Dr Perpetua Neo Exposure Panic Attacks Rainstorm

“Do I expose myself to panic attacks?”

By | How To Deal With Anxiety | No Comments

Yesterday I read a post in a woman’s group asking about whether one should immerse themselves in a panic attack, otherwise known as ‘exposure’. As someone who has had experienced and treated panic attacks, this is a topic close to my heart.

Exposure is taking that step forward with your chin-up and telling the scary person who just threatened to hit you, to try it if she dares to. Even if your heart is slamming away, your breathing is shallow, you’re doing it. Because you know she’s merely threatening you, and if you face that fear, she’ll melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West.

It’s useful for facing the things that petrify us.

I’ve done it on myself- with raw meat- so I could cook for my cat. I remember how much I wanted to gag, and how I fainted on my first trip to the wet market at 3 years old. I’ve done it with clients. We worked with spiders, dead rats and dogs.

Whilst facing your fears is useful, when it comes to panic attacks, we need to ask ourselves, “What is that main fear?”.

What is that main thought in your head when you have a panic attack.

If it’s “I’m going to die” or “I’m going to have a heart attack”, then yes, exposure will help you. Before then, knowing the science behind it- that you won’t die or have a heart attack– is key.

We often think that our fear levels or our heart activity will shoot up sky-high. And thus, we want our panic attack to stop, so the catastrophic outcome we fear won’t happen. When we realise that our emotional system can regulate itself and our fear levels will plateau, panic attacks become less of a scary monster.

So, if you’re going to expose yourself to panic attacks, make sure you know you won’t die or have a heart attack. Or you’ll feel like the sailors on Columbus’ ship, sailing over the horizon, believing that they were going to die. Because back then, we thought the world was flat.

Not all exposure exercises are equal

Even then, consider your personal and public safety on where you’re planning to do your exposure exercise. If it’s whilst driving, that’s like driving after taking a tablet that induces drowsiness. You’re not sure what will happen. Don’t.

Why? When you have your panic attack, it isn’t all in your mind. People who tell you that have never experienced one, or aren’t very considerate of what you’re going through.

The physical sensations are real. The heat at the back of your neck. Your quivering muscles. Your mind overwhelming you with thoughts of the worst case scenarios. They’re undeniably real. They’re measurable if you strap yourself up to medical devices. But you’ve got nothing to prove to anyone.

In the case of facing panic attacks, it isn’t just walking forward in the face of a threat to dissolve the illusion of fear.

There are real things triggering your panic attacks- perhaps a hypersensitivity to heat whilst in enclosed spaces, or a fear of being trapped and laughed at by others. Sure, you didn’t always have panic attacks all your life, and it’s probably something relatively recent that makes you wonder “What has changed” and “Is there something wrong with me?”. Your fear is a muscle, and this muscle has become so well-fed that it jumps into Panic Attack Mode instantly.

“I need to escape” & “I cannot handle it”

So, if the main belief is about “I need to escape” or “I cannot handle it”, then don’t do exposure. All the times you’ve managed to calm yourself down, all the times you’ve escaped from the clutches of the panic attack- you’ve done it. You’re still alive.

You spend your days knowing that whilst you’re still hypersensitive to panic attacks- because that Fear Muscle is on autopilot- you’re vulnerable. You’re still living your life. You’re brave.

Everytime you berate yourself for being ‘useless’, ‘stupid’ or ‘worthless’ for having your panic attack, you increase your stress levels. When we suppress our fears and our stress, they need an outlet to escape. Enter, more panic attacks.

You aren’t less of a human for having panic attacks. In fact, clinical psychologist and UCL lecturer Ali Modaresi once said this:–

“If you’ve not experienced a panic attack or depression by late 20s or early 30s, it means that you are not doing enough, and have not fully experienced the complex and overwhelming world out there.”

Please remember that.

How about some gentleness instead?

Instead, can you come back home to yourself, rather than be lost in your mind. Can you breathe in deeply for seven counts, feeling your lungs and chest expand, slowly but surely. Then, breathe out deeply for eleven counts, feeling your lungs and chest fall, and your belly empty. Feel the way the breath enters and leaves your nose.

I know you might be distracted by your mind, telling you that danger lurks everywhere.

It’s okay, simply come home to your breath. Come home to yourself.

Last consider this, what fears or stressors in your life are you trying hard to suppress? Fear exists for a reason– to warn us to fight or take flight. Sometimes, however, we freeze. And at other times, we’re too quick to bury it, it morphs into something deeper. Which are released at the seemingly-strangest times as pure unadulterated rage, shame and panic.

