I was 15 years old and plagued with anxiety and depression. My dad had many issues and home life was stressful. I had just experienced my first heartbreak, I felt inadequate, worthless and my self-esteem took a beating. I was feeling totally overwhelmed and panic attacks were a regular occurrence.
Nothing seemed clear or easy. I was insecure, constantly worried about how I was being perceived by others and I put so much pressure on myself. I would worry about my health, relationships, performances (I’m a drummer) and pretty much anything my mind could possibly worry about. This insecurity was made worse by substance abuse, I was smoking a lot of weed, taking amphetamines and drinking regularly.
At 2 am on November the 18th 2009, I drove my mate’s car back from a party, I was drunk and in a bad space. I lost control of the car and swerved into the bank at speed, flipping us up about 15 feet into the air before we crashed down on the road upside down, smashing the windows and crushing the roof in towards the top of our heads. All I remember is my friend screaming “Jake, get out the car’s on fire”.
The car crash was a wake-up call. I realised that for things to change for me, I had to change. My mum recommended I read The Power Of Now. In the book, Eckart Tolle tells of a night that almost ended in suicide, but he instead experienced a life changing shift in perspective. I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone in my distress, which was comforting and relieving. I didn’t feel like I could talk about my feelings so openly at that time, so reading about someone else’s experience of anxiety and depression helped a lot.
My introduction to mindfulness
In his book, Eckart explains that much of our anxiety is caused by poor thinking habits. We worry about what might happen tomorrow and stress over past mistakes. He resolves this by outlining that we actually only ever have control over what we do in this moment, right here and now.
I learnt that I was separate from my thoughts and I was no longer lost in thought without knowing that I was thinking. I was now aware of the content of my thoughts. I began to realise that I could actively change these thoughts and focus more of my attention on pleasant thoughts and experiences. I no longer felt defined by my ever-changing thoughts and feelings and no longer felt like I was a terrible person for having ‘bad’ or ‘dark’ thoughts.
I realised that there were solid evolutionary and environmental reasons for my anxiety and worry, that these feelings were totally normal and natural and I was not a ‘weak’ or ‘weird’ person for having them – it was OK to feel anxious and I would tell myself this regularly, which really helped.
I began to understand that whilst we worry to excess, everything immediately around us at that exact moment is usually OK, it might not be perfect, but is it the apocalypse? Does everyone hate us? Are we totally incompetent and incapable? Generally not, but many of us spend so much time creating internal ‘soap operas’ – abusive, often self-directed dialogue telling ourselves we aren’t good enough, running over past mistakes and a range of imagined dramas. We generate countless unpleasant ‘what if’ scenarios and all of the above can cause severe anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness meditation was a way of accessing the ‘power of now’ – paying attention to the world around me in a new light. A way of paying attention to my thought patterns, emotions, behaviours and beliefs so I could feel separate from them and adapt them to benefit my life.
I started benefitting from exercises like the ‘body scan‘ – becoming aware of the sensations of my body, scanning each body part from head to toe whilst I was in bed which helped my mind to rest and made it easier to sleep.
I started mindful eating – the process of eating slowly and savouring food, becoming aware of the textures, smells and tastes of food in great detail, which helps to enjoy it more.
I started mindful drumming, walking and even mindful dishwashing – really becoming aware of all the sensations, sights and sounds that occurred whilst I was doing these things that before I would have unconsciously rushed through and barely remembered. These activities now had a new level of interest and even the dull ones became enjoyable.
I started attending weekend life coaching and meditation workshops. I learnt to meditate, to sit and just be, to enjoy the experience of feeling alive, of feeling totally aware without so many thoughts. I would focus on the rise and fall of my chest; the sensation of the air on my face; the texture of the clothes on my skin; sounds without labelling them as ‘a bird’ or ‘a car’ but instead just allowing myself to experience these things as a raw experience. This can often feel quite blissful and profound. This process can alleviate stress and opens our experience to the present moment, which is usually OK (not the apocalypse) and can, in fact, be totally energising and peaceful all at once.
This process started to make me feel happier and manage addictions to smoking and other substances, even comfort eating. When we are more aware of our thoughts, emotions and impulses and more satisfied in this moment through rewarding practices like mindfulness, there is often less need to turn to some kind of impulse or addiction. Why change your state if you are already content?
Self -affirmations came just after. I remember trying them for the first time, saying things like “I love me” whilst looking into a mirror and it felt horrific. Have you ever tried saying “I love me” whilst looking into your own eyes? At first, it feels horribly self-indulgent, but after time it leaves you feeling more self-accepting, confident and resilient.
I remember the moment they started taking effect, I was standing looking in front of the mirror in my bedroom speaking my affirmations out loud and suddenly had a rush of contentment and elation. The only time I had ever experienced this was when taking drugs or in glimpses during meditation. Almost a decade later, I’m 25 and still using them with pleasant results today.
To wrap up, I want to offer a few practical tips that have helped me and others to benefit from mindfulness and self-affirmations.
- Attend a science-based mindfulness group. There will likely be a free/low-cost meditation group in your local town/city. It’s easier to commit to doing it when you are out of the house (away from distractions) and with others who are doing it also. Ask the NHS or a local mental health organisation to find well-reviewed groups. You could also try meetup.com.
- Use the wikiHow guide to creating your own affirmations – it’s easy and can be very rewarding with a bit of practice.
- For more info, you can contact me at www.jakecole.org.
These techniques have helped me move from feeling like my life was a car crash (quite literally), to feeling more at ease and happy within myself. I have recently gone on to do a TED talk and I believe these techniques have contributed towards my increased confidence and self-worth, making new and exciting experiences more possible.
This blog post was invited by ACAMH. The author has declared that he has no competing or potential conflicts of interest in relation to this article. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.