Welcome friends

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Welcome to my blog-writing project for 2016.

Today is the day I’m officially putting this blog out there. Out there means promoting it in search engines and inviting friendly people like yourself to follow it. I’m looking for a little accountability to complete this project – as a regular reader or follower you’ll keep me accountable, right?

As a self-care initiative, focused on rekindling my old enjoyment of writing, I have committed to writing at least one post every week this year. Weekly posts will be published on Mondays.

I have two posts and two pages completed to date – I’m on track.

If you want to learn more about the catalyst for this writing project, read the About page. To learn what my motivation and purpose for this blog project is, try Why write a blog?

I explain my personal experience of having an unexpected mild cerebellar stroke in the first post, A stroke of luck. In my second post, Anxiety and mindfulness, I discuss mindfulness and my goals for physical and mental health in 2016.

Please consider following my blog and joining me on this journey throughout the year.

Comments on posts are encouraged and will be appreciated. Be sure to check back for a response.

Anxiety and mindfulness

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It would be easy to think that the opposite of mindfulness (mind-full-ness) would be mindlessness or an empty mind. But that would be wrong. In fact usually the opposite is true,  which I know all too well.

I’m writing this post from a borrowed holiday house at the beach where I’m enjoying a week’s holiday with my family. Prior to that, my wife blessed me with a couple of days down here alone for some solitude and serenity.

Awesome,  right?!

I did really enjoy my time alone. I slept in, went for a big walk, explored, sat on the beach and read a book. I really appreciated the rare gift it was. Yet despite the idyllic location, the freedom of movement and the break from the kids, to be honest I didn’t fully relax except for a few special moments here and there. A part of my mind was constantly wondering what the boys were doing, hoping they were behaving, praying my wife’s back was holding up (she has chronic back pain). It took a constant, conscious effort not to worry and wonder about my wife and kids back home. Instead I tried to let go,  relax and fully enjoy the blessing that was my time away alone. For some people this would come easily, and once upon a time it did for me too.  But it wasn’t so easy and I didn’t always succeed. When I did, I guess you could say I was practising mindfulness.

Most people are familiar these days with the general principle of mindfulness. Mindfulness is actively paying attention to the here and now, being fully in the present. It is the practice of letting go of thoughts or worries about the past or the future, and instead allowing yourself to fully experience now – being mindful of the present.

The opposite of mindfulness, then, is what I often experience as a person who is currently battling anxiety. The opposite of mindfulness is not letting go of thoughts or worries about elsewhere and other times. It’s being distracted from the present by those other things. Rather than empty, the mind is chock-full of thoughts or worries about the past or future or elsewhere, and they don’t go away – even when we try very hard to get them to.

Of course we all have our attention hijacked by thoughts or worries at times. That’s normal. It’s thoughts and worries that are excessively severe or prevalent, to the point that they often rob one of the ability to enjoy the present, that is part of the common experience for many who have clinical anxiety.

The good news is that excessive worrying and mindfulness are two learned patterns of thinking. And patterns of thinking that are unhelpful can be unlearned while more helpful thinking patterns can be learned, with effort and help. In fact devoting time and effort to a regular practice of more mindful thinking can help reduce anxiety.

Mindfulness isn’t about ignoring the past and future. Instead the aim is to coach and train the mind to pay attention to the present more effectively when we choose to, without the need for massive conscious effort all the time. As explained in this video, it’s a gym workout for our “attentional muscle”, an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This enables a person to have more balance and control over their thoughts so that thinking about the past, future or anything beyond here and now becomes a matter of choice, rather than compulsive habit.

Hence my commitment this year to making mindfulness practice a consistent part of each day, as part of my goal of improving my physical and mental health.

In fact, BeyondBlue has summarised much of my whole intention for life improvement and management of my anxiety in 2016 in its infographic “Looking after your wellbeing” which it shared in this Facebook post. I’ve included the infographic below (used with permission).

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Mindfulness isn’t just useful for helping people get mentally well from anxiety or depression. It’s just as relevant to mentally well people as a practice to help them stay well and enhance their experience of life.

A great introduction to mindfulness is the ‘Calm’ mobile phone app for iOS or Android and also the book (learn more about the book or app at calm.com). I love the book and the app provides a 7-day introduction to mindfulness, which I personally found very helpful. The app has now become my tool of choice to help keep me on track with my mindfulness practice each day.

I wonder, is there room for more mindfulness in your life?

A stroke of luck

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It happened one Monday morning at work, while I was marking my students’ psychology exams.

I got up from my desk for a few minutes and when I sat down again, wham!

I was instantly hit with extreme nausea, dizziness and light-headedness. I didn’t realise until later – after an MRI scan – but I was having a mild cerebellar stroke.

How does a relatively fit and healthy 39-year-old who doesn’t smoke have a stroke?

It was something I never expected. On that Monday I thought it must simply be a migraine, though I have only ever had a few and initially there wasn’t the usual headache and pain. My stroke came with none of the typical and well-publicised tell-tale signs of stroke. I learned later that the only obvious sign at the time that it could be a stroke in my case, was the suddenness of the onset of my symptoms. Ironically, earlier that morning I had remarked to a colleague that I was feeling really good.

So what brought it on?

Out of the handful of usual risk factors for stroke, the only one that applied to me – though in a big way – was stress.

For five to six years I had supported and cared for my wife as she battled severe depression and anxiety, with initially frequent and sometimes long periods of hospitalisation. We were also raising three young boys. Given the situation, I had high and also quite rigid expectations of myself as a dad and husband, and of what our family life should look like. I know now I cared for and looked after my family to a fault – the fault being that I forgot to properly look after myself as well. I kept up physical exercise more or less, but I allowed friendships and social connections to lapse. I devoted little to no time or energy to activities that would ‘refuel’ me to continue in my carer role and in my role as a father.

Somewhere in there, the combination of significant long-term external stressors and losing myself in my carer role led to predictable psychological consequences. A couple of months prior to my stroke, I was diagnosed with anxiety and began to get help for it. So while I had none of the other risk factors for stroke, I had a great big tick for stress.

I was fortunate that my stroke was mild and my recovery has been fast. For two or three days I couldn’t walk without falling to the right and for a few hours I couldn’t swallow. For about a week my balance continued to be ‘off’. I felt like a car in need of a good wheel alignment, having to correct for a constant pull to the right. I had headaches and tiredness that persisted for the next month.

What if my stroke had been much worse?

What could have been the end of the road was instead a speed bump.

I choose to see this experience as a message from my body that things have to change. I need to slow down, let go of a lot, and learn to enjoy life again. I need to learn to look after myself as well as I look after my wife and sons. I need to not try to do it all on my own. Happily, my wife’s mental health is the best it has been for years and she is determined to be as supportive of me as I have been of her.

The past few years have taken their toll, physically and mentally. But I’m excited and optimistic about the future. I’ve been in a hole and now I’m climbing out the other side.

This year is a year of balance, stillness and peace; a year of looking after me too; a year of growth and health; a year of rediscovering what gives me enjoyment in life. It’s going to be a great year.

Image by Sonia Sevilla (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Sonia Sevilla (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons