At some point in your life, I’m sure someone’s told you, “Life is short, you should stop to smell the roses.” Somebody well intentioned, maybe your Nana, your next-door neighbor Janet, or your favorite uncle Fred, giving you the benefit of their experience, and just telling you to slow down and enjoy every moment. You probably smiled, suppressed an eye roll, noncommittally murmured something in the affirmative, and kept it moving. Nobody actually stops to think about these typically unsolicited pieces of sage advice, right? The very idea is anathema to our frenetic culture of constant multi-tasking and 24/7 connectivity. Well, turns out it might not be the worst idea to actually take it to heart. It seems that science is telling us that there might be something to it- stopping to enjoy the moment may actually be good for your health. It’s a concept called mindfulness, or sometimes mindfulness meditation.
Last week I finished up the remote work blog, and I considered adding mindfulness as a tip for dealing with stress. It’s actually a great technique to use, because it literally takes less than two minutes, so it’s easy to incorporate into your day as you need it. Essentially, mindfulness is a meditative practice where you focus on being intensely aware of everything you’re sensing and feeling in a present moment, without any interpretation whatsoever. However you’re experiencing life, you simply notice each moment as it unfolds, without any judgment or preconceived notions. You just let it flow and let it go. In this way, you take yourself off of autopilot, which is how most people normally operate, and purposefully engage with the world around you. This actively directs your attention away from whatever kind of thinking is causing you anxiety, and that puts you in a more peaceful present place. Whenever you have a few free minutes, you can practice mindfulness throughout the day, no matter where you are, answering emails, sitting in traffic, or waiting in line. All you have to do is become more aware. That can mean focusing on your breath, your feet on the ground, your fingers typing, or the people and voices around you.
Captain Obvious says that the nervous system is always working in the body, but we’re not really aware of everything it’s doing. All of its automatic functions, such as the heartbeat, digestion, and breathing, are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s responsible for our normal, relaxed state, where the body and mind can “rest and digest” as they say. Its counterpoint is the sympathetic nervous system, whose most recognized role comes into play during its “fight or flight” mode. During these threatening situations, the sympathetic nervous system automatically releases stress hormones that flood the system, and we experience a physiological and emotional response in a cascade like fashion. Both branches of the nervous system are clearly very important, but if the sympathetic, “fight or flight” mode is activated too often, or for too long, that’s a serious health concern with harmful consequences. In an analogous way, living in a constant high stress state can elicit similar effects and have a negative effect on physical health, emotional well-being, and longevity.
The overall benefit of mindfulness is that it encourages you to pay attention to where you are right now, without any further interpretation. Once you begin learning how to be more mindful, you’ll realize how much your mind races, and how often you focus on the past and the future. Anxiety is often the product of thoughts about where you need to be, what you need to do, what might happen, and “if and when” type thoughts. Mindful redirection without judgement helps you experience thoughts and emotions with greater balance and acceptance, and removes that anxiety and stress from your mind and body. As a result, most people who practice mindfulness report an increased ability to relax, more enthusiasm for life, and improved self-esteem. Mindfulness and meditation have been studied in many clinical trials, and evidence supports their effectiveness in improving many chronic conditions, including stress, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, insomnia, and hypertension. Meditation also has been specifically shown to improve attention, decrease job burnout, improve sleep, increase immunity, and even improve diabetes control.
The concept of mindfulness is simple, but it’s called a practice for a reason. As I said, most people operate on autopilot, reacting to each situation or sensation as they go. When you have too many obligations and too little time, anxiety and stress often undermine healthy habits such as eating well, getting proper sleep, and exercising. This can easily become a cyclical pattern that’s difficult to break. But mindfulness actually pays out twice, because in addition to being relaxing in the moment, it also has a positive cumulative effect over time. So practicing a pattern of mindfulness breaks unhealthy patterns, which allows you to better enjoy positive life experiences, while also minimizing adverse reactions to negative life experiences. The idea of practicing mindfulness on a regular basis isn’t to get better at it. The goal is to make it second nature, so that you are essentially mindful at all times. Ideally, you then automatically become mindful, rather than anxious or stressed out.
In our culture, we tend to place great value on how much and how fast, but mindfulness doesn’t need to be complicated or take a long time to be effective. Just interrupting daily stress with a healthy response is essentially mindfulness for dummies, so by taking just a moment to breathe deep, you’ve become more mindful. If you’re not sure if mindfulness is your kind of thing, there are some simple mindful principles you can incorporate into your life while you look for proof of concept, to see if it’s helpful for you.- Pay attention. It’s hard to slow down and notice things in the middle of a busy day in a hectic world, but try to experience your environment with all of your senses: touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste. – Treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend; with acceptance and care, and without judgement and harsh criticism. – Eliminate the negative. When you have negative thoughts, try to sit down, close your eyes, and actively remove them from your mind to gain perspective. – Acknowledge and redirect yourself as needed to maintain awareness. Anytime you’re trying to be mindful, if you find your awareness slips, or anxiety or negativity continue to creep in, acknowledge them without judgement and redirect yourself to return your focus to the present.
Below are a few quick mindfulness activities you can easily incorporate into your daily life, including at work. Since you don’t need any specific tools, you can try them out on your commute or even at your desk when you feel stressed out.