Here, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice works marvels.

“So the practice is not to fight or suppress the feeling, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness. When a mother embraces her child, that energy of tenderness begins to penetrate into the body of the child. Even if the mother doesn’t understand at first why the child is suffering and she needs some time to find out what the difficulty is, just her act of taking the child into her arms with tenderness can already bring relief. If we can recognise and cradle the suffering while we breathe mindfully, there is relief already.”

If you can’t envision cradling a child, envision cradling a pet.

You have that space of warmth, compassion and love inside you.

Panic attacks can make us doubt ourselves and feel as though the future is extremely uncertain. Trust your ability to take care of yourself and come home to yourself.

Credit: Image

Is there someone you’re forgetting to thank?

By | How To Be A Better Person, How To Change Your Life, How To Stop Self-Loathing, Sound Mental Health, Steps To Wellbeing | No Comments
Paul hated the holidays. It wasn’t only keeping up with appearances. Paul couldn’t keep up with his mind and feelings. When our minds are racing, we get angry and scared and try to rescue ourselves by “snapping out of it.” But what if doing that shoves us on to the treadmill of our thoughts and emotions? If you feel like you can’t keep up, how about taking a little time to give thanks. Gratitude actually takes us to a place of safety. Too often, we give thanks for other people and what we have. Perhaps this year, we could cultivate gratitude for ourselves. Here are some questions to reflect on.


 

What changes have I made this year that I’m thankful for?

If you think you haven’t made any changes or are too stuck to change, think again. We are always evolving —  right down to every cell in our body. Think about what changes you’ve made towards becoming a better version of yourself this year. The fact that you’re here reading about wellbeing is a stride. After all, many of us go through our lives with little awareness of mental health.

Can I see my negative emotions in a different way?

Depression, Anxiety & Company. Negative emotions have a bad reputation. We pretend they don’t exist at times, but at other times we’re swept away by them. What if I told you  negative emotions exist for a reason. Evolutionarily, depression signals when to retreat so we can conserve our resources and recharge. Anxiety protects us by preparing us to fight, run away or plan to solve a problem. They are fundamentally useful. But when things get difficult in our lives — because something bad has happened or we’ve done something we’re not proud of — these negative emotions morph into Depression, Anxiety & Company-On-Steroids. They worsen when we fight them, so we feel trapped in quicksand. What can we do instead? Thank our negative emotions for trying to protect us, and give ourselves permission to feel them. We are human after all.

Perpetua Neo quote 1 thanksgivingI like what Zen monk and meditation teacherThich Nhat Hanh advises: cradle our emotions and take care of them. That way, we learn to understand where they come from and how to help ourselves. When we face our fears squarely, we grow as people.

 

What painful lessons am I now thankful for?

To be alive is to taste the full spectrum of emotions and experiences. We cannot select what’s good and avoid the bad. Rather, it’s about knowing that when bad things happen, we’ll be able to overcome them. They say hindsight is 20/20; sometimes our best friend is Cognitive Photoshop. When the pain has bubbled over and we’ve rebuilt our lives, we can see things in a different perspective. And when we reflect on the painful lessons we’ve grown to be thankful for, we become more resilient and better able to overcome — because life will always happen.

What have I shed that I’m grateful for?

As we grow, we lose things that no longer serve us. These can be habits, beliefs and emotions. Sometimes they’re physical, things like excess weight, illness and pain. Often, we’re so caught up in what we lack and what we haven’t yet gained that we forget what we’ve released.

Do I hold myself to harder standards than I treat others?

We’re often harshest to ourselves. When I ask my clients how they would treat their friends or their children in the same scenario, with wide eyes they declare “Of course not!” Yet, we’re uncompromisingly difficult with ourselves. We can give thanks by treating ourselves kindly, by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and feel, just like every other human being. Who do I love and protect? Can I love and protect myself in the same way from now on?

If you’ve answered “yes” to the previous question, this reflection can help you practice giving love to yourself. Think about how you respond kindly and with care to anyone —  your child, cat or friend. Connect to that place inside you where the love and safety comes from. And when you notice you’re being harsh to yourself, tell yourself “I deserve to treat me kindly.” Breathe gently into yourself as you connect into the place of love and safety.

Are the good things I do really “stupid” or “irrational”?

