Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How to Be Mindful When Your Mind is Full: A Ridiculously Easy Step by Step Method

Have you or has someone you love, been extremely stressed in the last year?

If so, you and 50% of America, are in the same boat, according to a new survey from National Public Radio, Harvard School of Public Health and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

1 in 4 people reported stress last month and one in two were incredibly stressed over the course of the year.

Our stressors are not going away.

 Our fast paced lives and worries about problems, that are not in our control as the survey reports, are all compounding the stresses we are intimate with. Death of people we love, poor health for ourselves or loved ones, 24/7 caregiving, problems at work, financial difficulties and worries about our kids are a few examples.

You may not be able to take the causes of the stress away. 
you can take steps to manage how your mind and body responds to the stress 

I know it sounds easy and is in reality, much more difficult. But  a 5-minute exercise, I describe in a few minutes, that you can do any time, any place, anywhere, can help you manage the fallout from your worries. 

I wish, when my husband was so seriously ill, that I had known how to manage my stress better. In fact not just known but practised, so that when the stresses came I had a go-to internal support mechanism and a way to boost my resilience.

You see what I realized, was that the stresses I was feeling were unique to me in my role of spouse, parent and primary caregiver. And your stresses are unique to you in the way your mind and  body perceive them and deal with them.

SO you know best what brings on your stress, and how that feels and you are in the best position to manage those feelings, even if you cannot take away the root cause.

Research is showing that even a few minutes a day of practicing stress management regularly, can lower cortisol levels in the blood that rise with increased stress.

These tools as the survey reports, include spending time with friends, exercising and focusing on a hobby.

But as my friend Deborah Kotz, health writer for the Boston Globe, reporting on the stress survey notes, in the midst of stress, many people are  unable to get out  to do any of these things.

So, at stressful times you need something quick. 

Something you can do alone. 

Something you can practise anywhere during the day or when you can't sleep in the middle of the night.

This little, but powerful technique is called mindfulness…and before you say you can't do it, don't believe in it or haven't got time……………..bare with me for a little longer.

 Dr Samita a doctor who recently wrote about the 5 characteristics of very resilient people, in The Huffington Post, named mindfulness as the first characteristic.  

She defines mindfulness as:

"the art of paying attention to your life on purpose. Mindful people monitor the thoughts that come through them. However, instead of reacting to their negative thoughts, they observe them like a storm that is passing through.

Furthermore, they pay attention to what is right in their lives. They give it strength and value, thereby turning up the volume on the beauty that surrounds them."

I find it hard to wrap my mind around er…. mindfulness. 

It is the practice touted most, by experts, as the exercise they want us to use in order to slow down, stay in the moment and be present in order to take stock of our lives and appreciate what we have. 

You may be thinking, "Well that sounds all well
 and good in theory."

But if you're anything like me, after about ten seconds your mind turns to, "What the hell am I going to make for dinner?... Oh crap I forgot to call the plumber. I have a 10.00pm deadline. I need to buy milk, dog food and swim goggles. And where did I put my car keys?"

And that's it. Your moment of mindfulness has vanished.

I had resigned myself, that mindfulness was on my to-do list but I might never get to it….. until recently, when I read the most profound comment on Humans of New York:

A daughter when asked about what she loves about her mother, explained the following:

"She loves life more than anyone I've ever known…. recently she's had some health problems. And her health got so bad at one point, she called me and said, ‘I was starting to wonder if there was any reason to go on. But then I had the most delicious pear!’”

This resonated with me for  2 reasons.

 Firstly that this amazing woman was happily reminded that life was worth living, from the very small act of enjoying a delicious pear. 

Secondly, I marveled that the taste of that pear took her mind away from her troubles to the joy of eating, the pleasure of the texture, taste, flavor and the opportunity to savor the moment.

In turn it gave me an idea of how to help manage stress by becoming more mindful in 5 minutes and by using skills we were born with and that are innate:-our five senses.

By focusing on each sense in turn and directing our minds to tune in to that sense, we have to be…..
  • In the moment.
  • Aware of our surroundings.
  • Focused on the sense we are using and the feedback it gives us.
  • Appreciate what we are experiencing.

So, are you ready to give it a try? 

First, find a comfortable place to sit, near a window or outside. Somewhere where you won't be disturbed for 5 minutes. (The bath will work, if all else fails!) 

Take with you, a piece of fruit, your favorite bar of chocolate or a drink you enjoy.
Take 3 deep, slow breaths and listen to your breathing as you do this.

1. Now starting  with sight
What do you see? Look around your room, take in the colors and textures. Look out the window for small animals or birds or at the trees and watch them carefully. You can name in your thoughts, each object or sound or response your body is sensing. 

You do not need to have an opinion on what you are seeing. Just let your thoughts flow through your mind. 

