In November of 2013, I visited Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. It is an island that is home to an Abby on the top, dine in restaurants throughout and at night it is illuminated with lights that can be seen from miles away. The tour group that I was with, had visited the island during the day, we took a bus and then walked up to the Abby some 900 steps, to a gorgeous view of Normandy. While at dinner that evening, we were talking about the idea of walking back to the island, this time, using the man-made footbridge that crossed the stretch of sand that covered the ground between the island and mainland where we were all staying for the night.
After dinner, it was quite dark, and thankfully, some of us packed flashlights, I however did not. We started as a group of eight walking towards the island. The island was all lit up, shining beautifully from afar. As we continued to walk, some of us were either faster and soon were ahead of me while the others were slower and thus became further and further behind me. As I walked into the dark, I could hear my shoes click on the footbridge, the sound of my friend’s voices and laughter began to disappear, my eyes only saw, the darkness of the night. The reality of it all was, that If I stepped a foot or two to the left or a foot or two to the right, I am off the footbridge and thus walking in the sand. I could smell the sea water coupled with the taste of salt in my mouth. The experience became very quiet almost eerie like. I paused, not knowing where I was, trying to catch my bearings, the realization that at any moment, the tide could come in and the footbridge would be swallowed up. We were told on the tour during the day that at high tide, the island is surrounded by the waters of the North Atlantic. While at low tides, nothing but quiet streams of water fill in the gaps not covered by sand.
As I stood there by myself, anxiety slowly crept in, moving throughout my body as worry of the unknown began to cripple me, my mind began to race, doubts and worry turned into fear, I thought, “will the waters surround me?” I also feared that my friends may have left and gone back to the lodge. There was my anxiety and fear, out there in the open, causing more trouble than needed, that something bad might happen to me and no one would be around to help. It’s kind of a helpless feeling, standing in the middle of nowhere yet knowing that I am somewhere. What I chose to do next would be the strategy that I continue to live by and as a therapist encourage others to do the same.
I remember then, taking in a deep breath and then exhaling into the darkness. As I took several deeper breaths and continued to exhale out, my body began to calm down, my shoulders relaxed, my breathing wasn’t so labored, and my mind became clearer as I focused on the present moment and not concern myself of what was behind or in front of me. I chose to be mindful of the moment. I chose to be still and wait and engage in encouraging self-talk, “I can get through this,” or “Be patient with yourself.” A key question, I also asked myself, “What can I do now to help myself?” As I practiced mindfulness, staying present to the moment, my mind became hopeful while my body began to relax. I listened to my surroundings, and I heard by friends, behind me, laughing and talking away, I honestly believe they were oblivious to my worries of feeling stranded.
The reality is, we are only stranded if we allow ourselves to be stranded. In that moment, in between the middle of the island and mainland or when experiencing anxiety or not experiencing any reactions, the act of choosing mindfulness, is choosing the middle ground. I chose to do something, to act and come up with an action plan of how to move forward. In doing so, it allowed me to find freedom and choice of not feeling helpless while empowering myself to feel in control.
A few helpful exercises on practicing mindfulness to ease anxiety symptoms.
- Name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This experience grounds you to the present and we can focus more or enjoy the moment we are in.
- Body Scan – close your eyes, and tell yourself to relax your shoulders, wiggle them around if needed, move your arms, and tell your arms to relax, wiggle them around if needed. Allow your hands to lie open face on your lap. Move to your belly and tell yourself to take in some deep belly breaths. Move to your legs and tell yourself to relax your legs, wiggle them around if needed. Move to your feet and tell yourself to relax your feet.
- Taking walks – telling ourselves to take slower strides encourages more mindful walking. As we walk, we can breathe in for three steps and breathe out for three steps. When you walk, be present with your surroundings, notice what you see, smell, feel, or hear?
- Practice responding to situations rather than reacting. Asking yourself, is this something that I need to get upset about or can I choose to let it go.
In being present to how we think and feel about a situation can at times cause a physical response such as what occurs when anxiety strikes. In being mindful, we decrease our anxiety through developing a more responsive approach through staying present, allowing ourselves to relax, and then discovering solutions or exploring our options to everyday situations.