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This Is What Happened When I Stopped Meditating

Shannon Harvey

Throughout my life I’ve suffered from a terrible affliction experts call onychophagy. The disorder can cause deleterious effects on my fingers, my mouth and even my stomach. More commonly, the affliction is known as nail biting.

I’m a stress-induced nail biter and right now it’s not the menacing bacteria lurking under my nubby nails that I’m worried about. It’s the fact that my nail-nawing habit is a sign that all is not well in my mind and body. Indeed, the fact that I’m biting my nails again is just one sign that I’m not handling my stress very well.

You see, I’ve stopped meditating regularly, a practice I began after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and tried everything under the sun, both conventional and alternative, in search of answers, before realising that I needed to take a whole-health, whole life-approach to my recovery and that included getting a handle on my chronic stress.

So step one, was meditation.

As I wrote in my blog How To Meditate – What Type? How Long? How Often? essentially meditation is a technique you use to train your mind. It can enhance relaxation, help you prepare for a task, cultivate awareness, or develop your sense of things like compassion, love or forgiveness. When I came across the new science indicating that it can enhance your immune system, help you cope with chronic illness, change your brain structure to help with anxiety, and even slow the rate in which your cells age, I was convinced.

I learned mindfulness meditation, which Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is one of the leading scientists credited with inspiring its recent rise in popularity, explained is “the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” (An excerpt from my interview with him is below.) It was the “without judgment” part that taught me the most. This fundamental shift in perspective, which I practiced both formally through meditation and informally throughout my day, gave me an ability to accept many things that once weighed me down, particularly the things that I had no control over.

So why on earth (you might ask) would I stop meditating?

It all started when my second baby Isaac (who we call Izzy) was born a year ago. Up until his birth I was meditating almost daily. It especially helped me to deal with the stress and uncertainty that came with expecting the arrival of a new human into the world. Then Izzy came along and life as the mother of two young kids became reality. I meditated when I could, finding brief moments of pause in my day while the newborn was asleep and my older son, Theodore was at daycare.

As Izzy grew older and his routine became more predictable, I intended to get back into my regular daily practice. I’d found in the past that meditating at the end of my day was most effective. (Read my post about establishing habits here.) Practicing before bed was especially helpful with my chronic insomnia. But after months of the obligatory broken sleep that comes with parenting a newborn, when I tried to get back into the groove, every time I tried to focus my attention, I’d fall asleep. What I needed most at that time of day was rest.

So with no regular routine and all the busyness that comes with being a working mother, my daily meditation practice went out the window. As I write this blog post it has been weeks since I sat down to formally meditate and the early warning signs that all is not well with my mind and health have appeared.

My chewed fingernails are the first sign. The return of my insomnia is the second. Although Izzy is now a champion sleeper and mostly powering through the night on his own from 7:30pm until 6:30am, I’m not sleeping well. The other day I heard the dawn chorus of birds without having slept a wink. Having written an entire chapter of my book about the new science of sleep and knowing that sleep deprivation may not only be one of the causes of my illness but that it also exacerbated my symptoms, I’ve come to understand the critical importance of sleep when it comes to my health.

The third sign that my stress is getting out of hand is my impatience. I’m often short with my husband Jules (I confess to recently wishing I could put him on speed 1.5x like you can do with an audio book so he would get to the point faster and I could get on with my To Do list… horrible, I know) and last night I was grumpy at Theo when he was resisting bath time. It wasn’t like our determined little four-year-old was behaving out of the ordinary, he always dilly dallies before bed time, but I just didn’t have the presence of mind to stop myself before I flipped. “There will come a time in your life when all you want in this world is for someone to make you a bath, read you a story, and put you to bed. You don’t know how good you’ve got it,” I proclaimed.

This is not normal behaviour for me. My relationships with my husband and kids are the most sacred thing in the world and the fact that I’m jeopardising them by being a stress-head is not good.

I want to make it clear that I’m not for one second claiming that meditation is a cure-all panacea to all our health and relationship woes. I’m all-too aware that its benefits have been overhyped and overblown and that even some of the leading scientists who paved the way for its mainstream acceptance are now calling for caution. I’m not even saying that meditation works for everyone in every circumstance.

What I am saying is that meditation is an essential part of my life and I need to get back into it. So, starting on October 1st, I’m committing to meditating daily for one year. I’ve enlisted the help of a expert team of research scientists who will be tracking everything from my immune function, to my stress hormones, to my brain changes and cellular ageing. It’s a project I’m calling “My Year of Living Mindfully” and I promise to keep you posted about how it’s going through this blog and my email newsletter.

In the meantime I’ve got three weeks to work out how on earth I’m going to find the time to meditate. If there are any readers out there who have discovered a secret to fitting it in to a busy day, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Here is a short clip from my feature documentary, The Connection, where Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about the reason he started studying meditation and the simple experiment that shocked him and his colleagues.


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