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Notes on Mindfulness

by Erin LeibowitzPatient, NeuroendocrineSeptember 27, 2021View more posts from Erin Leibowitz

A few years ago, if you said the word mindfulness, my eyes would roll so hard they would end up in the back of my head. Especially since the most anxious person in the world, my father, is the one who suggested mindfulness meditation to me. I promised him I would join him when he started himself. That was almost five years ago.

Practicing mindfulness has never come easily to me or felt natural. I thought that people who practice mindfulness are the type of people that go to cuddle parties, don’t wear deodorant, and go to burning man. Admittedly, I always wanted to go to burning man, but you know what I mean. I viewed them as people who were much more free and perhaps more evolved than me. It’s something that I was jealous of, but I couldn’t even sit and listen to my therapist play sound bowls without having an anxiety attack (My eyes are closed; is she looking at me? Do I look anxious? Is it over yet? That sound is kind of relaxing but having someone stare at me while they make it is not. How long does this go on?). That level of freedom simply seemed completely unattainable for “little miss anxiety” over here. While those people practiced mindfulness, I was just trying to practice breathing and walking at the same time.

So, for years I said it wasn’t for me. Instead, I found small things that helped me. In December of 2016, I had my second major surgery. A week after my surgery, my grandmother passed away. She was my last remaining grandparent, and while it wasn’t totally unexpected, it happened very quickly. I felt broken trying to manage recovery from major abdominal surgery, you know, for my cancer, and mourning the loss of my grandma.

It was the first week of 2017, so perhaps goal setting was on my mind. Out of desperation, I decided to try to write down one positive thing every day. Most goals that my friends were setting seemed completely unattainable, but that, that I could do. I kept a little pad in my kitchen and forced myself to find something positive to write down each day. I folded the paper up and put it in a jar. I used a pretty vase and pink, blue, and purple paper squares, so I enjoyed watching the jar fill up with little colorful papers filled with positive things in my life. Some days I struggled to find positive things, especially in the beginning. It didn’t feel like much of an accomplishment to walk to my car on my own (it was), but I wrote it down and put it in the jar.

I decided to open the notes right before the New Year. Admittedly, I did not have 365 notes. It turns out doing it every single day was a bit much for me. But I kept up with my new habit in a way that worked for me and ended up with at least two positives from every week. I was proud that I didn’t quit just because I didn’t meet the original daily goal; I realized that something was better than nothing.

As I opened the notes, all of the positive things from the year came back to me. I could tell which were written in the early part of the year, as I was focusing on recovery. I had notes that, looking back, seemed like such inconsequential things when I wrote them down. However, when I put them all together, I could see the progress throughout the year. I also remembered little things that I wouldn’t have remembered otherwise, like something sweet my nephew said to me in passing or something special about an afternoon we spent together. I loved reading the highlights of my challenging year and seeing how far I had come. I noticed that I started looking for the positive moments in my life in a new way.

So, I had this one great new habit, but it wasn’t life altering. And although it helped to shift my perspective on things, it didn’t help alleviate stress as things happened in my life. Realizing I could use more coping mechanisms, I started seeing a new therapist. One of the issues that we spent time working through was preparing for scans and procedures. My anticipatory anxiety and scanxiety were severe and I hated the panic attacks that I inevitably had in front of some poor, unsuspecting tech who was just trying to do their job. I once had a tech say to me, “The only woman that I am used to making cry is my wife!”

Together, we explored some things that helped me to relax. One day, I was talking about how much I love my herb garden, specifically the smell of basil and mint. My therapist suggested a simple thing that I had never thought of before. Why not bring the smells with me to appointments and procedures? I laughed, picturing myself carrying a pot of basil into my appointments and thought, “Yeah, that will relax me, looking like a freaking weirdo lugging an emotional support plant around with me!” She must have registered the confusion on my face and said that I should just take a cutting or two in a small bag with me to these things. Duh.

So, before my next procedure, I found a small jewelry bag that lets air flow through. I sheepishly cut a piece of basil and orange mint from my garden and put them in the bag. I carried it in with me and when they had me put my belongings away, I kept it out. I was nervous that they would give me a hard time, but instead when the doctor walked into the room he said “Oh, what is that smell? Is that basil? It smells so nice!”

As they wheeled me back to the procedure room and got things set up, a nurse made sure to keep track of my little baggie, despite all of the things going on around me. At one point, after they had positioned my arms down by my side, she put it up next to my nose and reminded me that it was there. Even as they put the oxygen line in my nose, blocking my sense of smell, she kept it up by my face, seeing that it was helping me. And when I woke up, it was right on my chest. I’ve never been so appreciative of a small gesture of understanding.

These habits and a few others have been incredibly helpful in getting me through the tough moments. Like a child whose parent sneaks squash into their mac ‘n cheese, I didn’t realize that these were mindfulness practices that were sneaking into my life to my benefit. I have learned that incorporating some of these small things into my life works. I don’t have to move to a goat farm in a commune and live amongst the forest foraging mushrooms to practice mindfulness. I don’t have to find an ashram and go on a silent retreat. Turns out, mindfulness can be as simple as shoving some herbs in a bag and calling it a day.

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