When I hear the word mindfulness, I tend to think of yoga or meditation. Although it can be part of both of those disciplines, it’s also something that can be practiced in daily life to help ease stress. Estrangement definitely brings stress to a life, so mindfulness is one way to help when the emotions are threatening to overwhelm your mind and heart.
The first time I was introduced to the idea of mindfulness, the term wasn’t used. I’d been in the middle of trying to tell someone about something traumatic and scary that was happening in my life at the time. The more I tried to talk about the fear, the more I started to feel panicked. I even started shaking. The person I was with (a pastor) gently asked me if I was afraid right then sitting in that room with him and one of the elders at the church.
No, I wasn’t afraid in that room at that moment.
He asked me if I could just spend a minute focusing on where I was right then. What was I feeling? Hearing? Seeing? Look out the window and see the sunshine. Watch the tree branches moving gently in the breeze.
As I followed his advice, I felt the fear and panic lift. Yes, there were reasons for fear and panic at other moments in my life, but this wasn’t one of those moments. In that moment I felt safe, protected, and cared about.
I took that lesson into my daily life and when I would find my mind wandering to things that brought stress, I would start observing where I was right at that moment. And it worked.
Funny how I never thought about applying mindfulness principles to my thoughts and feelings related to this estrangement until I read about the topic in Done with the Crying by Sheri McGregor earlier this week.
The following list contains some of the ideas I gleaned from McGregor’s book about how to begin using mindfulness:
take one long breath, then another as an anchor to the present moment
feel what you feel, but take note of what you’re thinking, feeling, and how your body is reacting
don’t judge, just observe
in time, you’ll be able to respond more purposefully when these thoughts begin, and then make healthier choices — but first, just be mindful, aware, and present in the moment
learning what you’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing bodily in moments of severe pain or panic will help you come up with a plan to make better choices in the future and feel more in control
I thought I’d take some time to practice mindfulness in the midst of one of my more difficult moments today being overwhelmed with grief. I’ve been having quite a few of these overwhelming moments this week. I focused on what my body was doing and took inventory of my bodily reaction to the current bout of emotional turmoil.
Here’s the list I came up with from today’s grief event and things I remember from others (I’m sure there’s more):
stomach muscles clenched
stomach queasy, sometimes to the point of vomiting
gasping for air, feeling like I can’t breathe
feeling like I’m drowning in my tears
head and neck tight
muscles throughout my body tight
toes and feet curled and clenched
poor balance when walking
I bite my lips
I hide face behind hands or clothing
I suck and chew on clothing (shirt edge usually)
aching all over
sometimes the crying triggers my asthma
And when this happens, all I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep … for a thousand years.
One benefit of mindfully taking stock of my body’s reactions, allowed me to make other choices to help myself feel better. When I noticed my clenched teeth, I made an effort to relax my jaw. When I noticed muscles that were being held tightly, I took some time to focus on releasing those muscles as much as I could.
It didn’t take care of everything, but it made a small difference in how I was coping. A small difference right now can be the difference between life and another stay in the hospital on Suicide Watch.
In the first part of the latest section I read in the book, McGregor suggests that parents experiencing estrangement from adult children shouldn’t be hasty in making major life decisions. I believe this is much like the counsel that’s often offered after someone experiences the death of a loved one: Don’t make major changes like quitting a job, or moving, or beginning a new relationship, or getting a new pet. Anything that would have long reaching repercussions should be delayed until the initial shock and pain dissipate.
McGregor says that in the early weeks following an estrangement, many parents — if they sought professional counseling — would be quickly diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). ASD occurs in the first weeks following a traumatic event or major loss. Being suddenly estranged from an adult child (or children) definitely constitutes a personal trauma and loss.
As I thought about my own early days following the estrangement, I experienced the following ASD symptoms:
numbed, dazed, detached
avoiding reminders of my children (people, places, photos, etc.)
During the first few weeks, whenever I attempted telling someone what was happening with my children, I would experience an anxiety attack. My heart would race, I would start shaking visibly, I would stutter severely (if I could get words out at all), and I would feel like I couldn’t breathe. Writing it down doesn’t sound so bad, but what I experienced was truly debilitating. It was almost like I’d seize up into a shaking, quivering, crying, stuttering, gasping ball of grief and shock.
It was awful. Truly awful.
McGregor also states that in the aftermath of a trauma people tend to do one of two things. They reach out to others for support, or they retreat off by themselves. She compared the people who retreat to someone with a bad burn who would avoid others to avoid being jostled and causing the pain to worsen. She said neither reaction is right or wrong. Both reactions are normal and understandable. Sometimes a person may switch back and forth between the two reactions.
I did both. I reached out to people (my counselor, my pastor, a good friend), but I also retreated into my home where I could cry and shake and emote without fear or embarrassment. I definitely felt as if my pain could be intensified by the jostling of well meaning people and their often unhelpful and unintentionally hurtful comments or reactions.
And the fact that the initial weeks of my estrangement from my children happened at the beginning of the holiday season didn’t help. Acute Stress Disorder and the holidays don’t mix well, I discovered. Probably had a lot to do with why I ended up in the hospital on Suicide Watch over New Year’s.