Mind the Gap; the brilliant technique for being less stressed!

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Stress used to rule my life, expressing itself in many guises. Highly emotional and easily upset, despite the pretence of a hard exterior even the slightest of criticisms pierced my very thin skin. Often the red mist would descend, amid flashes of anger I’d suddenly become a shouty, stompy (occasionally throwing things) version of myself. Back then I might have described myself as passionate and fiery, in denial about how destructive my outbursts were to my relationships with others and with myself. Huge waves of self-loathing and hot tears would usually follow one of these fits. I’d replay the fight or incident, rerunning and reimagining the dialogues, struggling between the need to be right and the potential I might not be. Writing this raises many uncomfortable and embarrassing memories. But it also raises a little smile in me, because I can say, hand-on-heart, things do not push my buttons in the same way anymore. I cultivated a technique I call ‘Mind the Gap’ which worked so effectively for me it changed my behaviour and reduced stress across all areas of my life. I’ve gone on to teach this to many hundreds of my clients since.

It came from recognising that the stress, anger and upset in my life wasn’t coming from outside forces, it was coming from inside me. When we take ownership of our stress we have an opportunity to respond to where we find ourselves rather than be stuck in the cycle of unconscious autopilot reactions.

It was the most minor of mundane events, the alarm clock went off – the sound was enough for me to want to throw the alarm clock out of the window, to wish I could throw myself out of the window. Anger and anxiety shot through me, a precursor to the cycles of worry that I knew would shortly kick in. Then a realisation; the alarm clock was just a machine with sound coming out of it, the stress didn’t come from there. The day, just a day of my life, the stress didn’t come from there either. The stress came from me, how I was reacting to a sound and my thoughts around this. In this split second of awareness I was able to see myself almost like having an out-of-body-experience. I could witness my behaviour, feel my physical reactions and see the thoughts that were feeding this. I was able to step back and see that this pattern that had been appearing in all areas of my life. Usually an event, situation, comment or even thought served as a trigger for my stress reaction, I’d then fly off the handle, disappearing into a series of stories of my head rather than the reality of the situation. I’d got well practiced in living in the worst-case scenario world of my thoughts, constantly acting from defence mode as if at threat from some immediate attack. I’d been reacting not to what was in front of me but to the tale I’d created around that and at the very route of that reaction whether expressed as anger or tears was always fear. I’d been living in hyperarousal, so often it only took the slightest thing to tip me into fight or flight. In becoming aware of this something shifted in me, I’d created a really small space in which I could witness myself and how things really were. From this space I could see that I had some choice about how the next moments played out – I could either continue to react or choose instead to respond. For me, and so many people I’ve worked with, this moment of recognition is transformative. Like switching from autopilot to manual, a claiming back of power.

Here’s how the ‘Mind the Gap’ technique works and how you can implement it into your life. Firstly it’s helpful to recognise that stressors are external pressures and stress is your reaction (or response) to those pressures. Therefore, stress doesn’t come from ‘out there’ it comes from inside you. Usually what feeds our stress is not the situation but our thoughts around it.

When we are operating on autopilot we automatically react to stressors;

Stressor > Reaction.

When we bring our awareness to what is going on for us, we give ourselves the opportunity to notice when we are in a potentially stressful situation, be aware of our thoughts, feelings and what is going on in the body. By switching from autopilot to manual we create space in which we can choose to respond rather than react:

Stressor > Gap > Response

With our mindful awareness we get to ‘Mind the Gap’ between an event and our reaction, hopefully choosing to respond rather than react.

So, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation remember that stressors will be stressors but it’s your stress and notice how awareness of this helps to dissipate your feelings around it. For example, in a traffic jam we have a couple of options:

Option 1: Be incredibly annoyed/upset/angry about the traffic jam, worry about the knock of effect of your lateness, catastrophise about possible outcomes, allow damaging stress hormones to rush around your body.

Option 2: Be in the traffic jam.

Either way the traffic moves no faster. The force of your upset has no impact on the traffic, the only person it has an impact upon is you. Stress in small bursts can be useful but living in a constantly stressed out state we become distressed, our immunity to disease is weakened with both the quality, and possibly quantity, of our lives reduced. The more we practice minding the gap the more we develop a ‘not-minding so much’ attitude to life. After all we are not in the traffic, we are the traffic – whether we choose to be stuck in it is down to us. Wherever I’ve encountered a similar stuck feeling this insight has helped me enormously. I won’t claim to always get this right but I’ve learned to let go more, of the need to be right and of the struggle with what is. Ultimately as we raise our level of consciousness we come to recognise that resisting where we are or fighting with the past is a huge waste of our energy. We can instead channel this energy, the most precious of resources, more wisely. How we respond to where we find ourselves is our greatest power in life, stepping into this our most empowering choice. Mind the gap and witness how this gap grows, becoming space and lightness. This space has allowed for more compassion, humour and creativity than the former stress-head me would ever have dreamed possible.

This piece, written by Frances Trussell was first published by Psychologies Magazine 15th August 2018: Link to original article on Lifelabs here.

