Our focus in this series is on how people’s mental health recovery varies, and the tips/experiences that they can share for others looking to work on their own recovery. In reality, no recovery is ever linear; progress looks very different for each person. We hope that you can learn from – and be inspired by – the insights that our inspiring authors have chosen to share.
In 2012, Vanessa Potter woke up one day afflicted by a mystery illness that claimed her sight and left her temporarily paralyzed. Over time, her physical condition improved, but the trauma of the unexplained illness had an impact on her mental health. During her time in hospital and at the most extreme depths of her illness, Vanessa used mindfulness to help to stay calm amidst the uncertainty, envisioning herself strolling along a beach.
As she started to recover physically, her fascination with mediation and the part that it can play in recovery was ignited. She details her extraordinary road to recovery through experimenting and meditation, in her book Finding My Right Mind. The following extract from her book details her findings about meditation, and how she put them to the test to aid her own recovery, as well as others people’s.
Using Coping Strategies to Adapt
During my year-long recovery I learned to live a new normal, a life where the world didn’t look like it did before. I learned to adapt my mind, too – to cope with the enormous trauma my body had suffered. My legs still shook when anxiety surged, but the more I visualized, the quicker I calmed. Championing every improvement and using repetition and gentle suggestion, I crawled along the road to recovery, picking up those optical crumbs I’d left behind.
It would be two years before neuroscientists would explain to me how I’d healed my mind – and my sight. My documented experiences would provide invaluable data that corroborated 40 years of vision science. The temporary blindness had closed off my senses, yet it had opened my mind to other levels of consciousness and my own, rather untapped, potential. I’d discovered I had more control over my state of mind than I’d ever thought possible.
In the end I was left partially sighted – like a vintage photograph, the world was bleached. Although I could function normally, my career was over. Seeking answers, I embarked upon an investigative journey, travelling the country interviewing brain and vision specialists. This uncovered the uniqueness and rarity of my sensory experiences, and how little we know about the brain. Creating the pseudonym “Patient H69” from my NHS number, I blogged about how a hotchpotch of self-hypnosis, breathing and meditation techniques had provided a surprisingly effective coping strategy.
Learning About the Mind
I’m not the science-y one in our family – science was my least favourite subject at school. Yet I had found something to be interested in – my brain. By combining my producer background with my own sight loss story, I’d inadvertently become a science communicator. EEG technology had first intrigued me when I’d had sticky electrodes glued to my scalp in hospital. Back then, this had provided reassurance that my brain areas responsible for vision were still alive. EEG electrodes record and measure the tiny electrical impulses the brain emits – our brainwaves. Like a musical score, these neural communications are converted into oscillating, wiggly lines of data.
I’d discovered I had more control over my state of mind than I’d ever thought possible.
This allows technicians to identify repetitive and rhythmic patterns that can help diagnose brain conditions such as epilepsy – or, in my case – measure visual activity. Our brainwave activity can also be used to identify different states of mind – from alertness, to sleepiness, to meditation. In this way, I could bring my “beach” to life not with pictures or words, but by letting my brainwaves do the talking.
Sharing my Knowledge with Others
My meditation exhibition-cum-research project was called The Beach. This launched at the Cambridge Science Festival in 2015. For one week, we invited members of the public to wear portable EEG headsets while watching a film about how an anonymous woman (Patient H69) used meditation to overcome a terrifying trauma. After the film, and still hooked up to the EEG monitors, participants closed their eyes and allowed their minds to wander for one minute. By allowing their minds to think and make shopping lists, Barbara could record a baseline. Straight afterwards, the participants followed a five-minute guided mindfulness meditation – with the headsets still recording. Exiting the room (invariably feeling more relaxed), Barbara revealed each participant’s brain activity converted into animated visuals and music. Screens showing red, green, yellow and blue graphics represented the four main types of brainwaves EEG captures (Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta). These identified how alert, focused, meditative or sleepy they’d been. A dominance of red Beta brainwaves suggested an active mind, clusters of blue Delta and yellow Theta animations indicated a relaxed, meditative mind. These dancing animations, driven entirely by each participant’s data, illustrated how they had gone in and out of a meditative state. By comparing this to their individual baseline, each of our 120 participants could observe clear differences between thinking and meditating. For many, this forged a new, more respectful relationship with their brains. Many had never sat still for five minutes to focus on their minds, and for those who had believed they “couldn’t meditate” or that meditating “didn’t work”, the experience provided a crash course in self-awareness.
In 2016, when the exhibition (along with my own vision research) culminated in a TEDx talk and a book. I was surprised again. I hadn’t thought I was a writer – or a speaker, for that matter. The next journey would never have started if it hadn’t been for the first.
An author, TEDx speaker & meditation advocate, Vanessa Potter used meditation to overcome the trauma of losing her sight following a rare illness. During her extraordinary visual rebirth she became curious to understand the mechanics of her brain, embarking upon a ‘meditation road-trip’ exploring 10 ways to train her mind as neuroscientists recorded her brain activity. You can connect with Vanessa on Twitter or Instagram.
Vanessa Potter’s book, Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment to put Meditation to the Test is available now at Trigger.