As we adjust to the ‘new normal’ of our everyday lives many people are experiencing stress, anxiety, fear and discomfort. Here I want to introduce a couple of techniques that might offer some relief to help you get through these challenging times.
Mindfulness is a method of focusing your attention on what you are thinking, feeling and doing as it happens; thus, it is about living in the moment as it unfolds. It is a powerful tool in the arsenal of skills that you can use to help yourself relax; because you can focus on what is happening around you and pay attention to how you are responding to that in the moment, rather than being caught up by your thoughts.
Thoughts are an interesting phenomenon; they tend to dominate our everyday thinking. Our heads can be full of incessant chatter or white noise, frequently worrying about things that have happened or catastrophizing about possible futures; and sometimes we are not even fully aware of doing this. Other times negative thoughts can dominate our thinking to such an extent that we can feel overwhelmed by them. This is when we can become stressed, anxious or depressed.
A very important part of mindfulness practice is to understand that thoughts are just thoughts; that is, they are something that you can ignore or let go of. When you see thoughts as merely thoughts, then you begin to understand that they do not have the power to control or dominate your life.
It does need practice to get to this point of understanding; but once you get the hang of it, you will find that you can learn to let your negative or disruptive thoughts go. There are some simple steps you can take to help with this.
The first step is to pay attention to your thoughts so you can begin to realise when you are thinking negatively or are thinking about things that are not relevant to the moment you are in.
When you become aware of these negative or distracting thoughts, register them, but then let them go; let them pass you by. To do this visualise them drifting away from you and melting into the distance. You might like to imagine them suspended in clouds or hot air balloons and see them passing you by; or maybe you imagine them floating away in the ripples of a gently flowing stream. Create an image that works for you and let those negative or distracting thoughts go; just let them pass you by; see them diminish into the distance.
Remember that mindfulness, like any other approach, needs practise so don’t expect immediate results; give it time. Once you have practised this, try some of these other simple techniques to help you break the negative cycle of thinking.
Three breaths to relaxation
This is simple exercise to help you feel more relaxed, centred and calm by focusing on your breath. Your breath is with you all of the time, wherever you are; so, if you can master this technique you can help yourself to feel more relaxed any time, any place, anywhere.
To achieve this, you will need to practise; but this is an easy technique that you can do frequently during the day, whenever you feel stressed, anxious or uncomfortable.
It is also a useful technique to break the cycle of worrying thoughts when you go to bed at night or wake in the early hours. You can also do it when you wake to start the day in a positive way.
Please click here to have an audio script that you can listen to. You can also find more details on my website here and in my book Challenging stress, burnout and rust-out: Finding balance in busy lives here.
Mindful body scan….a tool for self awareness
The mindful body scan is a way of learning to pay attention to your body and become more self aware in the moment. Self awareness and being present in the moment as it unfolds are essential elements of mindfulness practice. The mindful body scan works by helping you to tune into how your body is feeling in the moment, and faciliating you to identify where you hold tension and stress; most importantly it is about learning to let go of your tension and stress, to let it pass (like in the image of the clouds, hot air balloons or stream) in order to be fully present, relaxed and feel as comfortable and as calm as you can. Once you have learned this technique, you can apply it to most situations.
For an audio guide to the mindful body scan please click here.
Mindful walking…a tool for living in the moment
With the present restrictions on walking outdoors the mindful walking technique is a very important skill to learn to make the most of our time in the open air and achieve a deeper sense of wellbeing. This is because the mindful walking technique asks you to fully appreciate your walk as it unfolds, step by step, moment by moment. This is not our normal state; rather we worry about what we need to do; fill our minds with tasks or catastrophize future events; in essence we live in our heads, listening to the chatter or white noise within and responding emotionally to the often negative or worrying thoughts that it conveys. Consequently, we do not notice or fully appreciate what is happening around us, and yet this is where meaningful experience lies.
