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Managing in Crazy Times with Mindfulness

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“I feel a crushing sensation in my chest, like I have difficulty breathing.”  These were the words of my client Celine a week after being caught in the stampede leaving the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on July 14th.

We were on a Skype call as she poured out the detail of that terrible night. I encouraged her to listen to her body and to not try to make sense of it all with words, but instead to feel the after shocks instead. Up until our call, repeated attempts to diffuse the tension in her chest had made little difference and she was distracted, very tired and worried that she was not recovering.

So we closed our eyes and breathed together and Celine turned her attention towards the tension in her body with interest. Rather than trying to make it go away I guided her to know it more deeply, to observe it with a friendly regard, to welcome it even. She experienced the normal cycles of aversion, wanting to turn away from the discomfort and the disturbing emotions in there, but courageously continued to explore the nuanced holding, tensing, and blocking sensations in her body.

Celine has been a diligent mindfulness practitioner for 3 years and has already mastered this tricky but powerful practice of turning toward the difficult.

Celine was grateful that she already had a solid mindfulness practice behind her before she found herself huddled behind a planter as a screaming crowd pounded past her on that terrible night in July.

A café owner grabbed her and her friends off the street and they hid in a cellar not knowing what was going on.

As time passed, stories emerged of devastated friends and images served to fill in the terrible picture. Photos in the media and mental pictures played havoc on Celine’s mind and left her short of breath.

By turning attention towards the physical sensations in the body, even the unpleasant ones, we take ourselves away from mental torment.

This kind of body awareness also boosts the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming system. With this comes a shift in brain activity, feeling threatened subsides and we start to see options and possibilities, we start to feel we can cope. We even experience a natural compassion towards ourselves and others. Thinking and analysis is very useful in certain circumstances but when we are experiencing angst, thinking can sometimes make things worse. Connecting kindly with the body is king when we are up against it emotionally.

So in response to Lois’ question “How do you manage crazy times?” I would say:

More breathing. More connecting with the body.

We can’t know what the future holds. Guessing and pre-empting difficulty may only leave us more worried. I can only ask that I will be able to handle whatever life throws at me and I have a large say in generating and honing that ability. The more I focus, stay in my body and generate present moment awareness, the better able I will be to handle turmoil and help others along the way.

So how was Celine after the session? She was breathing more easily.  She continued to meditate in this way and reported that as soon as she discovered that the exact source of the crushing sensation was located in her diaphragm, it dispersed. Often the answer is in the detail.

We added the self-calming exercise of feeling the warmth of her own hand on her heart, this releases the wellbeing hormone oxytocin, and every day she read a Christian prayer on compassion. She went back and thanked the helpful café owner and she engages in friendly conversation with local muslims she comes across in her daily life around Nice. She is doing her part in healing the wound.

Well done Celine, you kept up your mindfulness practice over the last 3 years, you weaved your parachute before you had to jump.

by Featured Woman Alison Prideaux

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