Octo Observations: Practicing Mindfulness

A few weeks ago, when tasks and output seemed daunting, my Connecticut son offered advice: “Practice mindfulness, mom. I am trying to do that, too.” Suddenly the wheels started turning and I gravitated to the internet for additional information. Coupled with accumulated experience and critical thinking, mindfulness has taken on a deeper meaning for me. Let’s explore this topic. Perhaps it might help you if you hit a snag in your lives, as I most certainly did.

Why did I “hit a snag?” Because as an Octo woman with many demands on my time: my husband needing extra care, an annual social function to organize in our retirement community, a weekend family gathering  to orchestrate for hubby’s 85th birthday, PLUS emergency dental surgery, I felt overwhelmed. Sleep was elusive. Reading until the wee hours distracted my thoughts, but created another problem: reading good books that were nearly impossible to put down!

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” Practicing mindfulness reduces anxiety through short periods of sitting quietly, walking, standing, and moving. Doing so allows us to enjoy brief meditation during our days that “enhances our performance by helping us gain insight into ourselves and those around us.”

Have you ever experienced a raging panic attack? If you have, then you know how scary one can be. No fun. About a month ago, as I was getting dressed one morning and my mind began churning, I suddenly felt my heart race faster than a horse in the homestretch, my hands grow clammy and my head feel so light  I feared it would float off my shoulders. Having had  milder attacks, I guessed what was happening. Nevertheless, I was terrified. “Oh I haven’t time for this. I can’t have a stroke. John needs me. I have too much to do.” I tried deep breathing. I hoped the feelings would pass. Finally, I phoned our doctor’s office. He was with a patient. His nurse assured me he would return the call. He did. By then, I felt better. But wowzer! It seemed that episode lasted forever!

About a week later, I visited our wonderful doctor. Being a competent seasoned professional, he has a lovely, calming effect. Still, my BP reading was too high. God works in mysterious ways. Maybe in retrospect that “panic attack” was a blessing in disguise. Fourteen years ago I had emergency surgery for a 99% blocked carotid artery, so vigilance is wise. 

Now I take another BP pill. That bothers me. Thus, I am rethinking how I can mindfully manage what is left of my life. I am walking as much as possible, taking time to breathe, and when nighttime wakefulness occurs, I turn to more meditative prose. I reach out for a gentler way of thinking. I read spiritual meditations by Deitrich Bonhoffer, a German theologian and philosopher. I read C.S. Lewis or sermons from beloved ministers. I pour a hot cup of chamomile tea. And I let the world slow-down in my head. I practice my own version of mindful meditation. It helps….I look at my sleeping husband and count my blessings that he and I are navigating a new and uncertain chapter of our lives. I thank God that I have been given more than 80 good years on this earth, and I hold close every dear loved one in our family and circle of friends.

MINDFUL MAGAZINE gives many tips as to how we can each learn to “calm the rush of panic in your body….how to create space between you and what you’re experiencing in order to decrease anxiety and worry.” There are plenty of helpful tips to read online. Hopefully, they are enough, coupled with common sense and experience, to alleviate periodic jolts of anxiety. There is a direct correlation between stressful situations and the way our bodies respond. The trick is to recognize overload, slow down and prevent wild symptoms. I promise myself to do better, to process life’s unexpected jolts as they happen. Not easy, but a practical goal.

Everyone at almost every age experiences stress. During my husband’s middle corporate years he traveled extensively. On one trip to Finland, he was caught up in a hectic schedule, including prolonged late evening dinners. Large meals accompanied by several assorted beverages. Before long he realized that the water glass contained pure vodka, while the shot glass was filled with a few ounces of water. John,  in his mid- thirties, and a rising executive in the paper industry, tried to keep up with his Finnish counterparts. A long dinner hour with generous amounts of vodka followed by time in a sauna plus a dip in a cold mountain spring was the tradition but tough on even his young body!

After two weeks of the Finnish lifestyle while flying  back to the states, he experienced chest pains, rapid heartbeat, and light headedness. He thought he was having a heart attack. Taken off the plane to a Swedish hospital, he called me, and told me his whereabouts. After being checked out and released, he flew home to Portland, Maine, where I met him and took him directly to the hospital. Long story short, doctors determined that what happened to him on the plane was nothing short of a severe panic attack. After that, my husband learned he did not have to keep up with his hosts’ traditions in a foreign country!

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) young people between the ages of 18-33 suffer the highest levels of stress compared with other age groups. Why? Concerns about money and jobs. Understandable. In our own family, seven of our older nine grandchildren fit into that category. While the younger three are college students, the older four are earning their own livings, and two are already fathers. (One granddaughter is a professional ballerina as well as a part time student.) Each one has challenges. In retrospect, it feels their lives are more complicated than in the olden days of my youth. Applying to colleges and acceptance into desired schools is far more difficult than sixty years ago. Competition is stiff. Higher percentage of kids competing for fewer slots in a freshman class. Ridiculous tuition costs. Even with a high GPA and diploma, the job market, while healthy now, can be unpredictable. 

Statistics say that as people age, stress levels diminish. Sure, provided that family members, job status, financial well-being are stable. But think of the breadwinner who is suddenly downsized with kids in college. Think of the challenges of raising  adolescents in an ubiquitous culture of social media, political discord and drugs. Think of those folks whose health deteriorates shortly after retirement. Where to go, what to do? So many variables. Naturally, we all hope that life will spare us and our loved ones unexpected “pops in the chops.” There are no guarantees. And old age, when worries are supposed to be minimal because we have planned accordingly, sometimes presents an entirely new set of hurdles.

Viktor E. Frankl, world famous psychiatrist and survivor of Nazi death camps, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he observes: “….in the final  analysis it becomes clear that the kind of person a prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of circumstances alone. …..any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him mentally and spiritually…..It is this freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” Thus, we can each take charge of ourselves. We can try to prepare for any eventuality. We can alter our life styles. We can seek the best possible advice when we hit a snag. We can be grateful for each good day of our lives. And we can practice mindfulness every day. 

Give yourself the gift of quietude. Give yourself the chance to settle your thoughts as you face a new chapter in your lives.  Give yourself permission to say, “No.” Allow yourself to prioritize by deciding what is most important to you, to your loved ones and to your own ultimate well-being.

And when stress sneaks up and nibbles at you, “Feel what your body is doing naturally.. As you breathe in, feel the abdomen rise like a balloon inflating, then feel it receding or deflating or falling on the exhalation. Just riding the waves of the breath, moment by moment, breathing in and out.” The effect is calming. As you end this quiet time, “…congratulate yourself that you took this time to be present and that you are directly cultivating inner resources for healing and well-being.” Mindful Magazine

A healthy human mind is blessed with the reality of knowing our triggers, our positives and our negatives. Deep down we know when we overextend ourselves with commitments that we could avoid. We each know our limits. 

So, the next time anyone of us hits a snag in life, take time to be mindful, be grateful and be the best you can be by helping yourself realize your full potential as an aware human being. 

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf!”

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.

Top photo: Bigstock