mental health

Can Mindfulness help improve Mental Health?

Mental Health is has been given a lot of exposure recently, its being covered in the media and even government policy. But do we really understand mental health?

What is Mental Health?

We all have mental health, it’s just the other side of physical health, sometimes we refer to it as emotional health or well being. We all suffer from poor mental health at some point in our life, it is natural, just like breaking a leg or getting the flu; we are all susceptible to injury and illness, physically and mentally.

Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden. It is easier to say “my tooth is aching” than to say “my heart is broken” - C.S Lewis

There is no single cause for mental illness, it can be biological, psychological, environmental or a combination.

What does Poor Mental Health Feel and Look like?

This is where the lines blur, how do we identify poor mental health, when do we attach the label “illness?”

Some may show signs of declining mental health through a change in personality, how they process thoughts and interact with others. Often there is no outward signs, it is easily concealed, for others it is very outwardly expressed.

Poor mental health affects how we feel about ourselves and people around us. It influences our ability to make and keep friends and relationships. It hinders our ability to learn from others and to develop psychologically and emotionally.

Of course much of this is subjective, how do we really know if someone is “mentally ill” or if it is just their character? It is hard if not impossible to accurately diagnose mental illness. Our views of mental health have changed so much over history; there were times when a woman was “insane” for disobeying her husband. Therefore mental illness is still very much undiscovered and likely to change as we evolve.

How we treat Mental Illness

Until recently the most common way to “treat” mental illness was by the use of drugs. One could argue that we are only treating the symptoms not the illness. We also have many other therapies such as counselling, psychotherapy and recovery programs. All beneficial in their own way, for some it works for others it doesn’t.

I am not my diagnosis

What I’ve always struggled with is the question; do we become our label? Growing up I challenged the labels people tried to impose on me, what purpose do labels have in establishing who we think we are? I’ve watched children I taught as a secondary school teacher be labelled “bright”, “slow”, “academically challenged” and the list goes on. I wonder how many of these children grew into their labels?

In my experience, I have found people who suffer from mental illness as very emotional, deep thinkers. Some are creative, expressive and think out of the norm. Look at how Einstein was described:

Einstein's primary-school teachers reported that the child had a powerful and lingering distaste of authority. Coupled with his late-developing speech, some medical professionals have suggested this behavior as symptomatic of either autism or Asperger's Syndrome. 

I am sure there is plenty of cases similar to Einstein. In society we see anything that is different as being a problem, even to the point that recently “disobedience” is being labelled as a mental health problem. That has got to be worrying?

Mindfulness and Mental Health

Finally we have come to a place of understanding that mental health needs a different approach. I won’t for a second suggest that Mindfulness is the cure for all mental health issues, nor will I say it’s appropriate for everyone. As we have already established, mental health is too personal too have a one fit solution for all.

These are the reasons that I think Mindfulness can help improve Mental Health:

“The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden” - C.S. Lewis

In Mindfulness we are taught to turn towards our pain. This can be extremely difficult for some and maybe even the first time that they are asked to do this. It is essential that when learning to practice Mindfulness you have an experienced practitioner to guide you, so that you can be supported to know when to turn towards and when to move to a different place when it gets too much. Mindfulness is a process of self regulation, at first we need someone to help us learn how.

Why turn towards our pain? - simply because when we pay attention to it, give it room to do what it needs to do, it can also begin to dissolve. This doesn’t mean it goes away, it just becomes less of an issue. We learn to be with it in a different way.

You can’t tell just by looking at someone what they are dealing with inside - Danielle Rupp

Mental Health is such a personal experience that the only real way to improve it is to work on ourselves. This can be really difficult for someone in the grips of a mental health problem and I guess this is where the use of drugs may help, temporarily in any case. Mindfulness is about self-discovery, self-acceptance and strengthening inner resilience. Through our Mindfulness practice we learn to accept that life isn’t going to always go our way, we learn to accept our failings and befriend what we see as our weaknesses.

In short, Mindfulness is coming to terms with the fact that we are only human

The practice of Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention, to see for ourselves what we are doing and why. With this increased awareness we start to take steps to change our behaviours, we can see and therefore we can do something about it.

The deepest pain I ever felt was denying my own feelings to make everyone else comfortable

What would happen if you suddenly accepted yourself just as you are? What if you could start to be kind to yourself? - this is what we learn through the practice of Mindfulness.

