Fairly often on Twitter there is some sneering at mindfulness and mainly because, in the mental health sphere at least, it seems to be all the rage as a cure for all ills. I am acutely aware that it is being thrust upon some people with mental health difficulties in a way which can be unhelpful. However, mindfulness played a key part in me recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and remains a key part in my life in general and me managing my Bipolar Disorder. In addition, I’m going to be training to teach mindfulness and I want to explain a bit in this blog about what mindfulness is (for me), how it has helped me, and what it isn’t*.
Mindfulness is simply being in the present moment and observing that moment’s experience, without judgment; allowing it to just ‘be’. Such a simple theory, however, in practice it is actually quite difficult to get the hang of and it is just that, a practice. One which must be continued lifelong.
When I had struggles that were labelled as a Personality Disorder (PD) my emotions were extreme and out of control, constantly switching from one to another and, at times, totally overwhelming. Mindfulness (as part of DBT) enabled me to learn to identify what emotions I was experiencing by listening to what was going on in my body and my mind. It also led to me being able to regulate my emotions more effectively so that they became less heightened and had far less of an impact on my life. This isn’t by blocking those emotions but recognising them coming on far earlier than I used to and to allow them to be and respond to them constructively rather than ignoring or blocking them until they become extreme and overwhelming. Mindfulness gives me the opportunity to choose how to deal with my thoughts, emotions and experiences.
Mindfulness also helps me with my Bipolar Disorder. The self-awareness cultivated through mindfulness allows me to intervene in hypomania (well, at the beginnings of it before losing insight) and depression in a way that helps lessen the damage that both of those extreme moods can cause.
However, mindfulness is not a panacea for all mental health difficulties. The practice of mindfulness doesn’t magically “make things better” but gives an individual the opportunity to honour thoughts, emotions and experiences, and respond compassionately and effectively to them. It isn’t something you can force upon an individual by way of referral through mental health services as an only choice. An individual has to want to try the practice and continue to practice it. It is a commitment. I personally don’t believe it is suitable for all circumstances. When I had/have my recent episode of psychosis it felt unsafe to engage in formal meditations but I could engage in informal practice. I was able to adjust this because of my experience and this must be done at all times. Another example would be not using body focused meditations such as body scans when working with someone with eating disorders (as was an example provided on Twitter). Safety is paramount. I do worry that unqualified teachers can cause dangers here and that any course provider must have gone through rigorous training such as that provided by an organisation such as Breathworks.
I feel that I haven’t really accomplished what I set out to in this blog but perhaps that’s because I was hoping to achieve too much with it. For now, at least, I have laid out briefly how mindfulness has helped me and how it can be unhelpful. Further blogs, during my teacher training, are to be expected 🙂
* I will be training through Breathworks in Manchester. They have many resources available on their website: http://www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk/
There’s a mass of literature on mindfulness. The ones set out below are foundation ones that I have found helpful:
Aldina, S. Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) Wiley
Germer, C.K. The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (2009) The Guildford Press
McKay, M, Wood, J.C, Brantley, J. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (2007) Harbinger Publications
Williams & Penman Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011) Piaktus
Williams, M, Kabat-Zinn, et al. The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007) Guildford Press.