As some of you may know from my previous blogs, I struggle with anxiety. Most people’s immediate question when they find this out (including my therapist’s – and not wrongly) is, ‘Have you tried meditation?’ At which point I scoff and say ‘If you know me, you know I can’t meditate. I physically can’t!’ You see, if you’re like me, being peaceful isn’t part of your emotional repertoire. For as long as I can remember I’ve been ‘the fidgety one’, with my school reports always feeding back that I needed to learn to keep still. Over time, I’ve convinced myself that this is a personality trait of mine that must simply be accepted. However, after years of playing up to my ‘restless personality’, I’ve now generated a level of entrenched self-doubt in my meditative ability. So much so, that any whiff of self-help through mindful behaviour and I’m running for the hills in terror.
After recently deconstructing this, I’ve realised why – I’m scared to fail. Perhaps I want to run before I can walk, but deep down I’ve been worried that meditation won’t alleviate my anxiety and I won’t become that ‘enlightened’ individual sat in a lotus position that I so often see online. There’s no denying the physical and emotional benefits to meditation, but sometimes, to a novice like myself, conventional techniques and practices can seem a little overwhelming and in my case, scary.
However, after a long period of trial and error, I finally feel as though I am making progress with my mindful journey. I’m not practising mindfulness in the traditional sense – but I am reading, and that is taking me into the present moment. It may seem like a small feat, but considering that I struggle to sit still and concentrate for more than ten minutes at a time, reading a chapter from a novel every night is a huge accomplishment.
Finding relief in reading all started one Sunday after a particularly tough week. Sitting in front of the TV and scrolling through social media, I sat there feeling at a loss. I needed something to feel calm. It was then that I moseyed over to my bookshelf, finally picked up the book I’d been meaning to read for the past three years, and headed outside into the sunshine. Initially, reading the first few pages was a struggle – after all I hadn’t recreationally read since leaving school. However, once settled, I felt my anxiety slowly dissipate and was truly calm for the first time in a long time. It was in this moment that I told myself that I deserved to feel like this more often, and have since made a conscious effort to incorporate reading into my daily routine.
Discovering how helpful reading has been for me made me curious as to why. My research led me to an article by ‘The Conscious Professional’ – a company that challenges and inspires people to express wellbeing and mindfulness. In the article I learnt that reading can be used to “bring our attention inward, quieten peripheral stimuli and to focus ourselves in the present moment. When engaged with a great book or interesting article, these things happen without us having to think about it”. In this way, reading reflects some of the things we practice during mindfulness and meditation. Furthermore, in a study conducted by psychologists at The University of Toronto, it was found that an immediate benefit of reading is gaining an increased tolerance for uncertainty. Considering my anxiety, learning to accept uncertainty and change is something that I’m truly glad to work on. For me, reading has become the perfect compromise whereby I can be truly present and work on aiding my mental health in a way that’s not too alienating and is very accessible. No YouTube clips to sift through, no fiddly apps, just a book and a comfy spot.
So what’s next on my mindful journey? My research brought me to some tips on ‘mindful reading’:
- As you turn the pages, notice the quality of light, the colour, the font, the text
- Pay attention to the movement of your eyes as they scan the text and experience the sensation of the action
- Pay attention to language. Look at an individual word; look up unfamiliar words. Ask yourself, ‘Have I understood everything?’
- When your mind wanders, gently usher yourself back to the text and keep going
- Notice your breathing and heart-rate, keeping them steady
- Think about how your reading made you feel
Now I haven’t progressed to mindful reading yet, but personally, I’ve found self-help and calm from my regular reading. If reading however doesn’t seem to help for you, there are plenty of other present moment and mindful activities to try, from adult colouring to going for a short run or swim. It took me some time to discover something that suited me, but having finally got somewhere, I’m so glad that I can now enjoy my ongoing mindful journey – and look forward to wherever it may take me next.