Anxiety: how mindfulness can help you tune in and chill out

You may have heard of ‘MINDFULNESS.’ It’s a form of meditation which seems to be catching on among cool people who seem to catch on to things much earlier than I do. It’s actually a centuries-old Buddhist practice which involves sitting still for 10-15 minutes each day and focusing on the present; not that cringe worthy flashback of last Friday night when you drunkenly tried to get off with Jade from accounts, not that report you’ve got to hand in to Nigel on Wednesday, but the present. The here. The now.

Such is its popularity, there are mindfulness groups, courses and lectures springing up all over the country – you can find lists on the websites, Bemindful.co.uk and Meetup.com – and the practice is even recognised by the NHS due to its benefits for stress, anxiety and depression, of which I have a fair amount of experience.

Criticism

But the practice is not without its critics. Writing for The Spectator last year, Melanie McDonagh described mindfulness as “a smug middle class trend” and in The Guardian, Suzanne Moore censured its adherents for turning “eastern mysticism…into a pastime.”

There’s also a feeling that it’s all a bit…well…wishy washy. To the unversed, it seems pretentious – and rather lofty – to suddenly sit down and try and be at one with the world.

Shaun Glossop, a 52-year-old practitioner of meditation who runs the Nottingham Mindfulness Group – an informal social group who meet twice a week to socialise and relax together – admits that a lot of people think it’s flaky.

“They tend to hold it at arm’s length because they think it’s a bit odd,” he says. “Some people feel like if they get involved, they’ll have to buy into a whole belief system. But it doesn’t have to be like that. No one’s asking you to believe anything. It’s just a set of techniques designed to help you relax.”

My experience

To get to grips with it all, I’ve been giving mindfulness a go and, after two weeks, there are two things I can say about it:

The first is that it’s hard to get the hang of. The idea is to notice, without judgement, the thoughts, feelings and sensations you experience in the present moment. But sitting still and just watching your thoughts float by is a bit like not scratching an itch or not swatting a fly. It takes an immense amount of effort and feels unnatural at first.

But…with a bit of practice, mindfulness can yield some genuine results. I may be imagining things but I’ve definitely felt more in control of my emotions over the last few weeks. I’ve been able to take a step back from things which would usually stress me out or piss me off and I’ve begun to appreciate the little things in life, even if it’s just a cup of tea or a meal.

Last Thursday, I went along to Shaun’s group and met a guy there who said he’s noticed the same benefits.

“I feel calmer and more positive now,” said 34-year-old Steve Heath from Long Eaton, who in the past has suffered from anxiety and depression. “If someone cut me up on an island while I was driving, I used to flip out and – although it does still makes me angry – I don’t react in the same way now. I’ve realised I can choose how to react and just having that space to think…it’s subtle but really powerful.”

It makes sense that focusing on something other than your thoughts might bring you a greater sense of stillness.

A professional view

Lydia Weston 57, is a fully-qualified ‘person-centred’ therapist from Nottingham and a mindfulness tutor for people recovering from severe bouts of anxiety and depression. She likens the practice to recharging your mobile phone.

“A phone can’t keep running forever,” she said. “You need to let it cool down, plug it in and re-charge it – that’s what mindfulness is.”

But how much of a difference can it make to peoples’ lives and what are its applications beyond relaxation?

“It can be really transformative. I’ve been blown away by the difference it’s made to my students. A lot of them have said it’s helped to make them feel like themselves. The course I run is six weeks long but I find they always want to carry on at the end.”

Conclusions

Some may scoff at or criticise mindfulness but it’s clear that its practice can have powerful benefits for people with anxiety and depression and, although I’m not sold on some of the technique’s deeper aspects – in one video, a Buddhist monk called Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about loving and connecting with a flower – I’m more than happy to keep practicing.

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Anxiety: diaphragmatic breathing, stoned goldfish and Buster the pesky dog

When we head into situations that make us anxious, our hearts begin to pound, nausea starts to churn around our bodies, our throats dry up and our thoughts get bat shit crazy. You can feel the power of the panic in your mind. It’s like a dog straining at the leash. You try and hold it and rein it in and you tell the dog, ‘No, Buster, no! Come HERE, Buster….Buster! Oi! Come HERE NOW!’ but Buster just doesn’t care. He’s too strong for you and it’s tiring. Eventually he slips the leash and your mind runs away from you.

But there are a few things you can do to chill Buster out in the heat of the moment.

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING, which –though difficult to get to grips with at first- is a really simple and effective way to bring your anxiety level down.

