As a Perinatal Psychiatrist and Mindfulness Instructor, women often ask me, “How is meditation going to help me right in the moment when I actually FEEL overwhelmed?” On the one hand, these women understand how to connect with their breath during a long, seated meditation practice. But their worry is: How can mindfulness help me during a moment of intensity in regular life, when the conflict is happening NOW?
Well, mindfulness can help – even then.
Mindfulness isn’t only about having a seated formal practice. The long practice teaches us how to connect to the present moment and recognize the way thought-patterns emerge; how thoughts can trigger physical sensations; and how we react to these states. By investing time to develop a formal practice, we can then translate these skills into the rapid daily life that is constantly unfolding around us.
Here is an example from a patient I have worked with so I can highlight where mindfulness can be useful in such a situation. And, more importantly, how being on auto-pilot and unaware can drive us to increased unhappiness. (Names changed for confidentiality.)
Sarah looked down at her belly. She noticed how the skin draped loosely near her navel. A vague nausea crept into her throat. The light from the bathroom vanity reflected the silvery lines that had erupted across her flank and hips, sometime around 24 weeks. Heat began to radiate from her cheeks. She quickly grabbed a towel to cover up what was all too visible and proceeded through her morning routine at lightning speed. Without her noticing, Sarah’s partner entered the bathroom with a smile and embraced her from behind. “Don’t touch me!” she spoke out unexpectedly and irritated, not knowing where this reflexive anger had come from. “Aren’t you a ray of sunshine this morning?” he retorted sarcastically. They both glared at each other briefly and then turned away from each other. Sarah felt her nausea replaced by a sinking feeling, and a cold chill ran down her spine. “So this is my life?!” she asks herself. From the other room she hears the baby begin to cry…
In this example, the new mother starts to notice how her body has changed since the pregnancy. She sees how her abdomen is soft and the skin is loose. She observes the scars from stretch marks. But how aware is she of the inner monologue?
The narrative in the background is telling her she is “disgusting now” and that “she should have lost this weight already.” Is she aware of the emotional reactions occurring as these thoughts barrage her? Does she acknowledge the feelings of shame, disgust and sadness? Strong physical reactions suddenly presented themselves: nausea, heat. Could she appreciate that all of these were connected?
Simply put, being unaware of the way our mind wanders and the critical places it takes us, makes us extremely vulnerable to both depressive and anxious mood states. A mindfulness practice gives us the advantage of seeing these moods come on earlier, using clues from body sensations to recognize their intrusion.
The meditative practice of recognizing our thoughts AS thoughts, and not necessarily truths about ourselves, allows us to take a wider and less personalized perspective. It gives us permission to accept things as they are, and cultivate a sense of compassion for the challenges we constantly face. Often times, the most critical voice resides in our own minds. Mindfulness carves out moments in our day where we can take a pause from the typically judgmental running commentary in our heads, allow things to be exactly as they are, and take a breath.