Andrea, 30, is currently training as a nurse and lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire.
I first discovered mindfulness in 2010, in the aftermath of an episode of severe depression. I have had mental health problems since I was a teenager, although I experienced a long period of being well in the latter years of my time at university. However, after I finished my degree, I was faced with huge life stresses like job and money worries, as well as family issues. I couldn’t cope and, as a result, I developed severe anxiety which eventually led to my depression. Further down the line, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which explained my experience of incredibly intense and distressing emotions. It was during this time that I began to read widely about depression and mental health. I was particularly attracted to a book on mindfulness, as it was genuinely different from anything I had ever read before.
As I read more about mindfulness, several aspects of the practice stood out. The first was the focus on being non-judgmental – I am pretty hard on myself, so it felt like mindfulness gave me ‘permission’ to treat myself a bit more kindly. I was also comforted by the fact that you can’t do mindfulness ‘wrong’, so there was no danger of me ‘failing’ at it. I was also struck by the focus on the present moment – I’ve had very difficult childhood experiences and often anxiously worry about the future, so the idea that the ‘present’ was the only thing that was real was liberating.
Mindfulness is one of those things you actually have to experience to understand. There are a lot of misconceptions about mindfulness – for example, that it’s a tool with the aim of inducing relaxation. That’s not it at all: mindfulness is about accepting your present experience, just as it is, whether that’s good, bad or neutral. Reduced anxiety or relaxation may happen, or it may not; learning to accept life’s experiences and emotions is the true value of mindfulness. You could be experiencing some pretty awful emotions during the practice, but mindfulness will allow you to manage them more effectively.
The philosophy that underpins mindfulness has led to a major change in my entire worldview. The simple truth that everything changes in life has made it easier for me to cope with the huge anxiety that comes from uncertainty. The ability to be non-judgmental when my mind wandered was an initial foray into the world of self-compassion; this slowly led to an erosion of the feelings of self-loathing which I’ve had since I was a child. The core practice – an awareness of the present moment – allows me to cope with my fluctuating emotional state. It has also meant that I have been able to stop using self-harm as a coping mechanism for overwhelming emotions as they arise.
The benefits of mindfulness have also led to a change in career – I worked previously as a data analyst and an administrator, but now I am a second year student nurse. I couldn’t have imagined ever becoming a nurse, but having the space to experience my own intense emotions has unexpectedly led to being able to handle the emotions of other people without getting distressed myself. A busy ward is actually the perfect place to practice mindfulness – I use it more in action than in formal sitting meditation these days. It also helps me manage the anxiety that comes with being a student. When things get stressful, it’s often helpful to just pause for a moment and simply ‘be’ where I am.
Mindfulness is not a cure-all; I don’t think that is the point. The huge challenges that living with BPD and anxiety present can sometimes mean that I’m simply too distressed to practice mindfulness, and may need to rely on other ways to cope. But I find mindfulness extremely useful as a way of living, and as a way of being. I’m just so glad that I gave it a chance.