by Tracey Sondik
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
— Wendy Mass, author of the childhood book, “The Candymakers”
We all have our battle to fight. We live with pain, whether it is physical pain from an illness, accident, or genetic condition, or emotional pain that often takes the form of anxiety, depression, or a stress disorder following a traumatic event. We often try to find ways to make the pain go away by seeking help from a doctor or therapist only to discover that the treatment alleviates the pain temporarily or actually makes the condition worse. We end up feeling discouraged and disempowered.
As a clinical psychologist and mindfulness instructor, I see this cycle of pain with many of the clients that come to me for help. They are suffering and want to find a way out but don’t know where to begin. One of the most important things I can teach them is that they already have one of the most important resources they need to heal themselves: the power of their own mind.
All human beings tend to get caught up in mental agitation that creates inner pain, aggravation and suffering. With instruction in mindfulness meditation and self-compassion, we can learn foundational skills to develop a basic sense of acceptance and gentleness toward ourselves and ultimately toward others. We just need to learn the skills and practice them.
I decided to learn Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as part of my own journey of healing from anxiety. I was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma at age 27 and developed significant anxiety as a result of this health scare. Even though I healed physically and my disease went into remission, I would have to “white knuckle it” when I had waves of panic and anxiety. I would notice a small red bump or rash on my skin and feel a sharp pang of fear in my stomach: Is the cancer coming back? Am I going to die? My heart would begin to pound, my palms grew damp, and my thoughts would start to race.
I felt helpless against these waves of anxiety at first. I tried to hide my feelings from the outside world and wait for them to subside, but they seemed to last forever, particularly the racing thoughts. Sometimes, I would struggle with racing thoughts for an entire day. Only sleep brought relief.
I knew there must be a better way to manage my fear. I began researching ways to cope with anxiety. I bought self-help books, tried anti-anxiety medication, and tried to distract myself by going out in nature, reading, eating, etc. Some of these strategies brought temporary relief, but the feelings of panic and anxiety often came back, sometimes even stronger.
I decided that there must be something out there that I can do. I had heard that mindfulness meditation can decrease anxiety and decided to give it a try. I began a home practice. Mindfulness meditation helped me to steady my mind and quiet my fearful thoughts. By focusing on my breath as an anchor, I learned how to stay in my body and ride the waves of anxiety that would come and go.
The effects were immediate, even in those early days of a home practice. After a few minutes, I felt noticeably less anxious. My body went from a state of fight/flight to a more relaxed, balanced and open state of being. Within a few weeks, the frequency and the intensity of the anxious feelings decreased. I no longer had to “white knuckle it” when a fearful thought struck. Instead, I would close my eyes and gently breathe. The waves would pass and I would be able to return to my activities.
As a psychologist, I recognized the potential in teaching my clients some of the same skills. I became an MBSR teacher in 2008, completing the MBSR professional training at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness, and began teaching my clients how to use mindfulness meditation to work with their physical and emotional pain.
We would practice mindfulness together in my office and I would give them specific homework practices so that they could develop these same skills on their own. Sometimes they would use guided instructions, a recorded CD, or an app on their phone. Overall, many of my clients reported that they felt more relaxed, grounded, and could manage their stress more effectively after practicing mindfulness regularly.
One client came to me for treatment several months after her mother passed away. She was having difficulty concentrating, frequent crying episodes, and feelings of panic when she first woke up in the morning. We began practicing mindfulness meditation in session, beginning with a body scan and awareness of breath. She was able to express that she felt better after the session, more connected and less spacey and lost in her grief of losing her mom.
I provided her with mindfulness exercises to do each morning, including a body scan while lying in bed, a five-minute mindful pause several times per day, and grounding techniques when she felt overwhelmed by her feelings. Grounding techniques included having her feeling her “feel” her body (such as feet on the ground, her back in the chair), placing her hand on her heart and taking several integrative breaths until she feels ready to resume her activities.
Several months later, this client is doing well. She joined a grief support group, returned to work, and has begun taking long walks in nature each day. She does her mindfulness practice every morning and she says that this has been key to moving on with her life.
Mindfulness meditation, the foundation practice of MBSR, has been instrumental in my life. Initially, it was the primary way I learned how to cope with crippling anxiety following a cancer diagnosis, and then it became an important tool that I could teach to my clients to help them navigate through their personal challenges. Mindfulness meditation provides a beacon of light when facing an emotional battle, crisis, or general physical and emotional pain. Instead of trying to push away difficult feelings, mindfulness teaches us how to stay present. We can learn how to be with our painful or challenging sensations and emotions in a compassionate way that can be both healing and transformative.
The ancient Sufi poet Rumi says, “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”
Tracey Sondik is a licensed clinical psychologist who works in both hospital and private practice settings. She has been teaching MBSR for the past eight years in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and yoga studios. Tracey will be the instructor for the 8-week MBSR course at Copper Beech Institute in the winter of 2017.