You can now order a copy of Frances’ new book: You Are Not Your Thoughts: The Secret Magic of Mindfulness 

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How to be grateful for depression

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I can look back on my episode in the depths of despair with gratitude. Without that period of madness, my mindfulness practice would have remained in the ‘should’ pile alongside many other I’ll-get-round-to-it-when-I-have-the-time projects. Broken into a million pieces, you tend to only pick up the bits that are truly important to take with you into the next phase of the journey.

I feel quite sorry for the mildly miserable, they might never be down enough to be forced to look for another way; sleepwalking through a life of grumpy discontent. No, I am glad to have been painfully depressed, stabbed and prodded into wakefulness. I had no other choice to commit to a practice, I could no longer be ruled by my thoughts. And, oh, the joy of contrast; in the moment of becoming the observer and recognising your own power to sit back, to watch, to choose, to bask in separation. How quickly our relationship with our thoughts can shift, and how remarkable this shift can be. Suddenly the world, once dark, appears in full beautiful colour.  It is like when you misplace your keys in your living room, you know they are in there somewhere so you really open your eyes and look. And with this new way of looking, really looking, something happens. Familiar items within the room suddenly appear to you with a vibrancy and clarity as if they are being seen for the very first time.

For me, meditation is like brushing my teeth; I just wouldn’t want to go out and breathe my un-meditated breath on anyone. An un-meditated me feels a bit gross, sloppy, unfocused, easily carried away by the rivers of thought. For those people that manage to feel sane without meditating I salute you, I am not sure how you do it. Meditation isn’t the only way of being mindful, but it is the best way to start cultivating it. I love to learn and during my first flushes of falling for mindfulness my appetite for knowing all there was to know on the ‘subject’ was ferocious. I devoured book after book at breakneck speed, it seems funny to reflect back on all that striving. What meditation teaches us when we sit and look is that we already know everything we need to know. Whilst we have a very human need to learn, it is in unlearning we find the being bit of ourselves. Like all things we try to attain, we can get lost in doing mindfulness, but quietly as we practice, we realise mindfulness instead. And with each realisation another layer of ourselves falls away, we see things a little more clearly and the subtle hum of happiness begins to beam through into every part of our being.

Being terribly depressed was one of the best things that could have happened to me. All pain is a messenger, and the message I had ignored for too long was that I was on the wrong path in my life. I see this time and time again with clients who come to me looking to overcome depression. So strong the pull of how we think we want our lives to look, we begin to override our internal sat nav until we can no longer hear the voice of truth within us, we become lost to ourselves. So the messenger of emotion ups the anti, louder and louder pain shouts, our heart beats faster and anxiety rings in our ears. When we really hit rock bottom there is no choice but to finally ‘get the message’ and from down there we get a chance to truly begin again.

How beautiful this principle of beginners’ mind, we really can give ourselves permission to start over, with each new moment comes a new beginning and each mediation a place to get familiar with beginning again and again. When in meditation we forget to begin again; frustration, anger and boredom arises as holding up a mirror to us until we see what we are doing to ourselves. To see that reflection is such a teaching, I am chuckling to myself as I write this because an old earworm has returned to sing the Radiohead lyrics to me; ‘you do it to yourself you do and that’s what really hurts’. This full human experience really does hurt sometimes, it can be so painful and yet so exquisitely beautiful all at the same time. It is so hard for the mind to accept these two opposing truths and that’s ok too – because not all things can be figured out on the level of the mind. If you are in pain you know you are alive, and being alive is certainly something to feel grateful for. So feel pain, but know that you don’t have to feed it with your thoughts. Instead of mindlessly scattering seeds for the crows to peck, we can consciously plant seeds that we gently cultivate.

Depression is a pushing downwards, low thoughts take us on their repetitive downward spiral into lower and lower mood, the body joins this journey like grabbing onto the back of a conga line – with each kick a release of stress hormones, a slumping of posture, a reducing of immunity, forwards and downwards we dance. We lose ourselves in the dance, we become the dance and the dance becomes us, smothering and suffocating in its embrace. In meditation we sit in separation, thought comes and goes and when we don’t engage we see this separation for ourselves. Thought only becomes thinking when we choose to get involved with it. In stillness, free will is placed right under the spotlight of our attention. As thought forms float through we begin to see them for what they are, they are just thoughts and they are not us. And so the grip lessens, our relationship with our thoughts changes and release arrives.

We have the power to choose to act in ways which lift us in an upward direction, to embrace more of those things which make us feel alive and move away from those that deplete us. I used to be very busy trying to control the universe, it was exhausting. These days I choose more carefully the parts I play and try to be playful in the playing of them. I particularly enjoy being DJ when it comes to choosing what song to play in my head, if you don’t like your thoughts you can always change the record.

That’s not to say that the cloud of depression never floats into my life to obscure the view, but nowadays I see it for what it is – just a cloud. Mindfulness has made me recognise my own innate strength, I feel content in the knowledge that whatever the storm it will pass and that I have the power to weather it. The sun is always shining behind the clouds.

This article by Frances Trussell was originally published on ‘everyday mindfulness’

You can now also follow Frances on Twitter @francestrussell and Facebook