While recovering from a traffic accident Ivana Burić became intimately familiar with some of the problems, that she as a psychologist in making was getting educated to help others relieve. In her story on reclaiming well-being, she shares how she came across mindfulness and how the practice became not only a self-help tool but a passion and a subject of her academic research.
Ivana Burić (@ivanaburic.phd ) is an interdisciplinary researcher, a mindfulness instructor, and a psychologist, who finished her PhD programme at Coventry University (UK), where she was combining psychology, molecular biology and neuroscience in research of mind-body interventions such as mindfulness and yoga, and their effects on mental and physical health. She is currently working on research at University in Amsterdam where she further peruses her interest in the subject. I met her when we interviewed for a newspaper I work at when she quickly won me over with her passion for the subject and warm personality. I have since gone through her mindfulness training, which added to my understanding of the topic and left me with practical skills for self-help. Read about how the practice helped her overcome her struggles and continues to help her cope with challenges.
˝ Is this me? ˝
˝Growing up in Split, my perception of a person with psychiatric problems was based on an elderly man I would sometimes see next to a neighbourhood store talking to himself and wearing worn-out clothes. They said that he was “crazy” and that is how my perception of psychiatric problems was formed as something unusual, easily noticeable and very rare.
This perspective began to transform when I began to study psychology. In the course of Psychopathology which I took in the second year, the professor showed us a thick blue book that is used to diagnose all psychiatric disorders. One evening as I was preparing for a colloquium from that course, I randomly began to turn pages of that book, which was part of additional literature for the course. Right in the first few pages, I came across a description of generalized anxiety disorder and I thought it reminded me distinctly of the behaviour of a friend who is always worried about every little thing. Confused, I went a few pages further and came across something that seems like a description of my grandmother that is far more accurate than any horoscope. By now I forget about the colloquium and read the book further with a completely different intention; to see who else will I recognize in other psychiatric disorders.
That was interesting until I came to the part about social anxiety and thought, “Is this me?” It described individuals who are extremely uncomfortable when they have to meet new people, especially if it is a group of people. Worried that others might think they are stupid, boring, or otherwise less valuable. This fear is so paralyzing that such situations are actively avoided at all costs, or one would keep quiet, or answered briefly. It sounded frighteningly familiar to me because I had behaved this way since childhood, and in college, I further developed a fear of public appearances. So I immediately closed the book and made sure that it is simply my shy personality and that I, as a student, cannot make or understand psychiatric diagnoses. And life went on as usual.
Two years later, I went to dance practice the same way I did every Tuesday. But this time it was different and I will remember it forever. While I was only a few steps away from the hall, I was hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing. It all happened suddenly and at that point, I wasn’t sure if I would survive, I was just happy to still be alive. On impact and while lying on the road I didn`t feel any pain, as is biologically normal in extremely stressful situations. But that changed a lot when the paramedics moved my left arm to place me on the board, as it had a crushed tip of the upper arm bone and fell out of my shoulder joint. Shock followed head stitching, arm and leg surgery. I spent seventeen days at Rebro Hospital and returned home in a wheelchair. It was only after two months, as Christmas approached, that I got a doctor’s permission to walk on crutches which at the time seemed like the best possible gift.
The focus was on physical recovery from injury, although I began to feel the effects on my mental health very quickly, and in no less than three areas. First, my attention span weakened due to trauma and stress. It was important to me to have excellent grades in college so that I could enrol in a doctorate and engage in scientific work so I started learning enthusiastically as soon as I got out of the hospital. Even though I had the best of intentions, nothing went as easy as earlier. I read one sentence several times so that I could understand and hopefully remember anything. Second, crossing the road has become a nightmare. I would notice that my body is buried in place until I can see that all the cars have stopped and that other people are crossing the road. Even then, I would feel panic during and after crossing the road or at the sounds of car trumpets. I would notice that I count how many times I have to cross the road to each destination and based on that I decide whether to go there or not. Third, the injuries and surgeries I underwent left a mark in the form of persistent chronic pain in my left arm. In the first year of recovery on some movements that pain was of unpredictably high intensity which I believe would have knocked anyone out. Often it would make me cry and discourage me because I couldn’t dance without pain. But not only that, even everyday movements, like changing or showering, were painful and unpredictable.
A bunch of theoretical knowledge, and no concrete techniques
Although a visit to a psychiatrist was a mandatory part of the compensation lawsuit, I was only informed that my problems did not refer to PTSD with instructions to take Normabel as needed, which did not make sense to me because it is not a permanent solution. What frustrated me the most was that I had no idea what I should do to ease my attention difficulties, fear of traffic, or chronic pain. By then I already had almost four years of studying the psychology behind me and I realized that I only have a bunch of theoretical knowledge out of it, and no concrete techniques I can apply to help myself.
