Meditate on this

12th September 2014 at 01:00

Recently I've been suffering from what psychologists call "intrusive thoughts". They break in during the night and hang around my hippocampus, kicking the skirting boards and rattling the doors.

In the wee small hours it's amazing how quickly a few niggling doubts can escalate into a flood of self-reproach. During an intrusive episode, every aspect of my character - my prowess as teacher, wife, mother and Debenhams store-card holder - is measured against some unrealistic ideal and found acutely wanting. By the time the alarm goes off, my self-esteem is lower than the front end of my old Citron Berlingo.

I checked out the anxiety section of the NHS website, which suggests picturing your thoughts as leaves floating down a river. It doesn't work for me. They float along for a bit but then get snagged in the branches of a fallen tree or trapped behind the bloated body of a dead sheep. The only remedy is to get out of bed and make a cup of tea. That gets rid of the dead sheep, even if the feelings of inadequacy remain.

I suspect that being a teacher makes the self-loathing worse. When you're taught to spend every waking minute reflecting on how you could be better, it's no wonder you can't stop at bedtime. But the increased prevalence of books, apps, DVDs and T-shirts on coping with stress indicates that we're not alone in our anxieties. It seems that we are all prone to thinking the same destructive thoughts: that no one likes us, that we're really no good and that one day we'll be found out.

Or, in the more extreme cases, that our families will die of Ebola, that our coughs indicate cancer and that a newly qualified teacher from the design and technology department will write on our new smartboard with a permanent marker.

Most worrying of all, though, are the coping-with-stress products marketed at young people. A number of "mindfulness" apps are available on iTunes, offering "calm, clarity and contentment". Call me old-fashioned, but rather than being guided by a stranger to visualise a blue light at the end of a forest, I'd prefer that kids found contentment by playing Monopoly, eating Monster Munch or heading to the beach.

Obviously, mindfulness does offer people some support. But if there's such a thriving market in solutions then there has to be an intrinsic problem with the way we lead our lives. Our pursuit of perfection - be it in school, in the gym or via plastic surgery - places immense stress on our well-being. And a corollary of this is that we treat our brains like phone batteries, boosting them with a 20-minute meditation when they're in danger of crashing. And we all know what happens to batteries when they are continually undercharged.

Guardian writer Suzanne Moore recently described the superficial way we pursue mindfulness as "Buddhism without the awkward Buddhist bits", which is the same as adopting Christianity in order to enjoy a few chocolate eggs. If we explored the whole Eastern philosophy, it might improve our lives, but as a quick-fix app it's doing us no good at all.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham

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