Too often, we dismiss the things we do as “stupid”, “little” or “irrational”. I know, society teaches us to be bigger, stronger and faster than our competitors. It’s always about newer and shinier toys. That’s where we learn to put a metric on what we do. How about seeing it this way– a good thing is a good thing. Let’s not give it a size. Instead, can we be thankful for these things we are able to do? If you treated yourself kindly today or if you didn’t label your kind action as “small” or “stupid”, give thanks for that.

What do I love about myself?

joy quote thanking yourself

As a psychologist and coach, I believe we’re all worthy. We just need to remember that. Sometimes, stepping back and reflecting on what we love about ourselves can help us to reconnect with our sense of worth without worrying about society’s values or obsessing over what we lack. What do you like when you look in the mirror? What about your personality do you love? What talents and abilities are you grateful for. What have you achieved that you’re most proud of? If you were to choose the one thing about yourself that brings you great joy, what would it be?

How can I create joy in my life?

My favorite meditation is smiling meditation. Smiling is a quick hack that sends our brains signals to feel peaceful and safe. As you breathe, feel yourself giving a relaxed smile. Widen your smile until you feel it connect with a place inside where you feel calm and warm. Shift your attention to your eyes, basking in the feeling of warmth. Allow your eyes to smile. And as you continue to breathe in and out, connect with a sense of your whole body smiling.

How will you practice gratitude for yourself today?

This article was first featured on Talkspace. Header image via Getty.

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy Brighton Worrying Avoidance Borkovec

What are you really avoiding by worrying (Borkovec’s take)

By | How To Deal With Anxiety, Sound Mental Health, Steps To Wellbeing | No Comments

We were feeling deflated. My colleague’s client wanted to work on insomnia but weeks later, we weren’t sure if she was ready to stop worrying.

“But I need to worry, otherwise I’ll feel worse” she said as we ended the session.

That provided the first clues.

My colleague wondered aloud with me, “Perhaps she’s worrying because she’s trying to stop the flashbacks and intrusive images”. You see, the client was also battling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Armed with this new hypothesis, my colleague presented this idea. The client acknowledged that it was indeed the case. Everytime she worked on her worries successfully, she’d get a flashback. Worrying became safer.

Indeed, Borkovec suggests that worry is verbal-based. When we worry, we stop our brains from engaging in the pathways that bring up vivid mental images and that cause emotional and bodily distress. This makes us likelier to want to worry, for fear of facing much more distressing mental images.

As time goes by, we believe that worrying is useful, because it protects us. However, because we don’t process our fears, they never go away and we feel trapped in the cycle of worrying. Those who are likeliest to worry in order to avoid are people who believe that worrying solves problems or those with an insecure attachment style.

So, if you worry a lot, is there anything in particular you are trying to avoid by worrying?

If you’d like to deal with anxiety, perhaps that’s the first question to ask yourself.

Do you relate to worrying to avoid? Help someone in the same situation by sharing your thoughts. Leave a comment or Pop me a mail. I read every email. [Credit: Image]

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy Brighton Therapist Perfect

Do you expect your therapist to be perfect?

By | What Is Psychotherapy | No Comments

My supervisor said, “Why don’t you share with him your experiences when you’re worried?” I froze. It was a gut reaction. You see, I’d received many mixed messages about self-disclosure. During my first week of training, a facilitator said she found it useful to point out that she was clearly from a different cultural background- that’d remove the elephant in the room. But someone else hauled me up for doing that.

Some said the client-therapist relationship is meant to be sacred and pure. It should be about the client; and nothing about the therapist should be disclosed. Of course, Web 2.0 makes this difficult– today it’s common not to patronise someone if they’re not found online. Needless to say, I was confused.


Yalom’s wisdom

Irvin Yalom writes about how therapists should disclose to some extent. If it helps clients to understand themselves better. Clients have confidentiality; therapists don’t– as long as the therapist isn’t worried about about that information becoming public, it’s okay.

“Do not permit this concern to restrict your work and make you so overcautious and self-protective that you lose your effectiveness. You cannot protect yourself from patients’ presenting you undistorted fashion to their next therapist”

But he cautions that clients will resist it, for they “want the therapist to be omniscient, infinitely dependable and imperishable”.

Accepting imperfection vs disclosing imperfection

I’ve struggled with these two camps. I’m clearly imperfect and am continually making peace with my imperfections. But my fear of disclosure– from the conflicting advice I’ve been given– kept me quiet. But deep down, it also stemmed from a fear of getting into trouble with supervisors.

As therapists we subscribe to different schools of thoughts. Some of us believe purely in one model. Others like myself don’t. And then if you scratch the surface, there’s in-fighting and competition amongst the different advocates of each school. As long as we don’t acknowledge our need to be “more right” or better than another, we may use points like self-disclosure against another therapist’s way of working.

