By Steve Savels.
I wake up with my heart pounding frantically in my chest. Pure panic. My mind is racing. I feel completely lost. I look at the alarm clock: 4am. Oh no, not again! This scenario is repeating almost every day lately. I’m getting desperate. I want this to stop! I want peace. I want to sleep…
This is a true story, and quite a recent one. Around the end of the year and the start of the new one, I had a constant feeling of anxiety. During the day, it was more like a looming threat in the background. And at 4am in the morning the demons would really catch me.
Maybe you recognise this scenario? And yes indeed, even mindfulness teachers can get anxious. It wasn’t the first time that I felt anxious for a longer time, even though nothing traumatic happened to me. Now, it seemed that it was back, even more intense than before.
At first, I didn’t get where this constant anxious feeling was coming from. Everything in my life was going well, both professionally and privately. Why did I feel so stressed and anxious all the time then?
The taboo of fear
I wasn’t alone, that much I knew. Statistics show that in Belgium almost 1 person in 5 is taking medication against anxiety or depression. And these are only the people who have talked about this with their doctor and decided it was necessary to take drugs.
Despite these numbers, it remains a big taboo. Also for me, it was very hard to admit that I felt so anxious.
Even though I know from my own experience that it’s not very helpful to fight fear, I desperately wanted to get rid of it. Because it felt horrible. The physical sensation alone was very unpleasant – this cold throbbing pressure in my chest. And my mind sometimes felt like it would explode.
Of course, I tried meditation, a lot of it even – what did you expect? Something strange happened though. Every time I meditated, the fear went away immediately, and I felt very calm. Right up to the moment I stopped meditating. Then it hit me again.
Acceptance: it takes time
After a while, I realised that I was doing exactly what I am always warning the participants in the mindfulness courses about: if you’re meditating with the “hidden agenda” of getting rid of something, it might work, but only for a short while… Maybe you have experienced this too?
So, it was time to practise what I preach… I talk about acceptance all the time in our mindfulness courses. And I try to work with it every day. After all, there are plenty of small opportunities: accepting the annoyance when traffic is stuck, when you’re waiting for an hour in the post office, …
But this felt like a different challenge: this fear felt so awful, I just wanted to get rid of it. How could I accept this?
Looking back, the best decision I took was to start talking about it. I shared it with some people I knew would listen to me, and that took the edge off it. It allowed me to get over the shame I felt, and the self-judgements that came with it – “I’m a mindfulness teacher, I shouldn’t be struggling with this!”
You might recognise these kind of thoughts, maybe in other forms such as “People will think I’m weak.”, or “I have nothing to complain about, others have much more difficulties than me.” Don’t believe these thoughts! They are only keeping you stuck in the struggle with fear.
And so, I started opening up more towards this feeling that had been haunting me for all this time. What was it about? I got curious.
I noticed that the main thoughts that were troubling me, were about the fact that I didn’t get everything done that I wanted to do. I have so many ideas and plans and I always seem to run behind in making them concrete.
What’s the real message?
When I took a closer look at my fear, I noticed it had to do with the fact that I was judging myself for being slow and lazy. Understandingly, these thoughts made me feel very bad. Then I examined them still closer. What was this really about? It also had something to do with not being “good enough”, as a mindfulness teacher, a psychologist, being self-employed, running an Institute, …
Then I got an insight – what if I turned this around? If I thought I wasn’t good enough, it meant that I wanted to be good, no? At what exactly? I want to be good at what I do – interesting. Does that truly mean getting more and more stuff done in an ever-shorter time? Because that seemed to be the pressure I was putting on myself. Is that really how I want to live? Is that the example I want to give as a teacher? I didn’t think so.
Having that insight was like a ton of bricks falling from my shoulders. I began to see that my fear was warning me for not living according to my true values, which are about taking time to do things well, enjoying the process, learning, …
If you recognise some of this process, you might want to try this for yourself. What is your fear trying to tell you? If you take the time to let it speak, and you listen deeply, it might have a positive message after all.
The importance of self-care
Also, I found it very helpful for myself to take some concrete steps in taking better care for myself. For example, I freed up some blocks in my agenda for more meditation, for sports, and I also rearranged my time a bit so I have longer blocks where I can work on stuff that is not hyper urgent but still important. Maybe you can identify some concrete measures that would be helpful for you as well?
I am now actually grateful for this episode – because it has deepened my understanding of what’s truly important to me. And I think it has helped me to become a better mindfulness teacher, because it has made me experience again how hard the things can be that our participants struggle with, and how easy it is to get stuck in downward spirals. But also, that being kind, accepting and curious towards yourself are such wonderful gifts we can give ourselves.
To sum it all up, here are some things I want to remember for myself. Maybe they can be helpful for you too:
- Talk about your fear. It will help you accept it for yourself if other people take it seriously.
- Know that there is nothing wrong with you; it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious – it happens to everyone!
- Be kind to yourself if you are struggling with accepting strong emotions like fear. It’s not easy, so allow yourself some time and space.
- See your fear as a messenger trying to help you. What is it really telling you? What is the positive message?
If you are struggling with fear, taking an 8-week mindfulness course can be a good way of learning to deal with it in a more helpful way. You will be guided by experienced teachers, learning all the necessary skills step by step.
A mindfulness retreat can also be very helpful to take some time practising acceptance in a safe and guided context.