to be proactive, because frankly, life is too damn short to be depressed with or without cancer.screen-shot-2017-01-25-at-3-51-34-am

Initially, I was so focused on treatment and getting better, I didn’t think about how I felt. I knew logically that I should allow myself to feel whatever feelings I had, but what happened was the opposite. I felt so blessed that I was supported, loved, “healthy” and tolerating treatment so well that anytime I did start to feel “negative” emotions or feel sorry for myself, I’d quickly beat myself up for it. I mean how dare I feel bad when I was so lucky!! Once I completed treatment, I found myself with a lot more time, and consequently, a lot more time to think. This was when I began to feel the emotional fallout of my diagnosis.

As open as I was about my story, I always held back what I really felt. I went around with a smile on my face all the while hiding my fear and anger behind a mask. The only time the mask came off was when I was in the presence of other Young Adult survivors.

All the emotions that were suppressed around everyone else bubbled up and escaped when I would talk to other survivors. I was able to express my fears to them and not be afraid that they would fall apart, or become fearful for me, I knew I wasn’t burdening them like I would with my family. They got it, because many of them wore the same mask, they could see past the BS of “I’m fine” and they called my bluff.

To try to circumvent depression I was proactive, by seeing a physiologist. I went religiously hoping that I’d avoid the “blues” but it didn’t feel right, so sought help through my hospital. What I really wanted and needed was someone who had experience with cancer patients. The second time was the charm, but still I found myself to be extremely volatile. I imagine living with me at that time would have been akin to living in a minefield, you never knew when I’d explode.

I thought that depression would come to me in paralyzing sadness like it had before, that way I could recognize it, but it didn’t, it came to me in red hot anger. I don’t know where all the anger came from, but it burst out of me, for the trivial minute things, and was usually directed towards the people I loved most.

Again I was oblivious that I was experiencing depression until I wanted to physically hurt someone out of anger. It was that moment that I realized I needed more help. Talking wasn’t cutting it and as much as I didn’t want to take pills, I knew I had to. I am not advocating anti-depressants, they are not for everyone. In my case, they really help me function and regulate my mood so it’s not as extreme. In addition to medication, I seek counseling regularly, attend a Young Adult support group as often as I can, and meditate regularly.

There is no road map out there to navigate cancer*, no right or wrong way, you just do what you have to do to get to the other side, the truth is, what has happened is a trauma, a loss, a life altering event. Despite being grateful for being alive, we still have to mourn what we lost, whether its opportunities, time, or the ability to have a child, denying those feelings will only come back to haunt us. So please, allow yourself to grieve and feel. Seek help, talk to your peers, talk to your doctor, find a support group, reach out. Life is too short to be depressed but even cancer warriors get the blues.

*This statement is true for so many situations, from post-partum depression to the death of a family member to the end of a marriage. There is no right or wrong way to feel, but if you are not your normal self, talk to some one. If you are in crisis please call 911 or go to your local hospital.

AM

Resources:

Bell Let’s Talk  Dedicated to moving mental health forward in Canada, Bell Let’s Talk promotes awareness and action with a strategy built on 4 key pillars: Fighting the stigma, improving access to care, supporting world-class research, and leading by example in workplace mental health.

Canadian Mental Health Association  As a nation-wide, voluntary organization, the Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing mental illness. The CMHA accomplishes this mission through advocacy, education, research and service.

KidsHelpPhone  Kids Help Phone is a Canadian and world leader known for our expertise and continuous innovation as Canada’s only 24/7 counselling and information service for young people. Since 1989, our trained, professional counsellors have been listening to kids, often when no one else can or will. We are always there – supporting young people wherever and whenever they need us most.

Cracks and Raw Edges (Revisited)

I read yesterday that Carrie Fisher was laid to rest and that her ashes had been contained in a Prozac urn. It both mad me sad (that we lost an icon, childhood hero, and mental illness advocate), but made me laugh at her ultimate nose thumbing. It is a true testament screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-3-56-37-pmto her wit and humour. Carrie’s Leia was the first princess I ever wanted to be. I mean why not? She was plucky, beautiful, spunky and carried a blaster, what little girl wouldn’t want to be her?! Sadly I was ill equipped and lacked the follicular capacity to create those famous cinnamon buns, Cinderella it was. All humour aside, her passing reminded me that all of us struggle, sometimes it is invisible and private and sometimes it is right there in your face. Regardless of which it is, we all have the capacity and grace to pull ourselves up and make a comeback.

I don’t only live with one invisible stigmatized disease (lung cancer), but two. I also live with depression and anxiety. You may think that it came about after being diagnosed with cancer, but my first diagnosis occurred in my mid-20s. Since then, a lot has happened and understandably, depression has played a fairly significant roll in my life post diagnosis. I screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-3-43-10-pmhad an inkling that it may come around again post Dx and tried to head it off at the pass, but your body and mind have a way of telling you it needs help.

In my 20’s depression was a sleeper. It snuck up on me and slowly took over my life over the course of a year. In my cancer years, even being fully aware that it could happen again, it hit me like a truck with anger and bitterness, two emotions I didn’t need in my life or recognize as depression. Rather than allowing my life to be dictated by these volatile emotions, I sought out help. Lots of it! I went to Young Adult support groups, saw a psychologist, was part of an online lung cancer group, and finally took medication. I needed it all, and it helped.

Two years ago I tried weaning off my meds, I wrote about and shared the experience with The Cancer Knowledge Network. The entire experience was both eye-opening and rather terrifying. I share it again here because I want people to know that there is no shame in having a mental illness, and there is no shame in asking for help when you need it. It is not a weakness but rather a great strength and sense of self-awareness.

I have cracks and they are starting to show. Actually I’m crumbling. I tried an experiment, it failed. Or maybe it was a raging success, because I’ve come to the grim realization that for the rest of my life I will depend on anti-depressants to regulate my mood. I suppose that you should be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it…

I wanted to see how I would fare weaning myself off of my meds just to see what it would be like to feel normal. Maybe I’d be happy and satisfied and in control of my emotions, because for 4 years I’ve felt numb. It felt like I wasn’t experiencing my life as fully as I should. I missed the raw edges because I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was as intense as it should be. I was happy and sad but never really happy or really sad, which is why I suppose I began taking meds in the first place. The highs and lows were just so extreme that I was a walking minefield.

Afterwards though I was even keel, but dulled somehow, at least I felt like I was dulled. So I thought was could it hurt?

It’s been almost a month and I’m feeling. Feeling angry and bitter, sad and depressed. I actually hate myself right now. I don’t like wallowing in self-pity, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I want to curl up into a ball and sleep. I want the world to go away and just leave me alone. I hate feeling this way! I hate that I can’t be happy for others without feeling sorry for myself. I hate thinking that my life has been a series of tragedies that I just happen to scrape through. I hate thinking that I should be happy because I’m alive. I hate not getting what I want, what I’ve worked hard for. I hate self-pity!

So on Monday I will fill my prescription again and hope that the edges will become dulled so I can be the person I was a month ago before this brainchild of mine, before I became myself. I will become comfortably numb like the song says and I will feel…less. I won’t hate myself so much, and I’ll go on. I just wish I didn’t need pills to keep me from being me, a me who apparently is bitter and angry even if I am grateful to be alive, because sometimes even that isn’t enough.

It is my hope that some one reading this will reach out if they are struggling, because sometimes it is just too much to hold, and you need someone to help you let go.

AM

Resources: screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-3-45-59-pm

CAMH

I Need to Talk to Someone

Mental Health Help Line

Mental Health Facilities