You cannot recover from anxiety by just staying calm

Some people are under the impression that Mindfulness is about learning to stay calm and relaxing. I’d argue that this is the biggest misconception. To learn to relax is a temporary feeling, useful at times but not life changing. It may help to stop the anxiety taking over but it won’t stop the anxiety.

Mindfulness is a practice that can greatly enhance how we live our life. It takes time and commitment to cultivate a moment to moment awareness of what we are doing, when we are doing it. We have to learn and apply Mindfulness practices, not for a day or a week but for the rest of our life. And in a society that is used to quick fixes, this doesn’t always sound ideal.

However if we really are serious about mental health, if we really want to learn how to live in a world that is constantly changing, to take better care of ourselves and be content, then perhaps it’s time to make a bigger commitment to ourselves?

If you want to know how we can help you bring Mindfulness into your life, school or workplace, please do get in touch.

Resilience is the key to happiness

If I asked you what you want most in life, I’m going to guess you would say something like, to be happy. It’s certainly what I would say, I think it’s the one thing that universally connects us all, this desire to be happy.

Why is happiness difficult to achieve?

Well to me the answer is simple. When happiness is reliant on external factors such as materialistic things or other people, then it can not be controlled. We can have moments of happiness but as soon as that external element changes or we lose it, then we are no longer happy.

It is therefore fundamental to our well-being that we strengthen our internal world so that we have the capacity to make ourselves happy. Does the fact that happiness is something you can create seem alien to you?

In her book The Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware lists one regret as “I wish I had given myself permission to be happy”. If happiness is in our control, then that’s good news because at any given time you can give ourselves permission to be happy. Is now a good time to do that, if not now, when?

What’s the missing ingredient?

I’ve come to see myself as a teacher of resilience rather than of Mindfulness because to me resilience is the key to happiness. If life is going to throw challenges at us at any given time, if we have no idea what is around the corner, then surely we need to build our inner resilience so we can weather each storm?

People often come to Mindfulness in pursuit of happiness, to find a way to stop the pain and suffering in their life. Sometimes they think all they need to do is to learn how to relax and I often see their disappointment when I tell them Mindfulness isn’t about that. Relaxation is a temporary feeling, it easily lost as soon as something we don’t want or like comes our way.

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.

To be resilient is to have the strength to pick yourself up when you fall, to keep picking yourself up, to not give up or to stay stuck in pain and suffering. Resilience is an inner strength.

We need resilience in all areas of our life, personal, intimate, work and leisure. Difficulties and challenges will come and go, it’s a fact of life. Because of that, I prefer to teach people how to be resilient, that is my type of Mindfulness.

How to become more resilient

Let Yourself Fail

The bad news about resilience is that we need to fall to learn how to pick ourselves up, we need to know what pain is to find a way to heal and we need to know how to fail to learn how to succeed. If we avoid failure, we are in fact avoiding what helps us become resilient.

The strongest people are usually the ones that have had to endure the most suffering. Look at history, the people who have left a mark on us are people like Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. They had to develop immense resilience to survive. Not only did they survive, they thrived through their challenges.

Accept Change

You can bet that something good is right around the corner just as much as we know the opposite is also a possibility. If things are not how you want them to be at this moment, then luckily you know it’s going to change because nothing stays the same. Wouldn’t it be better to accept that change is happening all the time and to stop trying to control everything around you? Instead focus on strengthening your inner resilience so you can pick yourself up when things are not going as you wish, then you are not easily knocked by life.

Challenge Yourself

This is one of my favourites. When I notice I’m a little scared of something, then that’s when I know I must do it. The more I challenge myself the easier it becomes. Nothing is ever as bad as our mind makes us believe. I remember when I first took a jet ski lesson and the instructor left me on my own in the open sea (or ocean!), the waves were high and rough. I thought I’d fall in and not be able to get myself out. I remember the instructor saying “the slower you go the less stability you have” so I had to make a choice. Go slow and lose control or rev up the engine and see what happens. To my surprise although I was scared, it felt pretty good!

I guess this reflects life, we can hold the break and live life safely or we can let go and live life regardless of fear. It is our decision.

Mindfulness and Resilience

Mindfulness helps us develop our resilience in three steps:

  1. We become aware of our inner talk and begin to see our limiting thoughts.

  2. Then we notice our patterns of behaviour which are our learned reactions. Note I say reactions because we are not usually aware of them.