Diaphragmatic breathing, as the name suggests, involves breathing with the conscious use of the diaphragm, which is an oval-shaped muscle located between your stomach and your lungs. It means that when you breathe in, instead of inflating your chest, you push out your stomach and that when you breathe out, your stomach comes back in while your chest rises.

Sounds and feels weird right? Well, that’s because it sort of is. We aren’t used to breathing like that. Unfortunately, being normal, lazy humans, most of us tend automatically towards shallow breathing. Instead of taking deep breaths, we just sort of open our mouths like stoned goldfish and hope that air goes down the hole. A lot of us tend to tuck our bellies in too, mainly, I think, because we’re unconsciously -and consciously- vain and we don’t want to look like we’ve got a gut.

What this all means is that we just don’t breathe properly. Without realizing, we hold our breath, we tense up and we fail to absorb enough oxygen from the air. As a result, we can quite easily get all gnarled up and stressed inside.

Diaphragmatic breathing, however, has the opposite effect. It triggers the PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM -one of two divisions of the body’s AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM- and this is the system responsible for chilling you out.

(The other division of the body’s autonomic nervous system is the SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM, which stimulates the ‘fight or flight’ reaction I spoke about in the previous post, the one that releases adrenaline and makes you act like a chump when you’re nervous)

So just to spell it out more clearly:

DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING >>>> RELAXATION

This kind of breathing helps to reduce the body’s levels of CORTISOL (the stress hormone), it helps raise levels of SEROTONIN (the ‘feel good hormone’) and, by increasing blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, it helps to improve focus and concentration. It also does loads of other good stuff, like – when practiced regularly – slow down the aging of skin and reduce your risk of contracting certain cancers.

Learning how to breathe using the diaphragm is one of the best things I’ve done. In the seven or eight months since I began practising, it’s helped me through countless situations which would ordinarily send me into Nervous Nigel mode (starting a new course, dates, parties, that kind of thing) so, if you’re prone to losing the plot in anxious moments, I strongly recommend you invest a bit of time in its practise.


So how do you breathe with your diaphragm? I’ll run you through it…

  • Put your hands on your belly
  • Sit up straight
  • Breathe in through your nose for four seconds and inflate your stomach as you do so*
  • Hold your breath for three seconds
  • Then exhale through your mouth for six seconds
  • Wait a few seconds
  • Repeat for five or ten minutes

*It does feel weird at first – expanding your stomach as you breathe in – but keep doing it because it gets easier eventually.

When you breathe like this, your diaphragm contracts and that creates a vacuum in your lungs. This helps to suck air much deeper into your lungs than usual and therefore increases the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream (because there are millions of these things in your lungs, most of which are located low down, called ALVEOLI and these Alveoli allow oxygen to pass into your bloodstream).

Don’t get me wrong, diaphragmatic breathing’s not going to cure you of anxiety completely but by practising it when you’ve got a spare ten minutes and using it in the heat of the moment, you’ll definitely feel calmer and you’ll stand more of a chance of keeping that pesky dog Bust – I mean, your anxiety – under control.

Anxiety: the problem with tea and coffee, fighting wild boars and how to reduce your caffeine intake

One of the easiest ways you can bring down your anxiety level is to reduce your caffeine intake.

Like most Brits, growing up I always viewed having a cup of tea or coffee as relaxing. And it is, to a certain extent. But where I went wrong in my teenage years was sticking the kettle on as soon as I felt a bit panicky or stressed.

Tea and coffee contain caffeine and, when consumed, caffeine triggers the secretion of adrenaline. This is what perks you up. Adrenaline’s the brain’s way of giving you an ‘edge’ and it’s a product of our evolution.

Say you’re a caveman and you’re out hunting a wild boar. You’re walking along through the plain when suddenly you come face to face with the biggest boar you’ve ever seen. You’re glad because you’re starving and you love bacon but your brain also tells you that you need to be careful. This boar’s got a pair of tusks and a bad attitude. If you fuck this up, he could fuck you up. You need to be careful. This is when your adrenal gland kicks in.

Adrenaline’s released into your bloodstream and your heart begins to pump quicker. Your senses prick up. This is the brain’s way of helping you out. In a fight against a wild boar you need every advantage you can get. You need to be 10% more alert, 10% stronger and 10% faster in case your spear misses and you have to leg it. This is what’s known as your body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. If you fight, adrenaline makes you stronger. If you run, adrenaline makes you faster. It’s very handy in situations like this.

When it ain’t so handy is when you’re giving a speech to a room full of white collars in the 21st Century. You don’t need adrenaline when you’re giving a speech but because you’re a human and because your brain’s evolved in the way it has, adrenaline is what you’ve got. There’s a fear of failure or embarrassment and accordingly, like a well-meaning but bloody annoying neighbour, your brain decides to help you out.