The image below represents this visually: the man is taking our usual, everyday approach to a walk; he is on his phone and his head is filled with worries about his next task, his next meeting; he has no sense of time as it passes and no attention is given to his immediate surroundings. He is living in his head; his thoughts dominate his self awareness. When we are stressed, anxious or overwhelmed this is what we do.
The girl, on the other hand, is noticing and paying attention to what is unfolding around her as she walks. She sees her surroundings as they appear to her; she is also using her other senses to experience the moment as it unfolds; so she hears, feels and smells what is happening around her. Her sense of time, space and place is focused on where she is, each and very step of her walk; thus she is seeing the world in all its beauty as it unfurls around her.
Mindful walking then, is about being fully present on your walk. It uses four key strategies to help you to do this, and if you have practised the techniques we have discussed previously you will have done all of these. These are letting negative or distracting thoughts go, self awareness, being present in the moment and focused attention.
These strategies are very important to the success of the technique because they require you to pay attention to your body as you are in motion on your walk; and yet, at the same time, to be fully aware of the environment around you: the noises, scents, colours, tastes and feelings you experience as you walk. So you can get the idea, let’s look at a basic script you can apply to any walk.
*For those who are in isolation please use the following script to support a visual journey in your minds eye; this is a meditative approach. There is some music in the audio version that you can listen to following the audio script in order to fully benefit for the mindful mediation. Please click here if you want to go straight there.
Mindful walking script
Pay attention to any preparations you may have to make e.g. putting on your jacket or tying your boots or shoes. For example, notice the colour and material of your jacket, how it feels when is slides over your arms. Feel the weight of your boots or shoes and pay attention to how your feet feel in those boots or shoes.
Before you leave the house, take a moment to centre yourself; try to let any negative thoughts go or practise the three breaths to relaxation technique. Alternatively, just focus your thoughts on your walk in a positive way. Breathe deeply and focus your attention on being calm and relaxed.
As you begin you walk, notice the temperature; is is cold or is it warm? Is it just right? Just notice how that feels. Breathe deeply and comfortably, and slowly move on. Think snail not hare.
Notice if there is a wind blowing, is there a breeze or is the wind just a whisper or a sigh? How does the wind feel on your skin, or in your hair?
Are there any scents in the air? Pay attention to any smells and breathe deeply. Register the scents around you and enjoy them …perhaps you can smell spring flowers or someone cooking lunch.
Listen; what can you hear? Can you hear the wind blowing or whispering in the trees or is it hushed and silenced? Is there birdsong ? If so, is there a chorus or a solitary singer in the trees? Gently breathe.
Observe your surroundings: what can you see? What is the colour of the sky? Is it azure blue? grey, hazy? Is it dusk or dawn? Is there sunlight? Moonlight or streetlight? Are there trees and green? Buildings and pavements? Is it bright or dark. Just notice these and gently breathe, feeling calm and comfortable in your surroundings.
Pay attention now to your own footfall as you gently progress on your walk. Notice how your feet peel up from the ground as one foot lifts and notice how the other falls; you are in motion, gently moving forward.
Stop if you can, and if you feel safe too, close your eyes; soak up the sensation of sounds or silence around you; breathe; smell the air and feel the sky; take time to just be and to be fully present in the moment as it unfolds. Become really self aware in of your moment and breathe deeply, drawing energy and calm into your body and your soul. Breathe.
As you continue on your walk see if you can maintain these levels of self awareness and remain present in the moment at is unfolds. Be at one with your walk and fully appreciate and experience each moment. It is, after all a beautiful world.
Mindful walking is about being fully present in the moment, moment by moment as the walk unfolds, so you can fully perceive and apprehend your journey. If you can apply these techniques to your next walk you will begin to enjoy it much, much more. Don’t forget to use it as a meditative walk if you are in isolation. Take a walk in your imagination with me.
For an audio guide to the mindful walking please click here.