In short, I learned: someone will tell you it’s wrong, another will tell you not. In between the starkness of black and white, there’s infinite shades of grey. If we guide our clients to be comfortable with uncertainty, perhaps so should we.

Walking the talk

That week, I opened my mouth and shared a story of how my brain and body react when I’m anxious with that client. My client nodded, saying he was glad to hear my 2-minute piece. It could have easily been the story of someone else, because anxiety symptoms are somewhat universal. But it taught me to rise above my fears.

Later that week, I had a review with another client, with whom I never self-disclosed. She told me with a smile that I spoke from the heart, and she knew that I had changed my own life too. She said, I knew what I was talking about. Theory, technique, experience. I was startled. Such feedback also came from other clients with whom I hadn’t self-disclosed. They said they liked knowing I was human.

And it struck me that perhaps not all clients expect their therapists to be perfect.

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy Brighton Hold Hands Relate Perfect Therapist

Perfectly imperfect

Years later, I’ve interviewed many on their thoughts on these subject. They’re clients of other therapists, coaches and healers. What I’ve come to realise is that:–

  1. Some of us expect perfection from our therapist. It helps us feel better. But there comes a point when we realise we also need to face where this yearning for perfection comes from.
  2. It is in our human-ness that we connect. When we know pain, joy, suffering, hope, fear, love, and everything that lies in-between.

“I want to know that my therapist has overcome. It doesn’t need to be the same experience or difficulty. But I know then that they really understand.” – (Respondent)

Perhaps, as long as our therapist isn’t spending all the time talking about themselves, self-disclosure and the acceptance that we’re all imperfect beings helps make life a little easier and relatable.


 This article is part of a series “What is Psychotherapy?” written and curated for you. Too many people have asked the same questions, and told me how not knowing stopped them from seeking professional help. I hope this helps you. And, do you have a question about what is psychotherapy? Leave a comment or Pop me a mail. I read every email. [Credit: Header and Image]

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy Brighton Banishing Unworthiness

How I banished “Unimportant, Worthless, and Stupid for Trying”

By | How To Stop Self-Loathing, Limiting Beliefs, Sound Mental Health, Steps To Wellbeing | No Comments

I left the sandwich outside her door. It was a grilled cheese sandwich, my favorite: the kind with cheddar and slices of salted tomatoes, all crispy and blackened on the outside and gooey on the inside. Perfect to go with soup or chips, though we had neither. I put the sandwich on a blue plastic plate and left it there, right outside her door where she couldn’t miss it. I ate my own sandwich, alone. I must have been 11 or so.


My mom worked from home. She’d start the day in her home office, drinking a mug of coffee and a tall glass of water. I sniffed that glass of water one morning, and it smelled terrible. Like the kid in class who didn’t shower and no one wanted to sit next to. I later realized it was water mixed with vodka. Every day around 11am, she’d go into her room and close the door. She called it “taking a nap”. After I found the box of wine in her closet, I knew what was really happening when she took a nap.

I have few memories from growing up, especially from those long summers that seemed to stretch on forever.

Those summers where I ceased to exist because there was no one around to talk to, no one to play with– I had no friends. There were strict rules about going out and I was embarrassed to bring anyone home. We didn’t have a computer with internet or a TV that plugged into anything besides the outlet in the wall. There wasn’t much to do besides read and play with the old sewing machine in the basement.

So the morning of the sandwiches, when my mom asked if I wanted to have lunch together, just us girls, I was excited. We never spent time together! She wanted to hang out with me! But when 11:30 rolled around, she hadn’t emerged from her nap. My stomach began to sink. How would we eat at 12 if she didn’t get up now? As the clock ticked, the sinking feeling in my stomach turned into a tight knot.

She wasn’t coming.

I kept waiting anyway. Hoping.

By the time it was 1pm, I gave up. I was hungry. So I made two sandwiches, two perfect grilled cheese sandwiches, and left hers by the door and ate mine alone. Later that day, sometime around 5pm, she stumbled out. She went into the kitchen and slammed pots and cabinets, making dinner before going back to her room. I crept into the kitchen to put something in the trash, and I saw it.

The sandwich I had made. It was in the trash.

In that moment, with the infinite wisdom of an 11-year old, I decided who I was going to be for the next 18 years of my life.

Unimportant.
Stupid, for trying to get noticed by the people I respect.
Not worth anyone’s time.


