Self-regulating and mindfulness

The only way to regulate intense feelings of anxiety, or stimulate recovery from dissociation is to train your vagus nerve. You need to train yourself to rest and recover, by deactivating stress hormones and discharging the physical symptoms of anxiety. But this requires daily practice and mindfulness exercises. 

Mindfulness is not a complicated practice. You don’t have to be an expert, or a Buddhist monk to benefit from it. The best way I can describe mindfulness is by striking a balance between observing and experiencing. Paying attention to the continuous flow of your experience: by observing and feeling the sensations, which emerge from the moment. They may be positive, or negative ones. 

You do not have to empty your mind, or experience an altered state of consciousness. You just have to feel connected to your feelings and observe them as they arise in the present moment. Ideally ,over time you will learn to quieten your mind, remain still and feel calm. But many of you will fight with frustration, boredom and anger. 

It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Or you’re not good at mindfulness. Learning how stay with your practice and tolerate boredom and frustration is part of the process. Try to practice mindfulness as a continuous, daily ongoing process. It takes time. You need to slow down and learn from each passing moment, rather than learn by outcome. 

Refining your practice – little and often

As you refine your ability to observe, you will deepen your experience, but it won’t happen overnight. Even after years of practice, you will find your wild mind filled with the endless chatter of the mind. Accepting this isn’t easy. You need to be forgiving and persistent, because an anxious mind wanders, disrupts and fights with itself. 

One simple way of describing mindfulness is to practice being child-like. Remember what it’s like to be a child and filled with insatiable curiosity. You learn by being open and exploring your senses. Watching, observing and experimenting with the way the natural world works. As you observe, you go into a semi-trance like state. Soon you will relax into your reverie and find yourself connecting to your physical sensations inside-and-out.

Use this practice everyday, as often as you can throughout. Little and often, or in long drawn-out routines. In a quiet environment, or noisy one. Sitting still, or out on the hoof. Take three simple breaths, or sit for an hour. Use your garden, or a park, a place of worship, or a quiet corner of your room. You can be mindful of breathing anywhere: while you’re stretching, walking, cooking, eating, singing, running, boxing or cutting someone else’s hair.

Mindfulness is simplicity

Mindfulness is not a mystery. You just have to slow down and pay attention to whatever sensations are emerging from your experience. You carry on feeling, touching, seeing, listening, smelling or tasting. Observe your sense of balance, your centre of gravity, your speed, your strength and your flexibility. The five major practices of mindfulness help with this: 

1. Observation

  • Try observing your physiological sensations without judging yourself. Practice building your internal awareness with a regular body-scan; understanding your emotions and reactions in different situations. Spend time reflecting, or noticing your sensory experience by identifying feelings and where they occur in your body. Learn to accept and reclaim your emotions as your own, without cross-referencing them with other people.
  • Acknowledge your experiences as valid, even if they do not live up to expectations. Learn to tolerate your anxiety, go with it sometimes and do not fight it. Observing also helps you to pause, slow down and pay attention to your emotional needs. As well as caring for your well-being and compassion. With practice it can bring about a calm, alert sense of focus, which is the optimal state of body-and-mind.
  • Activities: body-scan, observing pain, observing the five senses, observing the natural world, cooking and eating meditation, gardening meditation, observing as I shower or dress, observing my sense of balance and centre of gravity.

2. Breathing

  • Deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing changes your heart rate, cortisol levels, muscle-tension and reduces impulsivity or aggression. This is because deep breathing activates the vagus nerve to reduce stress hormones and produce feelings of well-being. It releases other neuro-chemicals (e.g. acetylcholine, oxytocin, serotonin) which help you rest and recover.
  • Breathing slows you down, helps produce inner states of calm and safety. And enough dopamine to reduce pain from chronic anxiety. The calmer, more focussed you are, the more emotionally regulated you become. This means having the emotional space to think, become more alert over concentrated periods of time. Far from being dull, boring or anti-competitive, observing your inner being helps you to fine-tune your physiological states and use them more efficiently.
  • Activities: diaphragmatic breathing; three simple breaths, Bhuddhist chanting, singing, gurgling water, cold-shower routines, cold-water swimming, cardio-vascular exercises.

3. Grounding

  • This is simply the practice of using your centre of gravity and anchored to the floor to feel stable. It also helps you connect to yourself when you’re feeling disembodied. This is particularly important for people who dissociate, or feel disembodied after prolonged anxiety. You may become detached from your body, feel numb or empty inside – like being trapped inside a body that doesn’t know itself.
  • Use grounding to press your feet into the floor and anchor them, taking a firm stance with your legs spread as wide as your hips – stable but flexible in the spine and upright, but not rigid. You can also ball the fists, adjust your posture, tense your core abdominal muscles. Then lower your shoulders and breathe slowly to help your sense of grounding.
  • Activities: sitting-grounding exercise, wide-leg stance, swaying with a medicine ball or weight, tai-chi, martial arts, shoulder-pressing against a wall, pressing against a steering wheel in a car (while driving long journeys), stomping, dancing, yoga, pilates

4. Stretching

  • When you’re anxious the natural mammalian ‘stress response’ is to stiffen up and hold tension in your upper body (especially the spine, neck and shoulders), bracing yourself for attack. You may even hunch your shoulders, pull in your rib-cage and restrict breathing by curving your spine.
  • Many people hold their breath, or only breathe from the middle of their chest, especially when sitting. Even when there is no direct threat, you may adopt this stance unconsciously when you’re concentrating on work. Without regular movement breaks the muscles in your body contract; the ligaments and tendons foreshorten and over time you embed an unconscious muscle memory for this postural rigidity. 
  • It is not enough to take a quick stretch, flip your head side-to-side, or click your neck vertebrae. You need to take proper time-out to develop stretching routines that counteract the repeated default patterning of spinal compression, a stiffened rib-cage and restricted breathing.
  • Activities: stretching neck, back and shoulders routine; Alexander Technique; yoga; pilates; warm-up and warm-down; Thai massage; shower massage, massage machine; chair massage

5. Movement

  • The body loves movement. Even when your body is injured or in pain, recovery requires a slow, gentle process of rehabilitation. And exercise to restore the body’s movement. For example, arthritic pain in the joints requires manipulating them to become more flexible, elastic and malleable. Remaining stiff and keeping yourself rigid, heightens anxiety.
  • Anxiety leads to prolonged periods of compression, foreshortening and inhibited movement. Exercises that encourage you to be rigorous, lift your heart-rate and deepen breathing that allows your body to reset itself. 
  • Homeostasis (when the body rebalances hormones, temperature, oxygen and blood sugar levels). This in part is regulated by movement, heart rate and breathing. And since anxiety releases cortisol to prime you for ‘fight-and-flight’, that pent-up energy needs to be released somehow. Stress hormones are only discharged with rigorous movement; especially when accompanied by anger, aggression or agitation in the limbs.
  • Activities: walking-meditation, swimming, running, cycling, movement breaks at work, dancing, aerobic activity, hiking and hill-walking