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The way you heal is up to you.

So I’m learning why mindfulness is called a practice.

Last week I pitched myself the idea of sitting quietly with my anxieties for three minutes a day. By exposing myself to raw reality, I hoped to unlearn my nasty habit of pretending everything is okay despite evidence to the contrary. And while I stand by the effectiveness of exposure therapy, I’m realizing I need to tweak my process a little to make it work better for me.

Shutting off my denial of all my problems has proven prohibitively difficult. I tried it several times this week and found that I’ve been ignoring too many issues to let them all surface in my brain at once. Exposure therapy isn’t supposed to be so overwhelming that it doesn’t help the process of healing. The discomfort that exposure causes is supposed to build incrementally. And three minutes is too long an increment for me right now.

So I’ve adjusted my practice of being mindful of my anxieties. Instead of facing all my troubles at once, I’m scrutinizing them one at a time, as they come up in my life. I’m no longer shining a surgical light on all my repressed fears in one bright burst. I’m practicing the gentler alternative habit of keeping a dim awareness of my thoughts on all the time. This way, I can catch my denial as it’s forming, not after it has solidified.

And I think it’s working. When I notice myself willfully blocking out a fact I don’t want to look at, I look at it anyway. That’s it, that’s the whole goal. I don’t beat myself up for trying to repress my demons. I don’t spin the unpleasant fact into something more palatable. And I don’t force myself to fix the problem, either. I just look at it. Right now my objective isn’t to solve my problems; it’s simply to accept that they’re there. I have to see them before I can treat them. 

When the urge comes up to hide from the truth, I try to watch that urge form in my brain, then let it pass through me and float away. I want to get better at letting go of my denial. I want to learn to let the truth be exactly what it is, whether I like it or not, without coloring it. And since I’m doing this with small, bite-sized anxieties, I don’t feel overwhelmed. It’s a much more organic process than forcing all my fears to bubble up regardless of whether they’re provoked.

This week, I’ve found that this slightly edited mindfulness practice works better for me than the original “three minute” approach. And that’s okay! In fact, it’s the way therapy is supposed to work. Mental health treatments are not one-size-fits-all: the human brain is vastly complex, and everyone is unique. Mindfulness exercises are meant to be springboards, not rules.

Do what works. That’s the whole point.

And if something stops working, change it up again. No one’s mind is static, and the therapies you practice should reflect that. If my “face-one-anxiety-at-a-time” treatment stops helping me, I’ll customize it further. Hanging onto a process that isn’t effective anymore is its own flavor of unhelpful willfulness.

That said, I hope my newest iteration of anxiety exposure therapy works, even just a little. I’ll continue writing updates as it inevitably shifts to reflect what I need to keep healing. 

3 thoughts on “The way you heal is up to you.

  1. I can imagine that 3 minutes would feel a long time to be in an anxious state and overwhelming. As you say, it is important to allow the experience to know what it is. If I am in a store shopping and my anxiety takes over, it feels like everybody is looking at me. I feel exposed. My response is not to fight it but to work with it by focusing on the shelves with food items and telling myself to slow my breathing. The food items become my focus and my brain sees them as harmless.

    I used to have attacks when walking along a road. Then I would control my breathing and tell myself that I was safe, I have walked along this road many times. My brain just needed reminding. It is a way of taking some control back. Fighting the experience does not help, It takes time to retrain the brain.
    Keep up the discovery and healing that follows you on this journey Zoe. Even small changes can feel huge and should be celebrated. Thanks for your sharing, Rich.

    Like

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