My therapist, my wonderful therapist, pulled this memory from deep within my childhood memory banks last night.We unravelled the pieces and found the areas where 11-year old Me was still making decisions for 29-year old Me. The moment last Thursday when an off-hand comment from a co-worker dismissed my efforts to help him succeed with a project. The time I reached out to help someone I admire and respect, and she didn’t get back to me. The day someone told me they were disappointed that I wasn’t more of a social butterfly when we met in person, after I had spent hours remotely helping her with her business.

All those times where I felt disappointment, sadness, and: proof. Proof that I was worthless. Stupid for trying. Dumb to think I could be useful. Ridiculous in my hopes, my desires to be recognized and acknowledged.

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy Brighton Banish I am unworthy

As we unpacked memories and peeled away layers, I began to feel lighter. My body, tense and tight before, relaxed. We created a clearing. A clearing that I could fill with new ways of thinking and being.

I chose to fill that clearing, now, as a 29 year old woman. I chose to recognize and cherish the moments where people acknowledge me, instead of dismissing them as outliers. I chose to give myself the space to feel appreciated. To notice when I feel those old ways of thinking, and to remember who I am now.

I AM:

Worthwhile.
Respected.
Loved and appreciated.
A force to be reckoned with.

That is who I am.

Thank you.


Note: This was reposted with permission from one of my friends, who wanted her story to be shared anonymous. Her courage– to look her story in-the-eye and to dare to give herself the kindness we give everyone else but ourselves– touches me. Thank you, my friend, for telling your story. Credit: Images 1 & 2

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy brighton Anxiety Lightning

Why do you condemn yourself to the worst possible outcome?

By | How To Deal With Anxiety, How To Stop Self-Loathing, Sound Mental Health, Steps To Wellbeing | No Comments

Karla’s hands grew clammier. “I’m going to have a full-on panic attack, these people are going to laugh at me. I can never show my face on this train line again”. Her mind raced through the different options of getting to work– none. Her breathing became shallower as she burst into tears and alighted at the next stop, unable to stomach the thought of another 30 minutes on the train.

Gerard was an hour late for work. He was halfway there when he spotted a hairdryer in the window display. “Oh God, I forgot to turn off my hairdryer. The house will catch fire”, he thought. Despite the fact that he’d checked his windows, doors and electric sockets for two hours that morning. Being served his fourth late warning that week didn’t deter him from going home to check.

In clinical terms, Karla has panic attacks. Gerard has obsessive-compulsive disorder. These diagnoses help us to understand their experiences better. But there’s no denying. These experiences are paralysing. They disrupt our lives. And we feel bad about what happens.


When healthy anxiety becomes Anxiety-On-Steriods

We all experience shades of anxiety in our lives. Like the way our liver is built to break down alcohol or our pupils to control how much light enters our eyes, anxiety protects us. It prepares us for action or to avoid an outcome. Picture Gerard’s story. Checking his house was always a five-minute ritual to ensure that everything was safe. Back then, he’d think “if I don’t check my switches, my hairdryer might be left switched on. There could be a risk of fire.”

During times of high stress, when something’s difficult happened, or when we’ve done something we’re ashamed of, our anxiety can morph into Anxiety-On-Steroids. That’s when the thought “If I don’t check my switches” is immediately fused with “the house will definitely catch fire”. We become so caught up with how we’re feeling and so convinced that the outcome in our head is affirmative. Our anxiety becomes a well-vascularised muscle, and with time, a five-minute ritual magnifies to two hours.

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy Brighton Anxiety Lightning

Why do you condemn yourself to the worst possible outcome?

At the same time, here’s the question I ask my clients, “Why do you condemn yourself to the worst possible outcome?” Outcomes like fires, embarrassing ourselves, and being ill. When we’re so convinced of these outcomes, our stress response kicks into overdrive. We’re not thinking straight, We hate the way we feel. It’s overwhelming. My clients pause, saying they’d never thought about it that way. And then they answer, “Because I deserve bad things”.

If this is your story, I wish it wasn’t the case. Here’s the thing. Sometimes we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, beyond what is humanly possible. We expect ourselves to be strong and invincible, and we’re ashamed of the times we fail to live to those standards. We beat ourselves up for the things we’ve done and failed to do.

No matter what you’ve done and no matter what’s happened, you don’t deserve to condemn yourself to the worst possible outcomes. You deserve better outcomes– part of why I love my work so much is because it’s ultimately about helping people to remember that they’re worthy.