This is why people get nervous when they don’t need to. The brain can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived one. That guy might be your tutor sat at the back making notes but he’s not got a pair of tusks. If you mess up your speech, he’s not going to tear you a new one. You’re in no real danger. But you’re aware in your subconscious that failure will have negative consequences and your brain doesn’t know any better so yeah, adrenaline.

It makes sense then, that the more caffeine that’s floating around your body, the more anxious you’re going to be. Based on this logic, the worst thing you can do before stepping into a situation that you know will make you anxious is drink tea and coffee. It’s not that cutting out caffeine will help you to be ultra confident. It’s just that by doing so, you’ll give yourself a better chance of keeping your anxiety at a manageable level.

Caffeine’s not a problem for everyone. A lot of people can drink tea and coffee without any real side-effects but unfortunately, if you’re prone to anxiety, you can’t afford to count yourself amongst them.

So cut down your caffeine intake.

It’s tough at first. You’re likely going to feel very tired. You’re going to get headaches and you’re going to feel a bit irritable. The best thing to do is to cut down gradually over a few weeks. If you drink five cups of coffee a day, try four and then three and then two.

You don’t have to cut out caffeine completely. I stopped drinking tea and coffee altogether during my third year at Uni and I felt like a zombie. A little bit is good for you, especially if you’re studying or doing a job that requires brain power. I now drink two cups of tea a day; one in the morning and one at night, and that works quite well for me. It’s just about finding your own level.

Also, if you suffer from severe anxiety, for the love of god, just avoid energy drinks altogether. I’m talking Red Bull, Monster, Rooster or any other drink named after aggressive and/or fictional beasts. Red Bull is to me what Kryptonite is to Superman – that is to say; no bloody good at all. When I wake up in the morning after a night full of Jaeger Bombs, I feel so nervous that the littlest sound makes me want to jump through the window. It’s also painful for the teeth. All that sugar. Yugh.

Anyway, that’s enough about wild boars and Superman and Red Bull. Just reduce your caffeine intake. You’ll soon find yourself feeling calmer in general and when you do find yourself in an anxiety-provoking situation, you’ll have a better chance of dealing with it.

Anxiety: worrying, getting trapped in bus doors and why I can help you cope with your nerves

I’ve read enough self-help books over the years to know that when talking about a health issue, it’s customary to outline why you’re qualified to do so. Well, I’m qualified to talk about anxiety because I’ve been dealing with it for nearly a decade.

I first noticed the symptoms at 6th form. I’d get the jitters simply walking into the common room, my heart would pound if the teacher ever asked me a question and I couldn’t sleep. It was all a bit shit really. Skins told me I should have been out smoking weed and shagging. But all I did was do my work and worry about everything.

The anxiety began to seep into every part of my life. Queuing in shops put me on edge. Sitting at the table at family functions was horrendous. Even just getting the bus became an issue. I was once so anxious on a bus that I tried to run off it just before it pulled away from the stop. The doors jammed on my head. I couldn’t get out. The driver went berserk. It was rush hour and all the passengers were laughing. Eventually the doors opened and I stepped off, right into the path of an oncoming cyclist. He promptly ploughed into me and called me a twat. As I walked away I called myself a lot worse. As the saying goes, I can laugh about it now but at the time it was terrible.

Things got so bad that I had to drop out of university for a year, just to give my mind a rest and rediscover who I was and what I wanted to do. My mum and dad reckon I had a nervous breakdown but that just makes me think of Alan Partridge driving up to Dundee eating Toblerone in his bare feet, and I’ve never been to Scotland, nor do I care much for Toblerone. It’s too chewy. Anyway, whatever you want to call it, it wasn’t pleasant.

So yeah, I’m qualified to talk about anxiety.

Today, I’m pleased to say, I’ve learned to cope with it. It still flares up from time to time, often to the point where it’s more than I can deal with, but generally, I’ve got a grip on it. I like myself and I live a pretty normal, functional and fulfilling life.

I want to use this blog to share some of the things I’ve learned about anxiety and some of the ways I’ve learned to manage it. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful. I’m pretty sure you will. None of the things I’m going to talk about require money. All they require is a bit of practise. Dealing with anxiety is like jogging. It’s really difficult at first but it gets easier the more you do it.

THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE BY HARUKI MURAKAMI

A few weeks ago, I was wandering around the literary fiction section of Nottingham’s Waterstones, idly picking up books, reading their blurbs, setting them back down, checking out some of the hot hipster girls who happened past and just generally passing time when I came across a promotional table stacked full of books by a guy called Haruki Murakami. I slid one off the top and read the back page.

‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Toru Okada’s cat has disappeared. His wife is growing more distant every day. Then there are the increasingly explicit telephone calls he has recently been receiving. As this compelling story unfolds, the tidy suburban realities of Okada’s vague and blameless life, spent cooking, reading, listening to jazz and opera and drinking beer at the kitchen table, are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell’.

I flicked through the first ten pages and checked the prose. It was crisp, lean and straightforward, just how I like it. Toru, the protagonist, seemed like the sort of guy I could relate to. There he was cooking spaghetti and listening to the radio. There he was drinking beer. There he was hating things. I quickly forgot about the hipster girls and read on and in next to no time the phone’s ringing and Toru’s holding it to his ear and some dirty old cow on the end of the line’s telling him she’s in bed, she’s naked and she’s wet.

I smiled as I paid the clerk and then off I went, homeward-bound to sit and read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my first taste of Japanese realism…

Except that’s not really how it worked out. What I naively assumed would be an authentic Japanese spin on realist literature turned out to be…well, something else entirely.

***

Haruki Murakami, I now know, is one of Japanese literature’s leading lights. He is 65, he’s won copious literary awards, his books have been translated into over 50 languages and he’s been described by the Guardian’s Stephen Poole as ‘among the world’s greatest living novelists.’ Murakami is also known for his love of – and references to – Western pop culture, meaning he’s sort of like the Quentin Tarantino of Japanese literature, except with his work, rather than blood, guns, Mexican-stand-offs and casual racism, you get passive protagonists, descriptions of weather and deep, deep, oh-so-deep musings on life, death and the passing of time.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published in 1997. It was Murakami’s eighth novel and remains to this day one of his most critically-successful. It is, as outlined above, the story of Toru Okada, an early 30-something who’s quit his job as a legal clerk, whose cat has disappeared and whose wife is patently having an affair.

It becomes apparent very early on that Toru’s in a slump. He’s friendless, he doesn’t know what to do with his life and he’s lost his sex-drive. Even when the aforesaid dirty caller rings up and asks him to touch her pubic hair and starts breathing heavily down the line, Toru just sort of hesitates, listens and then puts down the receiver. The coward. Safe to say, he’s not your usual macho protagonist. Chinaski he ain’t.

Very soon, proceedings take a turn for the strange and we are introduced to a multitude of characters who bear absolutely no resemblance to anyone I’ve come across in my own life. First off, we meet a local girl called May Kasahara. She’s 16, she works for a wig company, she’s got a gammy leg and she smokes like a steam train. Toru encounters her whilst looking for his missing cat. May tells Toru all about the house at the back of hers in which all the previous inhabitants have suffered loss and then killed themselves. Ok then.

Next up, we meet a psychic and self-described ‘water expert’ with a beautiful yet waxen face and a red vinyl hat. She’s called Malta Kano. Turns out she’s got a sister called Creta Kano who’s been raped (but not literally) by Toru’s brother-in-law, the cold and sinister Noboru Wataya, after whom – despite the fact that Toru hates his guts – the missing cat is named. Malta claims the cat might have done a runner because the ‘flow’ in Toru’s house is all wrong. Toru doesn’t know what the hell to think. Neither did I.

Then Toru’s wife disappears, then he receives a letter from his deaf and elderly friend, Mr Honda, who’s also a psychic, then he receives a letter from Mr Honda’s mate from the army, Lt Mamiya, who’s only got one hand but compensates for his lack of a grasping organ with a long story about a time before the war when, as a military officer, he was stationed in Manchukuo, an occupied region of China on the border of Outer Mongolia and the Soviet Union. Then Toru becomes obsessed with wells and the simple, chronological structure of the novel twists into a series of flashbacks, conversations about flashbacks, flashbacks of conversations, conversations via email, dream sequences and newspaper and magazine articles about events which have yet to happen in the present storyline.

And of course at the centre of all of this is ‘the Wind-Up Bird’ of the title, the heartbeat of the story. Every so often, select characters throughout the novel hear a noise like the winding of a spring emanating from somewhere nearby and believe it to be the call of some kind of rare bird. They never see this bird and it’s never clear whether the noise is real or imaginary but it’s always heard during an important time in a character’s life and is usually followed by some loss of fortune. In a loose way (I think) the noise is meant to represent the forming of people’s motivations. Murakami seems to be asking whether our behavior and actions are the products of our inner processes or whether they are, in actual fact, a result of external events. In a nutshell, do we have free will or don’t we?

