How does mindfulness help in moments of stress?

My mum used to say “keep the heid” when things were going crazy or we were in a flap. I heard it so many times that I never properly thought about it.

As I sat down to write this, I suddenly heard her say “keep the heid!” and I realised the wisdom contained in those three words. Keep your head. It’s mindfulness. It’s how we learn to cope in moment of stress.

Mindfulness helps you to keep a cool head in moments of stress

A bumpy flight

During an eventful flight yesterday, I was reminded of why I love mindfulness and how it can help us in moments of stress.

It had been foggy leaving Heathrow, and our flight was slightly delayed in taking off because the visibility was low. But by the time we were approaching Aberdeen it was clear and sunny, and the view was beautiful – the North Sea and cliffs right underneath us and then the mountains over in the distance.

I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with a fellow traveller earlier on. We were talking about the fog in London and joking that in Aberdeen airport you’ve always got the wind to contend with too. Looking out the window though, I assumed there was no wind today; everything looked so peaceful in the sunlight.

It wasn’t the case unfortunately. We started descending down and I could feel the plane twisting a bit, from one side to the other. I’ve had lots of bumpy landings before, so I was sure it would be fine. But as we were going down, the plane felt like it kept dropping, then levelling off, then dropping again. I was starting to feel a bit uneasy. I hadn’t had a landing like this before.

Just as we were touching the runway, the engines powered up, we sped up, and I realised we were taking off again.

We weren’t landing.

“It’s ok”, I thought. “I know it’s just the wind”. But my mind was starting to run away with its own thoughts…

I wanted us to land

I want to be landing now and slowing down

I don’t want to be going back up

I want to be off this plane

I’m trapped

My mind was refusing to accept the situation. It had been thinking ahead to landing and things hadn’t gone to plan.

Everyone was quiet on the plane, but you could feel some tension rising. The woman next to me was upset and her partner was comforting her. The woman across from me was looking around the plane anxiously; the girl a couple of rows in front was gripping the top of the chair in front of her.

We were given a quick announcement that said we would have an update from the captain soon.

With no information, we just had to wait.

The power of the present moment

My heartbeat was now uncomfortably fast and my stomach was clenched in fear. I knew I had to get control of my thoughts quickly, otherwise I’d be sitting in here in a state of anxiety for however long this situation was going to last.

I took my attention away from the physical feelings in my body. I looked out the window as we were ascending once again and I acknowledged the things that I knew were real:

“I’m still on the plane. We’re taking off again and continuing our flight. I am perfectly safe right now, here, in this moment.” I was perfectly safe. In that moment, there was nothing actually wrong. A few moments ago, yes there had been something wrong, because the landing had been aborted. But right now – in this present moment – there was nothing wrong. I was safe.

I started to relax immediately. The power of our thoughts is truly incredible. I realised that what I was thinking was true; it was real. I was safe in that moment. I felt so much better.

The captain gave a very calm announcement a couple of minutes later. Although to be fair, his tone of voice was a lot more reassuring than the actual message he delivered: apparently “the weather conditions were beyond the capabilities of the aircraft”. Umm… what???! But he assured us the wind had dropped and we were now going to circle round to make another approach.

It took a long time, probably another 5 – 10 minutes, to make the circle and attempt another landing. I was resisting my mind the whole time; it wanted to think of the worst case scenario – what if we can’t land a second time? How many times will we try it? Where do we get diverted to if we can’t land here? What if we run out of fuel while we’re diverting? What if we try to land and it goes wrong? What if I never make it off this plane?

Oh yeah those thoughts were there ok, quietly in the back on my mind.

But I had other thoughts that I wanted to think. I didn’t want to run away with the dark thoughts. I chose to be happy and calm. I chose to go with these thoughts instead:

Everything is fine

The captain’s calm

The wind has dropped

He saved us from trouble by aborting the landing; I’m so grateful he did that!

He made the best decision

We’re in good hands

The second attempt finally came around, and I can’t say it was completely stress-free, but I felt ok. It was another bumpy descent but I focused on each moment as it arrived. “Ok, we’re still fine and safe right now” and then onto the next moment “we’re still ok”. I was tense at the actual moment the wheels bounced down, but it passed quickly once I realised this time we were definitely slowing down and committed to the landing.

Mindfulness helps us when we’re in a moment of stress

The point of all this is that mindfulness helped me on that flight. I couldn’t avoid being stressed and worried at times, but it was short moments of anxiety; whereas it could have been 20 minutes of peak fear and anxiety if I hadn’t been able to control it. And I hate to think what that sustained state would have been doing to my health.

This is why we want to “keep the heid”.

The reason I love mindfulness is that it teaches you how to detach from your thoughts and recognise that they’re not always reality. Our brains are fear-based; always looking for ways to protect us and keep us from danger. But most of the time we are erring too far on the side of caution and it makes us excessively anxious. All we have in life, really, is the present moment we’re living in. We can look forward and back, make plans, have regrets and expectations – but if we’re really honest we know that all we have is this moment, and anything could happen at any time.

Mindfulness and meditation are called a practice for a reason. There is no end goal; it’s just something you do as part of your existence. And practising it means that when you’re faced with a stressful situation, you already know how to help yourself cope. You’re not trying to put something into practice that you’ve never done before. You default to what you know, and you trust yourself.

Learning mindfulness

If you’d like to learn some mindfulness techniques yourself, I run mindfulness courses in Aberdeenshire. They’re perfect for beginners and will arm you with a toolkit of tips and tricks you can use in your everyday life. Contact me for info and bookings.

And for those not local to Aberdeenshire, my online mindfulness course is coming soon. Watch this space…