OPINION

OPINION | Why we need a toolkit for our minds

When I was at high school and the concept of mindfulness wasn't yet a multi-million dollar industry, we used to do 'relaxation exercises' in our personal development classes.

Our teacher would get us to lie on the blue carpeted floor, with all the crumbs and dust bunnies, our heads hard up against chair and desk legs, and then take us through a guided meditation.

"Flex your toes, now relax your toes, imagine them melting into the floor...Now your ankles. Flex, and relax..."

That sort of thing.

It was probably cutting edge in the '80s, but is pretty ho-hum these days.

My problem was, I just couldn't do it.

I mean, I would go through the motions but it would never 'work'.

I would lie there twitching with boredom, reading the class work pinned to the walls above me. (Wow, upon reflection, my eyesight must have been pretty keen back then.)

Nothing's changed over the years. I still skip the so-called guided meditation at the end of a yoga class.

The only place that sort of meditation guides me is towards my to-do list, and then I have to get up and get going.

I guess it's not really surprising that lying on the floor at school didn't do it for me - it wasn't the most soothing of environments.

What is surprising is that plenty of other students got so relaxed that they fell asleep.

The classroom would before long ring with the sound of their gentle snoring, and they'd have to be roused by their friends at the end.

I reckon those people are the type who actually sleep on planes, a feat I consider to be one of my life's goals (if we're ever allowed back on planes again).

So why is it some of my class drifted off into pleasant dreams, while others (me) were left tapping their fingers impatiently on the blue carpet?

It wasn't as simple as who was the most tired, or who had a mellow personality.

I was reminded of that question recently when trying to calm someone down in the grip of a panic attack.

Which is hard at the best of times, but even harder at the end of a phone.

At first I tried to get her to breathe slower and deeper, but that only seemed to make things worse.

And apparently that can be the case - for many people with anxiety, bringing focus to the breath can end up causing anxiety about not being able to breathe, which ends in - well - panic.

I needed to bring her into the moment, to get her out of her own head.

I started asking her what she could see around her: where was she? Were there any people? Then I got her to notice the temperature - was she hot or cold?

She started to breathe more slowly almost immediately.

Then we started talking about a big task ahead of her that she didn't want to do - most likely the underlying trigger for the panic attack.

We pictured it as a long dark tunnel she had been walking down for many miles, but not only could she see the light ahead, she could make out details of the scenery.

Sitting down now wouldn't get her out of the tunnel, she had to keep moving forward. But she could do it as slowly as she wanted.

It worked, to a degree. But I don't know that these same techniques would work for everyone, just as progressive muscle relaxation doesn't work for me.

Some people need to be held when they are anxious, some people can't stand being touched.

Some of us like to walk out our stress, others like to talk it out.

Figuring out what we need, and when, is half the problem of dealing with our mental health.

The truth is, we all sometimes will have a screw or two that's come loose - but the same screwdriver doesn't work for every job.

I guess the trick is to have a toolkit available for when we need it, for ourselves and others, and tinker until we find the right fit.

Because if squishing up on a dirty classroom floor can bring peace for some, you never know what will work.