So I was glad to try meditation for the first time because I heard from a friend that it can help with attention. I started with transcendental meditation and was quickly unpleasantly surprised when I realized that it included an idealized guru from India and a mystical mantra that should not be talked about. But since I wasn’t aware of anything different existing within my reach at that time I started meditating regularly anyway. I was intrigued when I started to notice that my attention was getting a little better and when I started to get good grades in college again. And I wondered if it was really possible that it was the result of meditation, or was it just a natural course of recovery.
So while reading about the research of meditation and attention, I came across mindfulness. Although there is research on other types of meditation too, back then, in 2014., scientific evidence of high methodological quality prevailed for mindfulness. Most mindfulness experts were scientists and psychologists, and all techniques were simple, logical, and adaptable to the individual. This is what attracted me as a scientist and psychologist in the making. At that time, we didn’t have mindfulness education, so I got all the books and audio recordings in English and started using it every day as a real nerd that I am when it comes to something that really interests me.
After just a few weeks of mindfulness practice, I began to notice that my attention was becoming more effective than it had been before the car accident, which I believed was impossible. With further practice I began to feel changes where I did not expect them at all. My fear of traffic and chronic pain were still very much present, but it became easier to live with them. Now I could catch myself counting how many pedestrian crossings I have to cross, but those thoughts would no longer determine my decision whether to go somewhere. As I approached the crossing, I would feel fear and allow myself a few moments of presence with that through, just breathing, until I felt ready to cross the road without panic. When I felt pain in my arm again, I could now tolerate those uncomfortable sensations without getting angry or sad.
Mindfulness was an absolute jackpot for me, so it is no surprise that two years later it became the subject of my doctoral research work in England and the Netherlands. But new mental health challenges were just around the corner. As exciting as the doctorate was for me, it was at the same time difficult in unexpected ways. The main problem was that I was doing a new and challenging job from home. In the beginning, it was perfect: I wake up when I fall asleep, do what I love from the comfort of my home, and take a break whenever and however much I want. But the long-term consequences were loss of work-life balance where I always felt like I haven’t done enough. Where I work every day of the week until late and couldn`t relax. And there was also isolation because working at home I didn’t have many opportunities to meet people in a foreign country. The combination of these circumstances led to high levels of anxiety that mindfulness could not help me in any way.
The key components of mindfulness
At that time, my mindfulness practice actually increased my anxiety, because when addressing that emotion I would start blaming and condemning myself, even feeling embarrassed. It took me time and courage to accept the truth that this time I can’t help myself. Fortunately, the health care system in England quickly provided me with psychotherapy and anxiety medication. When my mental health stabilized, I decided to bring mindfulness practice back into my life so I found a mentor in mindfulness and became part of a local mindfulness group. I soon came to feel that regular psychotherapy and medication were no longer necessary for me to stay well. I realized how much I had missed by then because I took the harder and slower path towards mindfulness. I was not been able to develop an attitude of acceptance and compassion for myself on my own, and these are the key components of mindfulness that are needed to prevent mental health problems.
It was only when I mastered them that I was able to deal with social anxiety I have had since childhood, so it no longer holds me back from doing what matters to me. I can now have public appearances in front of an audience of several hundred people, which once seemed to me as the greatest possible torture. That experience led me to finish training for a mentor in mindfulness because I don’t want other people to walk my path since there is already a well-established, easier path they too can take instead.
Ever since I went through psychotherapy and mindfulness mentoring, everything has changed for the better. I am now more mentally resilient than ever and have learned to prioritize my mental hygiene. Through experience, I have learned what disrupts me and what strengthens my mental health, and I create my life accordingly. However, this does not necessarily mean that I will never have mental health problems again because none of us is immune to all the situations that life can serve. But I’m no longer afraid of that because now I know what to do and where to seek help to be well again. Based on personal and professional experience, I now know with certainty that mental health problems are not as unusual, easily noticeable, or rare as I once thought. It’s actually pretty simple to consider it. Just as our body is consumed through life where it is normal to have periods when we are bothered by our backs, kidneys or some other parts of the body, our mind is consumed in the same way. It is normal for high anxiety, depression, obsession or some other uninvited guest to come to mind. It is our responsibility to learn to continuously work on prevention and to know how to bypass pride and stigma when we need help. Our mind is always the safest and most important investment we can make. Yet it is the place where we inevitably spend the most time.
Ivana Burić (@ivanaburic.phd ) is an interdisciplinary researcher, a mindfulness instructor, and a psychologist, who finished her PhD programme at Coventry University (UK), where she was combining psychology, molecular biology and neuroscience in research of mind-body interventions such as mindfulness and yoga, and their effects on mental and physical health. She is currently working on research at University in Amsterdam where she further peruses her interest in the subject. She is the founder of Mindfulness Centre Split where she teaches live and online courses on mindfulness.