Start with a little kindness

So if you have panic attacks like Karla, remember the worst outcomes like making a fool of yourself or having a full-on panic attack may not happen. You won’t faint– it’s not possible, because when your heart races your blood pressure is high. Often, focusing on the worst outcomes and telling yourself to “stop being silly” will make you feel worse. How about starting with a little kindness? Because you deserve it.

If Gerard’s story sounds familiar– and you’ve checked your house before leaving– how about you give yourself permission to have a little faith in yourself. It’s not easy, I know. But the more you practise, the easier it becomes. Because you’re worth it.

Everytime you feel compelled to think the worst, breathe. Then ask yourself, “Why do I condemn myself to the worst possible outcome?”. And remember this, you’re worthy of good outcomes. Your anxiety muscle that leaps your brain into a catastrophic outcome wasn’t always this strong.

You can take some of its power away. Hang in there. You’re not alone.

Do you feel like you condemn yourself to the worst possible outcomes? Leave a comment or Pop me a mail. I read every email. Credit: Images 1 & 2

Perpetua Neo Psychotherpay Brighton How to meditate for beginners ocean

How to meditate for beginners – The Ultimate Guide (to 3-minute Meditation)

By | How To Be Happy In Life, How to Meditate, Sound Mental Health, Steps To Wellbeing | No Comments

Meditation and mindfulness are all the rage these days. But learning how to meditate isn’t easy. Some seasoned meditators are swamped by the different types of meditation. Beginners say they are similarly overwhelmed, and paralysed by fears of doing things wrongly. If you’re curious to try but don’t know how, then this is for you. Or if you’ve experimented but you’re still confused, then this is also for you.

This Ultimate Guide On How To Meditate For Beginners was written for those who want to learn, but don’t want to get caught up in scripture, academic research or details. Or spend 30 minutes meditating everyday. I outline the basics of breathing and sitting, and provide a script for a 3-minute breathing space meditation. As someone who’s been teaching meditation for the last four years in my psychotherapy and coaching work, my clients tell me learning the nuts-and-bolts this way makes it really easy to remember and practice. Master this Guide step-by-step. If my method has worked for 6-year olds feeling anxious to busy entrepreneurs to those in their 70s, then I think it can work for you too.


Perpetua Neo How to Meditate Tea Tray

What is meditation, and what is mindfulness

In a nutshell, mindfulness is paying attention to your attention. Our world is one of sensory overstimulation, we multitask, and we believe that every thought is important. Thus, we grasp onto every thought and feeling we have, amplifying our stress levels. Following which we feel the need to escape them. These fuel the fire of a vicious circle. But it’s not our fault that we act that way- no one’s taught us otherwise.

When we are mindful, we don’t grasp or suppress. We let things be. Mindfulness can be applied to anything- eating, walking, cleaning- as I’ve shared in a previous story on Everyday Mindfulness. When we set aside time to do mindfulness exercises, then that is meditation. Breath meditation (shamata) and insight meditation (vipassana) are commonly taught; in this Ultimate Guide, I describe what is closest to shamata-vipassana. 


How to breathe when meditating

Until 2010, I breathed wrongly. You see, I had associated “suck in your stomach” with “breathing in”, so everytime I focused my awareness on breathing, I became lightheaded. It wasn’t until my singing teacher drilled me in lung-defying breathing exercises that I learned why meditation felt odd when I focused on my breath. Yet it felt almost blissful when I was doing vipassana. Because I was letting my body breathe naturally, my lungs and stomach weren’t being constrained.

And I realised I wasn’t alone in this. Early on, some clients would enjoy their first meditation session, but come back telling me that they hyperventilated when practicing on their own. I asked them to show me how they breathe, and we found that wrong breathing was often the culprit.

Exercise: Breathing

  1. Place your hand on your belly

  2. Breathe in and out through your nose

  3. Breathing in, you fill your lungs and stomach with air. Feel your belly expanding and chest rising.

  4. Breathing out, feel the air leave your nose and your stomach collapsing.

  5. Continue to breathe in and out. Notice the gap between your in-gap and out-breath. In-breath – gap – out-breath – gap – in-breath. 

  6. Place about 25% of your awareness on your out-breath, so you’re still aware of what’s going on. Without considering these to intrude on your focus.