  3. Once we become aware of our limiting thoughts and reactions, we can change. Using Mindfulness practices to respond rather than react.

Mindfulness gives us the tools we need to self regulate and develop our inner resilience. And then we can take charge of our life.

If you want to know more about our approach to Mindfulness for your personal life, work or general well-being please do get in touch.

Acceptance isn't giving up

Acceptance is a difficult one to work with when you are going through a tough time. When your world is falling apart, you have a painful illness or you just can't see anything positive in life, how does acceptance help?

Well, firstly it's good to understand what we mean by acceptance because it is very often confused with giving up and resigning ourself to our current situation.

Acceptance is nothing to do with giving up, it is much more about seeing it clearly, about facing whatever your current challenge is and just saying "well it's here, I might as well face it". In Mindfulness, we say we turn towards it because it is through this process that we can begin to deal with it.

A Beautiful Mind 

It may be useful to look at the story of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner with a remarkable mathematical mind who has spent a lifetime living with Schizophrenia. The film a Beautiful Mind documents John's story and how he was able to finally find a way to live with his delusional state of mind without medical intervention. To clarify, John Nash had invented three imaginary people who played a major part in his life and that led him to behave irrationally, sometimes dangerously. 

It is in this scene that he gives us some insight into how he has come to terms with his condition. After years of working on his confused, irrational thoughts, John Nash finally shares how he was able to transform his life. Let me share this insightful conversation with his old (real) friend Martin:

Martin: "Have they gone?" (referring to his imaginary friends)

John: "No, not gone, maybe they will never be gone. But I've got used to ignoring them, and they've kind of given up on me"

He then goes on "I think that's what it's like with all our dreams and nightmares, you have to keep feeding them to stay alive"

Martin: "John, but they haunt you?"

John: "They're my past, everyone is haunted by their past" 

What John's story teaches us is that it was only when he was able to accept his delusions, was he able to help himself.

Acceptance is not giving up

Pema Chodron refers to our constant battle with "what is" like us constantly kicking the wheel. We can't have peace of mind if we keep on kicking the wheel, or if we bite the hook so we get caught. In Tibetian, the word "Shenpa" is used to describe that sticky, uncomfortable feeling we get when we are experiencing something we don't like or want. 

Shenpa - An unwillingness of human beings to let go of certain thoughts, particularly those that cause suffering

So what is the difference between acceptance and resigning yourself to your current situation?

In Mindfulness, we practice staying with our current feelings and emotions, even though our instinct may be to run or distract ourselves so that we don't have to feel what we feel. But we can't change the movie if we don't see it, we can't solve a problem until we understand it, we won't know the root cause if we don't explore deeper.

So we learn to stay, even if it is uncomfortable. We bring in loving kindness to the situation, we give ourselves the support we need to sit with the uncomfortable feeling. Until we can develop our inner resilience we are always going to be caught up in life's ups and downs, the slightest thing will upset or agitate us.

By staying and accepting what is happening at this moment you are able to get to the root of the struggle. We do this through meditation or by simply sitting with your breath, becoming fully acquainted with whatever is going on right now.

Taking John Nash's story as an example, we could narrow the process down to three simple steps:

First you must see.

Face your struggling. And recognise the thoughts you have around this uncomfortableness. Question your thoughts, are they real? Do they really reflect the whole situation? In the film Beautiful Mind, at this stage John Nash shouts at his imaginary friends "you are not real" because our thoughts are not a realistic reflection of the whole situation, are they?

At this stage you are curious, you are exploring and you are asking all the questions. If you are suffering from an illness, are your thoughts helpful or are they causing you to suffer more? What are the facts and what are the delusions? 

Making Friends with Your Struggle

The next step is to stop fighting, to surrender to the fact that maybe your challenge will never go away. Now that sounds very fatalistic, doesn't it? Well, actually it's not because when you let go of the struggle, suddenly it has less of a hold on you. For those of us who've experienced childbirth, we know that the only way to bear the pain is to stop the struggle. Adding pain to what's already a painful experience doesn't help anyone.

And always remember to be kind, yes I know this is a whole other subject!

Make Peace - Acceptance

Going back to our friend John Nash, he freed himself from the constant involvement with his thoughts. That is what acceptance is, see it for what it is, let go of the struggle and make the changes you need to make to help yourself. The pain may not go away completely, the constant negative thoughts may not disappear overnight but what will happen is that you will make peace with yourself.

If you have a personal struggle, we may be able to help. 

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