Yesterday evening I went to bed with stomach pain. Thanks to scar tissue in my abdomen from many operations this isn’t unusual. So I smothered my belly in wheat bags and eventually fell asleep. Today the pain was still there. This is unusual. A night’s sleep usually allows whatever’s wrong with my stomach to right itself.
So my mindfulness practice this morning included spending time with the pain in my stomach. I noticed how it felt – the tightness around my belly button that seemed like a spasm, the difficulty I had in breathing deeply into my diaphragm, the shallowness of my out-breaths.
After a few minutes I realised that this pain wasn’t from my stomach. It was from fear.
Here in the UK we had an update from our Prime Minister last night about the steps being taken to delay the spread of Coronavirus. Compared to other countries they seem insubstantial, unhurried, unconcerned.
I thought I was taking the pandemic in my stride. My body knows differently.
My husband and I have asthma. My mum has COPD. I travel a lot for work, including on packed trains to and from London. I am anxious about getting Coronavirus and getting sick. I am petrified about being an asymptomatic carrier of Coronavirus and giving it someone vulnerable like my mum who may well not survive.
Just writing all that down makes me feel better.
Naming our thoughts and feelings is one of the practices I use in my Mindfulness-Based Tinnitus Courses. It helps us notice our habitual thoughts. It also shows us our true emotions. Naming them unveils what we are feeling behind our masks of coping. Naming our emotions also helps disarm them. It reduces their power over us.
As soon as I recognised that I’m frightened of what might happen to me and the people I care about, I was able to sit with that emotion. As I paid attention to the fear it grew, and the knots in my stomach grew tighter. But as the moments passed the fear started to ebb away, and my stomach relaxed too. Observing our thoughts and emotions shows us that they are transitory. Yes, in challenging situations like the one we face now they might come back time and time again. But on each occasion they will reduce and even disappear.
From Coronavirus to tinnitus
These same principles apply whether we are worried about a pandemic, an exam or our tinnitus. Taking the time to be with our feelings and watch them ebb and flow like waves is a useful exercise. It shows us that our emotions need not be the boss of us. They are not permanent. They are not in control. Being aware of our thoughts and feelings enables us to choose how we respond to events in our lives. We may not be in control of what’s happening, but we can respond, rather than react in a knee-jerk fashion.
Respond with kindness
It’s reacting that causes us to panic-buy or to shout at our kids because their shrieking is making our tinnitus worse. It’s a response when we buy only what we need, and check whether our elderly neighbour wants anything too. We respond when we take 5 minutes in the peace of the garden away from our playful kids. By not allowing ourselves to be swept away by the challenges of the moment, we are able to show kindness both to ourselves and to others.
And that’s my motto this week. Whether you’re struggling with tinnitus, or the pandemic, or both. Be kind to yourself, and to others. Together we will get through this.