  7. Continue to notice the gap in your breathing. Observe how they transition.

Perpetua Neo How to meditate for beginners Rocks

How to be mindful of the breath

“As each breath went out and dissolved, there was the chance to die to all that had gone before, and to relax instead of panic. . . There is nothing to do except wait for the out-breath”

– Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

The breath is something so intimate to us and so vital as it sustains our life force. Yet it’s something we pay the least attention to. It’s also one of the hardest things to focus on. The first time I did a breathing exercise was the first time I noticed the gap between the in-breath and out-breath. The pause felt timeless and reassuring. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche says that the out-breath is the closest we can ever have to a resting mind in its natural open state whilst remaining aware. About 25% of our attention is on the out-breath, and we are aware of our surroundings. Whatever sounds we are hearing, or whatever we are feeling or thinking doesn’t matter. We don’t consider these as obstacles to meditation when our minds are at rest.


How to sit

Just like the intricacies of a tea ceremony, sitting in meditation is a whole art. To begin, decide if you’ll be sitting on a chair or cross-legged. Practising both styles means you can meditate anywhere- on the train, the office chair or at home. Some people like sitting on the floor; others find it too hard or cold. If so, you can always sit on a zafon (a round meditation cushion) or a Thai cushion. Pema Chodron recommends that we pay attention to six posture points. When you feel distracted, simply bring  your attention back to your body and run through all six points. With a sense of starting afresh, return to the out-breath. When you feel yourself moving or slouching, simply go back to the correct posture mindfully and kindly.

In a nutshell, the six points (see picture below) are:–

  1. Eyes are open. You’re awake and relaxed, gazing four feet in front of yourself

  2. Mouth is slightly open, with the tongue tip on the roof of your mouth. Your jaw is relaxed so air can move through both your mouth and nose.

  3. Torso (from head to seat) is straight, with a strong back and an open front. If you’re sitting on a chair, do not lean back.

  4. Hands are open, with palms down and placed flat on your knees.

  5. Legs are either crossed on the floor or cushion in front of you. Or if you’re sitting on a chair, ensure that your feet are flat on the floor, with your knees a few inches apart.

  6. The surface of your seat should be flat, not tilted.

Perpetua Neo Psychotherapy Brighton How To Meditate for Beginners


How to meditate for beginners and not-so-beginners

“I was happy practicing with the sky, but a little uneasy about bringing clouds into the practice. Please give me instruction on practicing with clouds. I was happy to practice with mind, but a little uneasy about bringing thoughts into the practice. Please give me instruction on practicing with thoughts.”

“If you are happy practicing with the sky, clouds are the sky’s magical creations. Be the sky itself. If you are happy practicing with mind, thoughts are the mind’s magical creations. Be mind itself.”

– Milarepa, Hundred Thousand Songs

Whether in my work or social life, many tell me they meditate. Still, they have many questions and struggles with meditation. The biggest ones are fighting with themselves whenever they feel distracted, or the feelings of overwhelm when they are sitting with difficult thoughts and emotions. Indeed, meditation has its dark side. Rooted in spiritual practice, meditation has always been about learning about the self. It’s about dissolving the boundaries between our illusions and who we really are. Sometimes it makes people feel worse– as with anything that involves personal growth. What helps, though, is knowing these two facts:

  1. Meditation isn’t a Pick & Mix candy bar where you only choose the good feelings.  Yes, it can be relaxing sometimes, but it isn’t about avoiding bad feelings and disturbing thoughts. That’s escaping.

  2. You will have thoughts and feelings that ‘distract’ you. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad meditator or you’re ‘failing again’. The monks and nuns who are seasoned meditators have similar experiences whilst meditating. It’s what you do with these experiences that makes a difference.

My clients tell me that learning how thinking and feeling during meditation is normal, means they stop fighting their thoughts and feelings. And they start to treat themselves kinder, rather than criticise themselves.

Exercise: What to do with thoughts and feelings that arise

I’ve found that the most useful way of describing focus on the breath and distractions is to use the analogy of the pendulum. Here’s four illustrations to guide your exercise.
Perpetua Neo How To Meditate For Beginners Guide 1

  • Imagine your focus as a pendulum. Set your focus point at your nose, where the breath flows in and out.

  • Gently breathe in and out. Thoughts and feelings that arise. Notice the pendulum swinging off-centre.

Perpetua Neo How To Meditate For Beginners Guide 2

  • Try entertaining your thoughts and feelings. Become upset with yourself for having these experiences. Notice what happens. Your pendulum is swinging wildly. It’s not resting at the centre.

  • Now, just say “thinking” when you have a thought. Or “feeling” when you observe a feeling. There’s no need to make a big deal- these experiences are human.

  • Return to the out-breath, like a pendulum swinging back to centre.

