|“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. Welcome and entertain them all!”
Have you ever experienced one of those overwhelming events in life that can only be described as ‘having a meltdown’? One of those moments when the computer in your brain turns into Hal from the film 2001 Space Oddity, and begins to malfunction?
Sometimes the cause of a meltdown can be unknown, sometimes it can be because the gap between how you would like life to be and reality is like the Grand Canyon and is too vast to bear and sometimes it can be just because you are overloaded in some way.
Recently I experienced a meltdown. The whole thing was totally irrational and out of proportion, and yet I experienced a great deal of fear and discomfort at the time. It didn’t last very long and afterwards I did question why my body and mind had reacted the way it did. Even though I was mindful of it, I seemed to have no control over it. It was like an alien had taken over and I was just watching.
Oddly I was able to use my mindfulness practice to be fully aware of what was happening and how I was feeling, but seemed unable to control it. I did, however, recognise the need to be kind to myself so was able to focus on my breath; breathing in and out for the same count until it settled again. This has become a habitual behaviour learned from years of practice of the foundation method of settling, grounding and resting learned on the Level 1 training. This helped me to stay completely present in the moment, and whilst it wasn’t particularly pleasant, I tried to remain curious and open to how I was feeling. After all, I knew it would pass, one way or another, eventually.
The most important aspect of the mindfulness training that I used during this particular meltdown was self-compassion. In our mindfulness training not only do we learn the method of training the mind, but we also cultivate a sense of kindness towards ourselves. This is important when becoming aware or being affected by the times we struggle with having this human body and human brain. After all, we arrived here on earth, naked and without an operating manual.
So rather than giving myself a hard time for losing the plot for a while, I was able to be kind to myself for feeling the way I did. Before training in mindfulness that concept was completely alien to me. But just as we build muscles by working out at the gym, we also build a mindfulness muscle by practicing regularly. This way, when something does hit us unexpectedly, we are prepared to cope with it as best we can.
When we have a meltdown, or irrationally overreact to a situation we can often react in a way that we maybe wouldn’t desire or choose. This is because when our emotions are sparked, they tend to steal the show and seemingly disable our ability to pause before responding. The amygdala in the brain, our emotional centre, is all fired up and has reacted (usually based on its memory of a previous experience) before we know it, because it is programmed to detect potential threat. As mammals, we have evolved to be threatened by emotional situations as well as physical. This is why mindfulness has been so important to changing my life. Mostly, I am able to notice a shift in emotion, take a pause and breathe and choose how to respond, even though my amygdala is gagging to react, often in not a very conducive or helpful way. By noticing how we are feeling and creating a pause provides the amygdala with the opportunity to calm down; thus short-circuiting any negative programme about to invade our systems.
When I am triggered, I am likely to say something I don’t mean or raise my voice, because any frustration that has built up needs to express itself somehow. However, on this occasion the feeling became too overwhelming to cope with and I didn’t know how to respond. It seemed like my body started to shut down to avoid the confusion my brain was experiencing, even though this was totally illogical and seemingly unreasonable.
I find it soothing to understand how my brain and body works sometimes. It reminds me to be kind to myself, because this being human isn’t always easy. I became curious. I reflected on my life and the last time I felt overwhelmed was decades ago when I was inspired to throw the contents of my fridge on the floor. I cant even remember why now, but I do remember how it felt.
Another helpful aspect of the mindfulness training is learning to be accepting, and this includes my limitations. I am learning to recognise where I end, what I can cope with or tolerate as part of my own crazy uniqueness. This is another gift mindfulness has given me. Mostly, I am able to be mindful of looking after my being and avoid going beyond personal limitations which might be detrimental to my wellbeing. When working within my boundaries I thrive. I recognise the edge and notice when I begin to feel uncomfortable. Even when I begin to operate in the uncomfortable zone, I am aware of how I am feeling so I can check in the impact on my welfare. That’s not to say I don’t challenge myself, as each time I dip my toe in the uncomfortable zone, I become more allowing with myself and the world and am able to grow.
All that said, I am sure that wont be the last meltdown. When we are feeling overwhelmed too much too quickly, we cannot cope with the rapid shift beyond our comfort zone. I think the trick is to catch it quicker next time, and pause, and breathe, and above all – be kind to ourselves.
Have you noticed how you feel overwhelmed and outside of your comfort zone? How does it feel? What happens? Is it possible that you can become more mindful of how you are feeling and aware of your boundaries? Can you find a way to be kind to yourself?
Next time life pushes our boundaries or we are feeling overwhelmed can we use our mindfulness practice to pause and breathe and respond positively?
Please leave a comment or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
Take good care and be kind to yourselves.
Jacky will be teaching on the Access to Compassion Course starting 14th September and the new Stillness Through Movement Course on 5th October, 2021.
She has contributed a chapter to the Mindful Heroes Book entitled “Turning Empathic Distress into Compassion – A Hero’s Journey for Family Carers”. You can hear an extract from the chapter where she talks about the results of her MSc Studies in Mindfulness on Compassion & Family Carers. You can download a free sample of Jacky’s chapter here.