2. Now close your eyes. 
Listen. What can you hear? 
Try to name at least 5 different noises -the air-conditioning, a lawn mower, your own breathing,  an ambulance, children playing, your stomach rumbling.

3. Keeping your eyes closed, breathe in deeply. What can you smell? The scent of jasmine, freshly cut grass, manure, car fumes, your own perfume or the peach you have with you.

4. Touch. How does the place you are sitting feel? Which parts of your body are touching it?  Try to describe it to yourself -is it warm, hard or comfy? Use your hands to feel a surface close to you, or your hair or skin.

5. Taste. Handle your food or hold your drink. 
How does it feel in your hands?  Now taste it and let your tongue explore it as you chew it slowly. Think about its texture and flavor. Is it sweet or bitter?  Listen to the sound of yourself eating or drinking. Are you crunching, slurping or chewing?

You can also  take your food of choice and use all 5 senses to enjoy it -examine it with your eyes, feel it with your hands, smell it,  listen as you take a bite, register the texture and tastes as you eat it.

When you have focused on each of your 5 senses, take 3 more slow, deep breaths.

Now you have just experienced mindfulness - being fully aware of an experience with each of your senses. You have also had 5 minutes free and clear of thinking about anything else.

How did you feel? Would you try it again? 

A friend of mine,  who has been under tremendous stress recently, has been practicing mindfulness. 

This is what she had to say about her experiences.

"Letting go of negative thoughts and concentrating on "now"  is like giving yourself a holiday….. 

 …..I am finding it very refreshing, literally. I feel myself returning. I practise constantly, but as effortlessly as possible, bringing my mind back to "now", rather than going through the day thinking about everything except what I am actually doing, weighed down with dross that actually the act of going over and over in my mind achieves nothing except extra exhaustion…..

…..I am enjoying practicing this skill. I feel a lot lighter than I have done for a long time. "

Even the most advanced mindfulness experts were once beginners.  What have you got to lose by trying? 

As my friend found, her practice permeated many areas of her life very positively.   

 What has been stressing you out?
 Have you tried to practice mindfulness? 
Why did you try?   
What techniques for managing stress have worked for you?
 Do you have any books on mindfulness or mindfulness meditations to recommend?
Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts and advice.  

Hoping you can find ways to ease your stress this week.

Sending love to all of you who are living with great stress today.


You may also like
How to Meditate When You Can't Sit Still: The Ultimate Guide

Her Majesty's School of Stress Management

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  1. Hi Gilly!

    Great exercise! I have done that before and it's a wonderful way to slow down and notice your world in detail that we often overlook.

    Here are some other things that have helped me along the way:

    1. A Tai Chi exercise called "Sinking the Chi". I also use it in my yoga classes and personal practice. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, arms hanging beside you. Take a slow, deep inhale as you lift your arms out to the sides and up overhead. Exhale as you bend your arms (and your knees slightly, so you're literally sinking), bringing your hands down in front of your body with your palms relaxed and facing the floor, as if gently pressing energy down from overhead towards the floor. Repeat this as many time as you like. On the next inhale, you would rise up (straightening your legs) as you raise your arms out to the sides again, then the hands come down in front of you on the exhale while bending the knees. As you do this several times, you get into a rhythm and it feels like riding calm waves of an ocean. :)

    And a wonderful book by Pema Chodron. Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion It is quite dense, but broken down into very small, edible parts. So take it at whatever pace you need to. Allow yourself time to sit with each piece and digest it - it will be that much sweeter! :)

    Good luck, everyone and keep breathing!
    Melissa Feldman

  2. Thanks very much Melissa. Thanks for taking the time to write about some great resources and meditative poses. Gillyx

  3. Thank you, Gilly. When my husband was ill and dying, I took on a practice I learned from reading the poetry of Rilke. In the darkness, look for the light (and the other way, too). But there was lots of darkness at that time, so I turned my energy to something beautiful or positive and stayed there with my senses for a few moments. If I was particularly scattered and distraught, I wrote the details in a journal I kept with me. A ripe peach from a friend or a warm blanket from a nurse as I tried to rest in Intensive Care. A splash of blue sky out the window of the hospital room or green moss growing on the stones over my husband's grave. The squeeze of my husband's hand. You help me remember this moment, right now, this cup of green tea.

  4. Beautiful words and memories Elaine.Thank you. You illustrate just how powerful, constants in nature and simple comforts, that heighten our senses, can give us some moments of reprieve from our stress.

    I remember the morning of my husband's brain surgery ,there was the most beautiful sunrise.The sun streaked across the sky and radiated into his room on the eighth floor of the hospital. For a few minutes we were both so captivated, that all our thoughts were put on hold.
    I love that you wrote the details of what you saw and experienced in your journal. What a wonderful way to preserve the memories and to remember that there were glimpses of light in your darkness. I hope people reading this, who are going through challenging situations, will find comfort in these small actions, as you did.