Close your eyes and slowly breathe in and out. Concentrate on the rising and falling of your chest, and try to empty your mind. If other thoughts pop into your head, acknowledge and dismiss them, then bring your focus back to present.
It’s easy for your mind to wander during conversations. Instead of formulating your response while a colleague is still talking, clear your mind and really listen to what they’re saying. Try not to think about all the stuff on your to-do list, your plans for the evening, or your previous conversations- just be in the moment. This will help you pick up on more information, and can also improve your workplace relationships.
Choose any object nearby- a pen, your computer mouse, or even your tie- and really focus on it for one minute. Pretend it’s brand new to you and try to see it for the first time. Pay close attention to its shape, texture, and how it’s constructed. Try to connect with something positive about it you may have never considered before. This helps you not only clear your mind, but also helps to foster appreciation for the everyday objects that surround you.
This one requires you to get up and leave your desk, but so much the better. When you go on a coffee or lunch break, take a stroll by yourself through a nearby park or green area. If possible, leave your phone and other electronic devices back in the office, and use these few minutes to focus on and listen to the natural world around you. This is a healthy exercise for both your mind and your body, as you also benefit from the physical movement and the chance to get a breath of fresh air.
Those simple mindfulness exercises can be practiced nearly anywhere and anytime. Some of the more structured mindfulness exercises may require you to set aside time when you can be in a quiet place, without distractions or interruptions. You might choose to practice the following types of exercises early in the morning before you begin your daily routine. Here are some examples of more structured exercises you can use to practice mindfulness.
Unlike when breathing is an automatic function, this mindful technique encourages taking a moment to be present, and focusing on completely inhaling and exhaling air in and out of the lungs. Breathe in through your nose to a count of four, hold for one second, and then exhale through the mouth to a count of five. Repeat often, as needed. Over time, this exercise usually leads to a pattern of slower, deeper breathing as a healthy default.
Mental imagery exercises allow you to picture a calming place for relaxation. This technique focuses on a positive mental image to replace negative thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing at any given time. This is the classic “happy place” you can go to in your mind to reduce stress and anxiety.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When you have anxiety or stress in your life, one of the ways your body responds is with muscle tension. Progressive muscle relaxation is a method that helps relieve that tension. During this technique, you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. You work on your muscle groups in a certain order, head to toe or toe to head. The action of tensing followed by relaxation releases physical tension and relaxes you. When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious, so this is an effective method to relieve stress.
I imagine you’ve heard of “mindless eating,” where you’re watching television with a bag of cheesy poofs in one hand, and the remote control in the other, and the next thing you know, the giant family size bag is empty. When you eat mindlessly, you shovel food into your mouth without noticing how much you’re actually consuming. Mindful eating is the exact counterpoint to this, and for this reason, mindfulness is a universally recognized tool to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight. With mindful eating, you only eat when you’re hungry, you make sure to focus on each bite to fully appreciate what you’re eating, and stop eating when you’re full.
Walking is such an established, habituated action that this is yet another thing we tend to do on autopilot. The moment we step out the door, our minds wander and get caught up in planning, worrying, and analyzing. But it’s pretty amazing how different you feel when you pay attention to your movement and what’s going on all around you, rather than all the stuff swirling in your brain. A walking meditation is a great way to take your mind for a walk with you, and the idea is to focus on your gait and the physical experience of walking. Pay attention to the specific components of each step, being aware of the sensations of standing, and the subtle movements that help you keep your balance as you move. Research indicates that engaging your senses outdoors is most beneficial, so try to find a big green space outside and take a mindful walk.
Ideally, you should aim to practice mindfulness in multiple ways each day. By that, I don’t mean you have to do a progressive muscle relaxation technique each day. I’m saying you can just incorporate the basic principles into your life each day. Eat mindfully instead of mindlessly. When your mind swims with everything you have to get done in a day, slow down and breathe. When you start to criticize yourself, stop the negativity and gain some acceptance. When you walk to work, try to do it mindfully. Remember that it’s far better to make small changes you can sustain than it is to make grand changes that don’t stick, so apply little mindful touches throughout your day. That way, you’re providing a break from stressful thoughts multiple times each day, allowing you to gain more perspective, and you’re also reinforcing this as a response to daily stressors so that it becomes more automatic. Over time, mindfulness becomes more second nature, and this effectively reduces stress and anxiety in the future.
Please note, it takes time and practice to learn to slow down and live in the moment. So if it seems to take longer than you “think it should,” you’re kind of missing the point, and you should drop the judgement and continue the effort. With regular practice, you’ll find that rather than operating on autopilot, reacting as you go, with your emotions influenced by negative past experiences as well as fears of future occurrences, mindfulness will allow you to root your mind in the present moment and deal with life’s challenges in a calm, clear, assertive way. As a result, you’ll develop a fully conscious mindset that frees you from the bonds of unhelpful, self-limiting thought patterns, and this will allow you to focus on the positive emotions that increase understanding in yourself and others. And that’s never a bad thing. So the next time someone tells you to stop and smell the roses, before you roll your eyes, take a mindful moment to be present, and then say thank you.
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