“You’re going in head first, ya know. Are you claustrophobic?” said the nurse to a deer in the headlights (me) about getting an MRI of my neck. As I processed the information I suspect the look of fear on my face elicited the compassionate response from her, “I can give you a Valium. No worries it’ll only take about thirty minutes.”
Thirty of the longest minutes of my life, I thought. Look, I didn’t even do well in a spaceship capsule simulator at Universal, the idea of sliding head first into a giant loud banging MRI tube was dizzying at best. It’s the last thing I needed as I was challenged with bouts of nausea and vertigo after a recent car accident.
I teach meditation, yoga and breathwork, helping others to deal with their work stress and here I was faced with the daunting task of mindfully being with one of my greatest fears – being strapped down in a small enclosure without being able to move enough to see that there was a way out.
I declined the Valium, opting for the breath and other mindfulness strategies I’ve been studying for years in yoga. I’ll admit it was challenging. The lovely MRI technician assured me that we could stop at any time, “Just squeeze this rubber ball if you need me and we can get you outta there quickly. And don’t forget to breathe.”
She proceeded to lock down my chest cavity with a plastic encasing that also kept my head in place. “Breathe,” I kept thinking to my self. I knew that breaking the mind with deep breathing was my best shot at staying in that tube. I needed to be still enough, quiet enough and avoid going into a panic attack which I had surprisingly experienced before.
Here are the key mindfulness strategies I used to get to the other side of the MRI:
1. Staying Present with Focus: As the technician prepared me for insertion into the MRI tube, I brought my attention to my breath. I began diaphragmatic breathing, drawing breath in through my nostrils, feeling it as it entered my throat, flowing over the walls of my esophagus deep into the pit of my belly. I felt a rhythm to the inhalation and exhalation at an even pace. Then I focused on joining the breath and a personal mantra saying to myself, “Breathing in my body is peaceful, breathing out my mind is calm.” When my mind wandered into anxiety, I brought my attention back by focusing on the breath, and internally repeating my mantra.
2. Awareness of Physical Sensation: Heading into the tube, I simply became aware of the feeling of the air going in and out of my nose. As the air slowly flowed over my top lip with every inhalation and exhalation, I just noticed it. At first my breath was shallow and at a speedy pace as I was anxious. The more I paid attention, I noticed the temperature of the breath, the sound of the breath, the quality of the breath as I calmed and it became deeper and slower. After a few minutes of just being aware of the breath I purposefully extended the exhalation to induce more of a relaxation response reducing my heart rate.
3. Attentional Distraction: When the loud clanking of the MRI started to do its thing, I immediately felt my heart rate pick up. I shifted to using a technique that would distract my attention for periods of time, away from the anxiety. In my years studying meditation the number 108 had always been a sacred number for me, so I use it as a countdown number. I took a few breaths into the pit of my belly and deepened my breathing. I began counting down from 108. When my mind started wandering, I brought myself back to the breath and the counting starting again at 108.
4. Body Scanning: After a good ten minutes, my body began to cramp up a bit. As I was asked to stay as still as possible, this triggered some anxiety. Being somewhat restrained made me nervous. My heart pumping faster was the signal to me to start a body scan. I began a conscious witnessing of discomfort in my body. In my case, my chest area, neck and lower back. I lightly breathed into these areas, noticing the discomfort, trying to be the observer of the feeling. Then I intentionally focused on my body, part by part, beginning with my toes to my head. I examined the nature of the discordance in each area, and then threaded the breath through each area.
5. Changing Your Mindset: While paying attention to the breath is generally more automatic for me, keeping my thoughts reined-in requires more effort. I took a few slow deliberate breaths and reflected on my experience. My thinking was that I could suffocate in this tube. Such negative thoughts started to surface so I went to my go-to phrases to mentally work on reducing the toxic nature of that type of thinking. I observed the thoughts floating on clouds in front of me and then dissipating. Then I created a complete opposite line of thought in the form of affirmation. “Thoughts are not facts. I am not my thoughts. I suspend judgment of these thoughts and myself. I am not going to die.” That last line always makes me smile as it brings humor into the mindset. And research shows smiling tells the brain that you are happy, releasing hormones that can make you joyful.
These are just some examples of the exercises I use to reduce stress in an acute situation which are variations on some of the techniques I have learned in yoga and from my meditation teachers along the way. There is no right or wrong.
Do any of these resonate with you in a moment of crisis? What would you do if in such a situation?