In normal circumstances, the fast pace of modern life can quickly lead to anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the next thing you need to do, the next place you need to go, the next unrealistic idea of ‘the perfect life’ that you need to strive for.
And then there is the abnormal situation.
You’ve gone through a rapid period of enforced change. It takes time to adapt and now you are faced with having to adapt again.
Every day we are bombarded with millions of images via social media, TV, adverts, newspapers and magazines. All packed with messages that can quickly leave you feeling anxious, experiencing low self-esteem, and possibly even suffering depression.
Over recent years the term ‘mindfulness’ has entered most people’s consciousness more and more. But what is it, how do you ‘do it’, and – most importantly – what are the benefits? *A note about ‘lockdown’. I prefer, and encourage you, to reframe lockdown as a period of safe keeping. We have been making a collective effort to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and others in the general population safe. For more about the power of using positive language take a look at this video. Therefore, for the remainder of this article, I will be using the term safe keeping.
What is mindfulness? At the simplest level, mindfulness is the act of being consciously aware of what is happening in your body, in your surroundings at any given moment. It’s that shift from navigating life on autopilot with your sub-conscious taking care of you. Whilst its roots are in Buddhism and meditation, you don’t need to have any particular religious or spiritual beliefs to benefit from it. The goal of mindfulness is to help you;
Recognise the messages that your body, mind and soul are sending you.
Make a conscious choice about how you respond to your thoughts and feelings.
Develop confidence in your ability to deal with negative thoughts and feelings.
Be kind to yourself.
Just a few minutes of mindfulness each day can be a major factor in improving your day-to-day health and wellbeing.
How can mindfulness help?
Whenever you start something new, you need to give yourself time to practice and find out what works best for you. Mindfulness is no exception. It’s unlikely you’ll crack it from your very first go. How you think and the things you think about drive your actions and feelings. If you suffer from anxiety, you will spend more time thinking about the things that make you feel anxious, and in turn, you will stay in an anxious state. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Mindfulness breaks the cycle by using techniques to bring you into the present. When you practice mindfulness regularly, you will develop the ability to recognise the thoughts that come and go in your mind; understand the messages your body sends you; and learn the skills you need to give yourself the mental, emotional, sometimes even physical space to deal with them calmly.
Putting the theory into context To give you a better picture of mindfulness in action, take a moment to imagine yourself in the following scenario. It’s early June 2020 and you are returning to work after a period in safekeeping. Perhaps you have been furloughed. Maybe you’ve been working from home. You might even have lost your job and be returning to a new role. During your time at home, your social circle has shrunk. You’ve left home only occasionally for exercise or to do some essential shopping. And as strange as that was at first, as the weeks passed it felt more normal. Your life slowed. Now you find yourself walking to work. There’s more traffic on the roads and more people around you than you’ve seen for weeks. The return to ‘normal’ causes you to feel anxious about the day ahead.
Will people around you maintain their physical distance?
What if they don’t?
Is it safe to be back in the workplace?
How will different working practices or things like PPE affect how you go about your day?
As thoughts race in your mind, you notice your body tensing and your breathing become more rapid and shallow. You recognise the signs and use mindfulness to take back control and quell the rising anxiety. You aren’t ignoring your thoughts or fears. You are taking control by acknowledging the affect they are having on you and consciously putting a space between them and how you react. As you continue to walk, you think about your body. How it moves. The length of your steps and the sound of your footsteps. How your arms swing as you walk, how the air feels against your skin and what is happening in the world around you. After a few minutes of this conscious control and being present in what you are doing, instead of consumed by thoughts racing in and out of your mind, you notice your anxiety levels reduce. You continue to stay present as you walk and when you arrive at work, you feel calm, composed and ready to take on the day.
When and where should you practice mindfulness? The beauty of mindfulness is that you can practice it anywhere and at any time you need to. Nobody even needs to know that you are doing it. That said, there are some points in the day that naturally lend themselves to a little bit of mindfulness to appreciate what you are doing and refocus your thoughts.
Think about the last meal you ate. Did you think about what you were doing or were you reading the paper, scrolling on your phone or watching TV? Did you enjoy the flavours and textures in your food or did you suddenly find yourself with an empty plate and no real notion of having eaten anything? Mealtimes are a perfect time to practice mindfulness. Mindful eating means you take time to focus on your meal, to think about the different flavours and textures – perhaps you could even try to identify individual ingredients within the food. Mindfulness with food is also an important part of successfully losing weight so if that’s your goal – it’s a double bubble of benefits!
2. Colouring or doodling
Whether you deliberately opt for a colouring book, download colouring images or just reach for a blank sheet of paper, colouring and doodling is an activity that many people find a powerful act of mindfulness. It’s not just for the artists out there either. Try to focus on how the colour spreads or the ink seeps into the page. You’ll soon find your mind doesn’t have space for unhelpful thought patterns.
Mindfulness and meditation are a match made in heaven. Whether you combine it with an activity like yoga or choose to meditate as an activity in its own right. You just need a quiet, comfortable place to sit and focus. Start by thinking about your breathing to give your mind and body time to settle. Once you start to feel calm, focus in on what you can hear, or smell in your surroundings. Stay focused and if you notice your mind starts to wander, consciously bring it back in to focus.
When is a good time to be mindful? As I said earlier, the beauty of mindfulness is that you really can use it anywhere and anytime. When you’re taking a morning shower, notice the feeling of the water on your skin instead of rushing through your daily routine. If switching off at bedtime is a struggle, build in some mindfulness before you try to settle down to sleep. If you can, creating time each day that you set aside for some mindfulness practice is a great idea as it will allow you to make it a habit. After a few weeks of thinking about doing it, you will find it’s become a natural part of your day that you miss if you don’t do it! While you’re getting used to practising mindfulness, cut yourself some slack if it doesn’t always feel like it’s working. Like any new activity, you need to allow yourself to discover what and when works best for you. Don’t give it all up after the first session that feels hard work. The next time will probably be amazing!
Five top tips for making mindfulness work for you
Practice mindfulness every day.
Start with a few minutes and build time gradually.
Commit to the process.
Mix it up a little while you find what works best for you.
Download a mindfulness app if you feel you need a little extra help.