On those pesky thoughts and feelings

Those thoughts and feelings will always arise. One useful way to visualise this is to see yourself as a mountain. The clouds will pass, the skies will change, but the mountain always stands. Simply saying “thinking” or “feeling” allows us to develop a gentle, nonjudgmental attitude. When we unveil who we are, our patterns and habits, and learn to sit with them, we learn to befriend ourselves unconditionally. And we learn that just as thoughts and feelings come from nowhere, they also disappear into that same nothingness.

“When we sit, we provide space for all the thoughts and feelings to arise. Like clouds in a big sky or waves in a vast sea, they are given space to appear. If one hangs on and sweeps us away, whether we call it pleasant or unpleasant, the instruction is to label it all “thinking” with as much openness and kindness as we can muster and let it dissolve back into the big sky. When the clouds and waves immediately return, it’s no problem.”

– Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Perpetua Neo How to meditate for beginners mountain

Exercise: 3-minute meditation script

The 3-minute Breathing Space meditation is a hot favourite with my clients because it’s easy enough to commit to three minutes, simple to remember, and seamlessly fits into your life. What’s even better is that you can use it to create a 3-minute pause in your life whenever things feel difficult. Without feeling the pressure to meditate for 30 minutes or longer everyday. You can also alter the script to fit sitting on the floor or cushion accordingly. There are three components, to be done in order.

Preparing ourselves:

Let us sit with our backs straight and the soles of our feet touching the floor. Feel the points of contact between our buttocks and the seat. Let us imagine an invisible thread running up from our spine to the sky, holding us in place, vertebrae-by-vertebrae. We’re mountains, and the mountain will sit strong despite what’s going on.

Observing ourselves:

Let us breathe in through the nose, feeling our chests rise, and our bellies fill up with air. Breathing out, we feel our chests fall, and the air leaving us. If we notice any thought arising, just say “thinking”. And gently bring our attention back to the breath breath. If we feel any feelings, or any sensations in our body, just say “feeling”. Then kindly bring our attention back to the breath. It’s normal to have these experiences, it’s part of being human.

We’ll notice sounds around us- we’re being aware. Simply bring our focus back to the breath. Breathing in, and out. Soon, we’ll realise that thoughts and feelings come from nowhere. They’ll also fade into nowhere. They’re the clouds in the sky. The mountain continues to stand.

Breathing into the space around us:

Let us expand our sense of awareness, breathing into every cell of our body. Then let us breathe into the space around us gently. Again, if we have any thoughts or feelings, just say “thinking” or “feeling”. Then come back to the breath. If we notice any tension in any part of our bodies- especially around the neck and upper back where tension tends to accumulate- simply breathe into those spaces. Breathing in, and out gently. In, and out. And when you’re ready, give yourself a smile, feeling your facial muscles change. Then slowly open your eyes.


Perpetua Neo Psychotherpay Brighton How to meditate for beginners ocean

How to meditate regularly

The easiest way to meditate regularly is to make it a habit rather than a daily question of “Should I meditate today?”. What my clients find most useful is to meditate first thing in the morning before they leave their bed, or as the last thing before they sleep. This way, you practise meditation on autopilot. Having enough practise also means that when things are difficult, you won’t be fumbling and asking yourself “What do I do next?” during the meditation exercise. It’ll flow easily.

If you don’t want to meditate first thing or last thing in your day, there are other options so you can build a system. To me, meditating in a group is a very powerful experience. The collective energy is very different from doing it alone. You’ll also create a sense of accountability. Whether or not you join a group, remember to schedule meditation into your calendar and honour the time slot given to it.

One big thing that also stops people from meditating regularly is the fear that they’re not meditating for long enough. But really, it isn’t a competition. Nor is it kind to make someone else feel less of themselves because they don’t sit for hours. What matters is that you’re doing it. 


Summary

Meditation sounds simple but applying mindfulness in the midst of so many distractions can be difficult. Much less stopping ourselves from criticising ourselves when we’re distracted. The upside is that this can all be trained. To sum up, it’s common if you:–

  • Forget to practise

  • Feel bored or anxious whilst meditating

  • Think you’re making mistakes

  • Realise that time has passed by much faster than expected

To overcome these, you can:–

  • Schedule your meditation and set reminders

  • Accept that the brain wanders, and the only thing to do is to bring it back to the breath/focus of attention without being upset with yourself

  • Keep practising, especially when things are good.

  • Apply your 3-minute meditation pause when things are bad


How to Meditate for Beginners – The Ultimate Guide to 3-minute Meditation is part of a series on How to Meditate. What do you find easiest and most difficult about meditation, and which tips would you like to try today. Leave a comment or Pop me a mail. I read every email.