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My mind is constant chaos – here's how I finally calmed it

Writer Jennifer Barton tried meditation – many times – and decided it wasn’t for her. Until she found a way to make it work

By: Jennifer Barton
June 7, 2024
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I have never been good at keeping still. My mind races, thoughts twisting, tangling, trailing off. My body's also in constant motion: fidgeting fingers, bouncing legs, grinding teeth.

Mostly, I've been dealing with it, thanks to a late-30s ADHD diagnosis, with 36mg of methylphenidate a day, and, after many years of self-neglect, prioritising my health – both mental and physical.

While I know meditating is likely a brilliant balm for my busy brain, I've never been able to get into it, despite trying many, many times.

Relaxed woman using headphones while meditating during a break from work at home. Yoga and wellbeing concept.© Getty
Meditation never worked for Jennifer before now

Trying meditation

My first foray was via an NHS mindfulness course a decade ago. A GP referred me for eight sessions after I showed up in her office crying, begging her for something that would stop me feeling so crushed by anxiety, inadequacy and overwhelm after the birth of my second baby.

Since then, there have been breathwork sessions and sound baths, nature meditations (forest bathing), and even a flirtation with sophrology via a Morphée to help me fall asleep.

But I'd always give up, hating every minute. Considering I'd spend most sessions restless and moving around the whole time, or asleep, waking up with drool caked to the sides of my mouth, this wasn't surprising. 

Looking for stillness

At the start of 2024, I was on a mission to attain some semblance of mental quiet. So much so that I picked 'still' as my word for the year at a vision-boarding workshop I attended.

Despite medication, therapy and having routines in place, my mind still felt like a ball of constant chaos at times. Worse, the chaos was no longer contained, but had started spilling out into my tangible world. 

Young woman posing in a tweed blazer
The chaos in Jennifer's mind was spilling out into her life

My home was increasingly untidy, messy piles of stuff littering every surface. My body was also acting up. Sometimes my skin would feel like it was being stretched too tightly over my organs and I needed to rip myself out of it. My thoughts would spiral into worst-case scenarios, my breathing would get choppy. I could feel my heart clenching painfully every time this happened.

I kept it together – ish – until one evening a few months ago, when, driving in the pitch-black countryside at night, I had an anxiety attack at the wheel. I hate driving, and I'd done a lot of it that day, but this reaction was new (and extreme) for me. I couldn't stop shaking and bawling.

  WATCH: Try this 1-minute hack to instantly calm down 

It scared me enough to make me reconsider the benefits that integrating more meditative practices into my everyday life could bring. Researchers insist meditation can help with physical symptoms such as chronic pain, as well as alleviating symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.

Meditation on my terms

This time around, I decided I would try meditation on my own terms. No more studios, practitioners or spectators. 

pregnant women in a yoga class with an instructor© Getty
Meditation classes weren't right for Jennifer

Immediately, it felt less pressurising. I realised that meditation didn't require any of the things I tended to associate with it, such as total stillness, a dark room, closed eyes, aromatherapy or lying down.

Meditation is not a one-size-fits-all all self-improvement tool – there are a range of themes, styles and ways to do it that I had no idea about, and there are meditation practices to tackle issues beyond sleep, stress and sadness.

 RELATED: I tried water meditation in my quest for calm – here's what happened 

Take body scan meditations, which allow you to home in on certain body parts, focusing on any niggles or sensations you may be feeling. Or visualisations, where you put your mind in a setting you want to be in. 

Guided mediation

I enjoy being talked to and guided through meditation. I always seem to learn new things through these sessions, and a word or phrase from a meditation might stick in my mind for days. I'll find myself coming back to it, trying to unpack how it relates to different aspects of my life. 

Here’s an example: I was walking through my local park listening to a walking meditation with Chelsea Jackson Roberts via the Peloton app (my preferred meditation pal). Towards the end of the practice, she asked: "What does closure look like for you? Is it slowing down? Is it walking with even more intention each time the soles of the feet touch the earth?"

Young woman wearing wireless headphones uses her smartphone to set up a meditation app, sets up a music playlist before a workout, and selects a suitable fitness program online© Getty
Guided meditation with headphones helped Jennifer focus

Her words stopped me in my tracks: I thought they were beautiful, but more than that, it felt like she was speaking directly to me. Now, every time I repeat her words in my head, I find it grounding. 

Learning that you can quiet your mind without slowing down your body has been a huge reason I’ve been enjoying my meditation practice so much in recent months.

Walking meditation

Walking and running meditations are on the rise – check out Nike Run Club for the latter – and it’s easy to understand why. When I do a moving meditation, I don’t stress about 'messing up' like I used to. That said, the rules I used to associate with being 'good' at meditating were mostly in my head – no one expects you to never fidget or for your mind not to drift off once in a while.

woman in activewear outside
Jennifer found that walking meditation helped her calm her busy brain

During walking meditations, the emphasis tends to be on looking inward rather than focusing on trees or birdsong. Since I live in London and can't drop everything in search of a quiet, contemplative spot on a whim, learning to tune out distractions in my everyday surroundings feels like a life skill I've needed to master for a long time. 

READ: I went for a walk every day - here's what it did to my stress levels 

While one of the perks of meditation is that it requires zero spend or kit, one item has massively enhanced my practice, helping me feel more connected and present: a pair of noise-cancelling headphones my husband recently gave me as an early birthday gift. 

I now fully subscribe to the theory that the more you meditate, the more you’ll want to. (Not in a competitive, 'trying to get a 10-day meditation streak' kind of way; it just feels that good.) It's like another muscle that needs strengthening. With practice and repetition, it becomes easier to get into that headspace where you’re centred, calm, grateful and embodied.

Feeling still

Increasingly, I’ve noticed myself feeling mentally still even when I'm not trying to. It can happen anywhere. Looking at artworks, cooking a meal for my kids, picking one of my late mother's dresses out of my wardrobe to wear. It's lovely.

 DISCOVER: Meditation in menopause: The 'secret weapon' you need to try 

Meditating also translates to other aspects of my life. It's allowing me to forgive myself for my mistakes and foibles. It helps me transform the language I use when talking to myself. It encourages me to be kinder. It urges me to find moments of beauty, positivity and success on days that feel gloomy.

And yes, meditating is amazing for getting me to savour those moments of stillness. Even as I move through them. 

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