You know how anxiety, guilt and anger feel in your body. You also know what it’s like to be stuck in a loop of compulsive negative thoughts. Big things that happened years ago or small things that happened an hour ago… Your mind churns them for hours on end.
No wonder you have a hard time sleeping and focusing on your job, conversation or anything really.
Forcing yourself to “just get over it” rarely works. Here’s something that might: building emotional fitness. Now, before you roll your eyes, you should check out Mark Freeman’s book, “You Are Not a Rock: A Step-by-Step Guide to Better Mental Health (for Humans)”.
After dealing with severe mental illness himself, Freeman became a mental health coach. His signature catchphrase, “You are not a rock,” is meant to remind people that, unlike rocks, humans experience stress. And mental disorders. But there are a range of things that can help. Freeman’s go-to technique? Mindfulness. Now a buzzword, mindfulness is what helped him recover and enjoy life again.
“It isn’t a magical panacea, but it’s a skill I’ve found critical to succeeding with recovery and maintaining it,” Freeman says.
Here’s Freeman explaining how mindfulness actually works:
1. You can ditch mindlessness.
When you’re answering emails while insisting to your partner that you’re listening to them at the same time you’re having an imaginary argument in your head with a customer about why they’re wrong, that’s mindlessness.
Practicing mindlessness trains your brain to be an obsessive, unfocused, judgmental wreck. When I struggled with mental illness, I thought that was the only way to function. But I was pouring jet fuel on my mental health challenges. Mindfulness is about being present with the thing you’re doing in the present. Not only is that much healthier for your brain, but you’ll actually find you get much more done.
2. Put space between you and the stuff in your head.
The best evidence-based therapies for tackling mental health issues involve making changes in ways of thinking and behaving. But after years of practice, reacting to the stuff in our heads is so automatic that it seems impossible to change. Practicing meditation and mindfulness is the most effective way I’ve found to put space between myself and the junk my brain is throwing up or the world is throwing at me. We need to practice having experiences, being aware of what they trigger in us, and then make healthy choices. If we don’t practice that through something like meditation, then of course we don’t have that skill!
3. Bring awareness to pain you’re carrying around.
People sometimes mistakenly assume that mindfulness is about ignoring what’s happening around us or what’s happened to us in the past. By bringing a mindfulness practice into your life, you can quickly see that, in the present, you’re carrying around baggage from the past that trips you up in the present. When you’re in a meeting at work and you’re present to what’s happening, you can see how the embarrassment from when your grade 9 math teacher yelled at you is translating into your hesitancy to question the mistakes your colleague made in the financials.
4. Learn about the joys of non-judgment.
A core component of the practice of mindfulness is contacting the present without judgment. Not judging things doesn’t mean you’re going to let yourself get run over by a car because you didn’t want to judge it as dangerous. Non-judgment is about enabling you to not spend all day ruminating about that car that almost ran you over. It’s about recognizing that many mental health struggles are not about the things we’re experiencing around us or inside of us, but about the judgments we attach to those experiences.
5. Have all of the experiences you’ve avoided.
It could be disgusting intrusive thoughts we’re trying to silence, social anxieties we’re trying to avoid, the paralyzing physical sensations of a panic attack we want to prevent, maybe heart-rending abandonment we want to control–whatever experience it might be, the more we try to avoid and control it, the more we struggle with it and the more anxieties and uncertainties our brains throw at us. Mindfulness is a skill that allows us to step into those experiences, to be honest about what’s happening, and take a step forward in life towards the things we care about. That’s not all it takes to break the cycle of mental illness, but it’s a big step on the journey.
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Mark Freeman is a mental health coach based in Toronto. He is the author of “You Are Not a Rock: A Step-by-Step Guide to Better Mental Health (for Humans)” and the co-founder of the online mental health community Everybody Has a Brain.