Mindfulness Has Taught Me it’s Okay to Have Feelings

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This is just my personal opinion.

You know when you see something disturbing or upsetting in a movie or on a TV show, and you shut your eyes tight, so you don’t see it? You just wait for it to be over with? Or if you’re watching a show with someone else, and you ask them to tell you when the bad part is over? That’s what I want to do every day. But I can’t. What’s happening around me is real, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be over anytime soon.

I can’t just stick my head in the sand and wait for all this to pass. Even when I limit my news exposure, the world just *feels* different. Scratch that. It doesn’t just feel different. It feels like it will never be the same again.

Before all this happened, I could take comfort in knowing that no matter what I was going through, I had stable, sane, rational people around me who could calm my fears. Many of the people I used to turn to for support are struggling with the same anxieties I’m feeling. The ones who used tell me when the disturbing part of the movie was over have their hands over their own eyes.

This whole coronavirus thing has been a gigantic trigger for my anxiety and bipolar disorder. I swear, 30 times each day I must be going through all the stages of grief. Anger. Sadness. Denial. Acceptance. Bargaining. My emotions have run my mind ragged. All this stress is taking a toll not just on my mental health, but my physical health as well. And of course, I worry about that too. If my immune system is compromised from too much cortisol (the stress hormone), then I could contract this disease more easily. So, it’s a vicious cycle. I’ve been doing yoga four times a week. It has really helped, but I can’t seem to hold onto any kind of zen for very long. Like a slippery fish, it just glides right out of my hands.

I’m afraid of my own emotions. I have bipolar disorder, and even though I’m stable right now, I know I have the ability to flip into a manic or depressive episode. My feelings are intimidating. In my memoir, I talk about having “big feelings.” That’s the most succinct way for me to describe what it’s like to live with this illness. If I’m sad, I don’t just feel down in the dumps. I often feel devastated, hopeless, and suicidal. If I’m happy, I fly so high that I imagine I can do anything, so I take stupid, dangerous risks. I don’t have an emotional volume control.

My big feelings have been so overwhelming in the past that they’ve landed me in the hospital after trying to take my own life. I’m afraid of falling into a depressive episode if I allow myself to feel sad. My mood stabilizer medication dampens the intensity of my episodes. It weakens the severity of my moods. And yet, the fact that I can’t trust my own brain still makes me nervous. It’s like I’m standing on a cliff, and one tiny breeze could knock me off the edge.

I know from experience not to keep suicidal thoughts inside if I have them. I tell others and reach out for help from my doctor. Feeling hopeless is compounded by feeling isolated, so bottling up emotions makes me feel worse. Since I can’t see my treatment team, friends or family face-to-face, I video chat with them, or call them. Just hearing a sympathetic voice on the other end of the phone pulls me out of my own head. Support stops my spiraling negative ruminations.

Aside from reaching out for help, I’m finding that engaging in daily mindfulness meditation has been more therapeutic than anything else.

What is mindfulness? The best definition I’ve seen so far is this:

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

Mindfulness allows me to be present with my thoughts, fears and anxieties without reacting to them or being overwhelmed by them.

The best thing I’ve done for myself recently has been setting aside 30 minutes every day to sit quietly and listen to one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s dharma talks, which are gentle, guided meditations. They’ve been immeasurably helpful in my emotional recovery. Just by practicing mindful breathing and self-awareness, I’m feeling much more at peace.

Mindfulness has taught me not to think (or worry) about the past or the future. I simply focus on the present. It’s all that matters. I can’t change what’s already happened, and I can’t affect what will. Now more than ever, just the ability to be in the moment is what’s keeping me sane. Everything around me is so uncertain, getting wrapped up in what might happen does me no good.

Instead of seeing my big feelings as huge, scary monsters that will derail my stability, I’m learning to embrace them, accepting them as part of who I am. It’s completely normal and understandable to feel upset during this challenging time. I’m not going to slip into a depressive episode just because I let myself feel fear for a moment. The key is not to let it fester. I invite my anxieties in like temporary house guests. I notice them, and then let them walk on by. They will pass. They always do. I can experience feelings without letting them swallow me whole. My emotions won’t kill me. They won’t consume me. I see them for what they are: a natural part of being alive. They won’t stick around forever. I don’t allow myself to react to them or stew in them. And because of this, I don’t have to be afraid of them.

Through mindfulness meditation, I’m leaning that I can be in the present moment, feel my emotions, and let them flow over me like a wave in the ocean. I focus on my breathing, inhaling and exhaling deeply. I smell the salt of the surf carrying my thoughts and feelings, and watch them roll onto the sand, bubbling with sea foam behind me. If I experience another emotion, I just let it wash over me like the next wave. And then it dissipates. No matter what, I know I am safe, and I won’t drown.

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