Stress, Mindfulness and My Story

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Introduction

Over the last few weeks, people have asked me to recount my own road to mindfulness and what impact it has had on my life. I was fine telling my story to individuals. But, the thought of putting it down in black and white was very scary. The thought had my heart begin to race and tension build in my jaw and shoulders. I am fortunate that I recognised the anxiety quickly, breathed deeply and did a quick meditation followed by reflecting on the reasons this caused me anxiety.

I came to the conclusion that I have grown up in a society that can sometimes see the admission of the effects of stress as a weakness. Did I actually want people to see me weak in any way? In my role as a headteacher/principal, I felt I needed to be the strong foundation supporting others so they can do the best that they could for the children they taught. I then realised that to be that strong foundation, I must also be a good model and sharing my story may also lead others in the education profession to seeking better ways of dealing with the relentless stress we are under everyday.

So, here is my story!

Before

I have always been an intense person; striving to be the very best I could be and applying myself with relentless pressure to do better and improve. I remember with great clarity getting my first stomach ulcer at 11 years old in the run up to the state standardised end of year tests. So, how I dealt with stress has been very ingrained.

Before Mindfulness:
– I did not sleep well at night. Waking at 2 am was the norm. The thoughts would swirl in my head on long, endless loops. They would force me out of bed and I would send and answer emails at this crazy hour in the hopes that by putting them into words they would leave me alone. All I ever got was new swirling thoughts to take their place!

– I was on a constant adrenaline high! I was on constant high alert; reacting to the smallest things or the biggest things with equal passion. I began to read into things when there was nothing to read. I became paranoid! Everything was about me and it all was not good. I took even the challenges in education as a personal attack on me!

– I had developed high blood pressure. That adrenaline high was keeping my BP at a constant high level risking my health and damaging my immune system.

– I was having panic attacks nearly on a daily basis and many times it was happening several times a day. My self confidence was plummeting.

– I replayed difficult conversations over and over in my head. I analysed it for hours or days. I dwelled in the emotions of the conversations that seemed to get bigger and bigger with each rehashing!

– I cried A LOT! I cried driving to work. I cried going home. I cried when I was upset. I cried when I was happy. I cried when I was scared. I cried and didn’t even know why I was crying! I had begun to laugh less. The world was turning grey.

– About a year ago, I took an online stress test. I scored 35/40.

You see, after seven years of headship/principalship, the pressures were interfering with my own mental health and well being. Stress is part of the job when you are in leadership and I think, in some ways, I thrive on that stress. I enjoy solving problems and seeing things differently. I am also passionate about education and have a deep ethos in educating the whole child.

However, in the current ever changing education climate, it was becoming harder and harder to keep the wave of stress overwhelming my own mental health. The never ending  “To Do” list had me on, what felt like, a never ending roller coaster at warp speed.

After

So, as you can see, I needed to do SOMETHING! I just wanted to stop the millions of thoughts flying through my every waking moment!

I started with guided meditations and, as I began to see the positive impact that it was having on me, I did more research into WHY it was working and I found and began practicing many other strategies. As the time has gone on, I have realised the mindfulness is just part and parcel of my daily life and it has made a HUGE difference; enough for people who haven’t seen me for a while to make comment on the changes.

What has changed?

– I sleep! Waking up at 2 am is a thing of the past! I still wake up earlier than most people, 5 am, but I don’t wake up with swirling thoughts. This is only an hour before the time I need to get up. Instead of filling the time with emails, I fill it with meditation and reading research on mental health and how mindfulness works.

– The constant adrenaline rush has ceased! The peacefulness of a resting body and mind wraps me like a warm blanket. I am content. Then, when an adrenaline rush does occur as it should from time to time, my reactions are appropriate, proportionate and clear.

– I went to the doctor last week and my BP was perfect! Enough said.

– I remember the last panic attack I had. It was back in September. Over a few months they had become less and less. But, this one I remember clearly. I wear it like a badge of honour as I was able to take control of it completely. Now, I recognise the warning signs and take immediate mindful action. In the beginning, I had to do at least 30 minute meditations. Now, I usually only takes a few deep breathes. I feel confident and happy about life!

– I stopped dwelling on those difficult conversations. I will repeat them if required to inform others. But, I don’t dwell in the emotions. I allow them to drift out of my thoughts like a cloud floating in the sky.

– I stopped crying! I can’t remember a time in my entire life that crying hasn’t been a sign of ANY of my emotions. For me, this is significant! Now, I laugh and laugh and laugh some more!

– I took an online stress test today. I scored 7/40!

What do I do on a day to day basis?

– I do at least 10 minutes of guided meditations most days. I miss it on the days I don’t do them. I call them my mini-holidays/vacations. They are varied from visualisations to body scans, muscle relaxations, claiming, etc.

– On days that I am finding particularly more challenging, I do longer guided meditations; particularly in the evenings to ensure I sleep well.

– At various points in the day, I just do a quick scan over my body to notice any tension and do deep breathing exercises like a One Minute meditation or practice STOP. I practice all of the things I outline in the A Teacher’s Mindfulness series and in the Mindful Leadership posts.

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– I practice gratitude! I identify all of the positives in the day and ensure that on my way home I list these in my mind. Every day has a positive. So, I dwell on that!

-I take the time to notice small things; like the colours of the sunset or of a flower, the smell of the air after it rains or the taste of the chocolate I am eating. I just NOTICE the moment.

– I do a lot of Mindful Doodling. I love it!

– I have meditation music playing in the background while I am working.

– I research, write about and talk about mindfulness! I share my knowledge and experience.

There! You have it! This is my story. I will be forever grateful for finding Mindfulness. It hasn’t stopped the thinking. But, I have found a way of controlling the thoughts rather than the thoughts controlling me.