Behind the Smile

by Anna


Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, France

Three years ago I spent a week at Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in France, which teaches the mindfulness philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh (read about it here). Ever since then have I been practicing to keep my calm but found it often difficult in the fast world outside the comforting surroundings of Plum Village, and the sense of peace I acquired during my week there soon dissolved like clouds in the sky.

A month ago I experienced work related stress and anxiety. Some might, and some did, say they saw it coming, I had been under a lot of stress at work over the past two years. I blame myself, because I took on so much, but there is also a lot to be said for the additional stress at work with unpredictable and often unmanageable workloads and also when our department moved on top of it all.

I also feel a failure for not being able to get on top of it and instead ending up unable to work, or even live, for that matter, despite everything I had learned about stress management and health and wellbeing. I went against my belief that we can heal ourselves with a healthy and nutritious diet, exercise, a positive attitude to life and whichever complementary or alternative therapy suits by taking antidepressants. I was always critical towards medications, the chemicals and side effects, and worried they might change me. But the stress and the anxiety had festered so much I already hardly recognized myself anymore, so taking pills couldn’t possibly be any worse. And it wasn’t. It turned out to be the best I could possibly have done since every aspect of my life slowly improved over the past weeks.

The physical, mental and emotional symptoms had become unbearable and are difficult to explain, especially since from the outside I didn’t look much different. It was the inner turmoil, the persistent unhappiness, constant worries, the tiredness, exhaustion and aching limbs, the acid cursing through my veins, the heart racing, that lump in my throat, the lack of focus and motivation, the deep sadness and feeling of loneliness, all hidden behind a calm smile, which only faded when nobody was watching. I didn’t know what to do, all my stress busting practices, meditation, yoga, walks, acupressure, acupuncture, psychotherapy didn’t seem to work anymore. Even worse, I was more and more unable to do them. I realised I was getting really bad when I stopped doing my usual daily yoga practice. So I summoned up my last strength and tried again to make an appointment with my GP.

At the moment I feel very good, calm, relaxed, at ease, happy. I have crossed the 4 week threshold of the adjustment phase of my medication relatively unharmed by side effects. I feel more peaceful within myself, enjoying time with my partner without fear and worries, being among people without panic, waking up without my heart racing, appreciating simple moments, having the motivation and will to get up and do things and not worrying too much about my return to work. I carried on with my daily yoga, meditation, acupressure and walks and am certain that without them I would either have gone down a long time ago already or would be much deeper into the illness and less likely to recover so smoothly and quick.

The thing is that we don’t always realise how deep we are into something – be it stress or relaxation. We simply carry on living. The only time we really notice how deep we have gone is when we experience the opposite. That’s how we measure success or failure. So without the bad we won’t know how good we are and equally we won’t know how bad we have got until we feel good again.

My second visit to Plum Village wasn’t as joyful as the first but brought on more of a struggle, which could be due to anxiety, the medication adjustment phase or simply because I had changed as a person. I will share my thoughts and feelings from that week with you over the next few days.

Until then