It’s been eight weeks now since I tore my calf muscle. That’s eight weeks of crutches and immobility. I’ve had to move back in temporarily with my ex, as my new flat is up several flights of stairs, and that’s not really manageable without two working legs. But I’m lucky that I have somewhere to go and people to look after me (including my dog, who helpfully licks my foot every now and then to ease the pain). I’ve not been able to work and Netflix has become my new best friend. But one way or another, Josh, Dougal, my crutches and I have managed to get by for the past few weeks.
My mental health has suffered somewhat as a result of this enforced period of inactivity. I have wonderful friends who have called round and kept me occupied (and even painted my toenails – thank you Eleanor!) but it’s difficult to keep fighting anxiety when you are cut off from the outside world and have too much time on your hands to think. When I’m cooped up, I don’t have any of the tools that I normally use to fight anxiety, and so I’ve been reminded of how fragile my mental health really is. Over the last week especially, my world has shrunk to a tiny pinpoint, and all I can think about are the negative thoughts taking over my brain.
Without a routine and engagement with the outside world to occupy my mind, I’ve fallen into bad habits. Without strict discipline, I tend either to ruminate on the past, or worry about the future. It’s difficult to stay focused on the present when you are feeling very anxious: the thoughts are all-consuming. For example if I try to have a conversation with somebody when I’m anxious, I find it hard to look them in the eye, and it’s virtually impossible to concentrate. The thoughts act like a swarm of angry flies buzzing around my head, making it very difficult to focus on anything else.
Normally, I try to defeat my anxiety with some form of activity to get me out of my head. This can be going to work, or doing some form of exercise; anything that forces me to turn my focus outwards, helping to swat away those angry flies! This has proved difficult whilst I have been stuck inside and I’ve been struggling to calm down my racing brain. Sleep becomes harder, too. I find myself aimlessly scrolling through Twitter… if I’m not careful, I’ll start tweeting about covfefe.
This need to try something has led me to think about mindfulness. Being mindful roughly translates as trying to live in the present moment and notice what is happening around you and within you at any given time. Mindfulness is a form of meditation, and can be a useful tool to calm an anxious mind.
My own mind, predictably enough, finds mindfulness a tricky concept. One therapist I saw a few years ago tried to teach me how to be mindful using the example of eating a square of chocolate. The idea was that you focus on feeling and tasting each square, to slow down the brain whilst you eat. Yeah, so that doesn’t really work for me. I just wanted to say: “Look lady, when I’m eating chocolate I’m concentrating on getting the yummy into me as fast as I can!”
However, if ever there’s a time to give the concept another chance, it’s now. So I decided to try out some mindfulness colouring-in… and I’m happy to report that it really does work!
Mindfulness colouring books have been everywhere for the past few years, and I was sceptical at first, but I’ve come to find them a really good starting point for mindfulness. The very act of the colouring – including the all-important staying inside the lines – focuses the mind on the present task, and forces the brain to slow down. Those anxious thoughts recede when I’m concentrating on the best shade of green for those trees in the background.
The best thing is that small, hobbly steps soon lead to bigger strides. So just as I’m starting to walk without crutches again, I’m also finding that the mindfulness colouring is helping to give me the calmness and focus to write. In the past year I’ve found that maintaining this blog gives me real confidence – but I need to be in the right frame of mind to write full sentences. If only the President of the United States could spend a bit more time colouring in…