Then again, I can’t be certain. The ‘Wind-Up Bird’ could be a metaphor for absolutely anything at all. Or it could mean nothing, in which case I’ve just massively over-extended myself. In any case, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle pretty quickly turns into a complete mind-fuck, as far as the deeper meanings are concerned.

Murakami has claimed that in author QnA’s and seminars, he’s asked more about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle than anything else he’s ever written. And I’m not surprised. It’s 607 pages long, it’s chocca-block full of intrigue and mystery, main characters breeze in out of nowhere and disappear as quickly as they came, it is rich in symbolism and nothing is explained.

And yet – and yet – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle leaves you with a feeling like you’ve had a brush with greatness. For a book that deals with themes like ennui, relationships, pain, violence, suffering, power, politics, war and the existence – or nonexistence – of free will, it is remarkably easy to read. Its prose is clean, orderly and precise, reminiscent of Chandler and Hemingway. Its protagonist, however passive is likeable for his simplicity and naivety. Its passages of description are sublime – take this example from Toru’s first trip down to the bottom of the local well:

‘As time passed my eyes became more accustomed to the darkness.  Before long, I could just about make out the shape of my hand if I brought it close to my face. Other things around me began slowly to take on their own dim shapes, like timid little animals letting down their guard in the most gradual stages imaginable. As much as my eyes became used to it, though, the darkness never ceased to be darkness. Anything I tried to focus on would lose its shape and burrow its way soundlessly into the surrounding obscurity. Perhaps this could be called “pale darkness”, but pale as it might be, it had its own particular kind of density, which in some cases contained a more meaningful darkness than perfect pitch darkness. In it, you could see something. And at the same time, you could see nothing at all.’

Although slow, the story-telling is masterful. The tale unfurls gradually. Murakami takes it easy. Reading the book is like sitting in a quiet park in the middle of a big city with an old, sage, Japanese man and being drip-fed the most profound wisdom you’ve ever heard in your entire life. You don’t really understand it – you get bits and bobs – but you listen and nod along and you appreciate that what you’re being told is massive.

On the back page of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a series of quotes taken from reviewers writing for the likes of The New York Times and The Independent on Sunday, praising the book for its originality, beauty and generosity. The words they use to describe the novel are ‘visionary’, ‘bold’ and ‘surreal’ but to be honest, the second I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the only words flying around my mind were ‘what’, ‘the’ and ‘hell’. My first feeling was that I’d been mugged. Mugged by a genius but mugged nonetheless. I had picked up the novel in good faith nearly every day for three weeks and ploughed through its 607 pages, even when the going got tough. I thought that all would become clear at the end and that everything would settle down into place. But I thought wrong. Nothing is ever really explained. And that really pissed me off.

I denounced Murakami as a bull-shitter, a charlatan, a time-waster. I swore I’d never read any of his shit again. I cursed him to the skies. That Murakami with his awards and his smug explorations of life and death and his open endings. I’d show him. I’d write a scathing blog and show the literary world the error of their misplaced adoration.

But again, I was wrong. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a triumph of substance over style. Sure it’s slow, sure it’s overly-philosophical, sure it’s inconclusive. But it’s also brave, masterful and prismatic. Once you start reading, you begin to look at your own world through the prism of Toru’s acquiescence. You begin to stop and appreciate little things. You notice things you’d never noticed before. The book gets into your being and makes you think. And that’s rare.

There’s a chapter towards the end of the novel entitled ‘The Job of Making Others Use Their Imaginations,’ at the end of which Lt Mamiya signs off a letter to Toru thus:

‘To tell you the truth, I have no idea what this long, strange story of mine will mean to you… Perhaps it is nothing more than an old man’s mutterings. But I wanted to – I had to – tell you my story…I have lived my life in total defeat. I have lost. I am lost. I am qualified for nothing…I love no one and am loved by no one. A walking shell, I will simply disappear into darkness. Having managed at long last, however, to pass my story on to you…I will be able to disappear with some small degree of contentment. May the life you lead be a good one, a life free of regrets.’

Lt Mamiya believes he’s led a pointless life and herein lays the central message of the book. For all the talk about the meaning of life, many people struggle to find any meaning at all. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru’s search for meaning in his ‘vague and blameless’ life. As a reader, you expect him to find it. But he doesn’t. The book is about learning to cope without answers and learning to live with mystery – and lots of other things besides. Murakami says nothing and everything at the same time and in that way, the The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of the most accurate and profound reflections of life you will ever come across.

Long live Murakami.

Nothing Important