Gillian White – MSc, PhD (Candidate), University of Toronto
Mindfulness Part II. Everyday tips to be more mindful.
As I discussed in the previous article, Mindfulness Part I, the pursuit and practice of mindfulness has a wide variety of benefits relating to your health, happiness, and productivity. In this day and age, where your brain is under a bombardment of internal and external stimuli, our busy environments paired with our busy minds has creating a breeding ground for stress, distraction, and the loss of health and productivity goes along with it.
So while a growing number of scientists, doctors, and executives are embracing mindfulness, how do you become mindful?
Deep breathing forces us to slow down, take a break, and tune into our thoughts and senses. But more than that, it improves blood flow and oxygen delivery to our brain and body, which diminishes fatigue, and promotes activation of the parasympathetic system – our body’s rest and recovery system. Switching from a sympathetic ‘Fight or Flight’ state to a parasympathetic recovery state reduces stress (and its negative health/functional effects) and makes you feel reenergized as you’ve given your hard working brain the much needed recharge is deserves.
Related Article: Mindfulness – What Does That Even Mean
When you would normally take a break at work, ideally in the morning, use that break for deep breathing. Turn off your phone, close your computer (or leave them at your desk and find a quiet space) and dedicate 5 minutes to breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs, chest, abdomen fill with air and then expel the air.
Meditate (it’s not just for hippie’s anymore!)
Meditation is both a brain training and relaxation promoter that is effective at building the brain centres that enhance our ability to focus and think deeply, regulate our emotions, and reduce our experience of stress. Some newbies to meditation can struggle with it because they think they’re “doing it wrong” but it’s called “a practice” for a reason. Even doing it “wrong” has benefits (namely, because you can’t really mess it up…but you also do get better with time).
Find a calm place to sit comfortably and close your eyes focusing on your breathing. There are many ways to meditate, including focusing on a mantra or focusing on your breath, but in the end, as long as you find it works for you, you can’t go wrong. While you may find your mind wandering, the important thing is to notice that it wandered and bring your attention back to your intended focus, whether it’s your breathing or a mantra. Ultimately, you will find that your attention skills, your ability to dedicate 100% focus to problems, and your ability to calm yourself and appreciate the moment will improve, in addition to stress related issues like worry/anxiety, migraines, sleeplessness etc.
Consider utilizing the Muse Headband, which is a great meditation aid that helps guide you to a calm mind.
Find a quiet place – the more distractions, the harder it is to focus on the focal point of your practice. Give yourself a chance by making the environment conducive to meditation. (imagine learning to run on ice – you would think you’re bad at it right away but really, you just started in really challenging conditions).
Use a guided meditation app – there are a litany of them for Apple and Android products. Common ones like Calm and Headspace are great, but test them out and see what works for you!
Start with 5 minutes and work your way up. Sitting quietly is not what we’ve grown accustomed to doing so it takes practice. Just like learning to run, start small and build.
Related Article: 7 Tips To Get You Sleeping Again
The Power of Unplugging
Even when you aren’t looking at your phone, there’s a good chance that on some level your brain is monitoring for a beep or a buzz. The constant distraction of our electronics makes it incredibly difficult to focus on the task at hand. Imagine you were trying to get better at running but every time you went for a jog you ran into a friend and had a conversation every 4 minutes. The constant interruption to your jog would make it hard for you to get a good pace to train your body.
When you answer emails or texts or scroll Instagram and Facebook, it interrupts your brain’s thinking in the same way. And similar to stopping and starting your jog repeatedly, it takes you a little while to get back into the same work flow you were in before the interruption. Severing your mobile device dependency will help eliminate distractions and let your brain get into a deep and meaningful thought, which is needed to produce effective work outputs.
Create boundaries for yourself – designate a time in the morning and a time in the afternoon to check and respond to emails, texts, etc. If there is a contact or message that you’re waiting for that’s urgent, put your phone on do not disturb and use the settings to ensure that particular contact can still notify you.
If you are struggling with the will power to not check your phone or Facebook, use an app that restricts websites and notifications.
While I acknowledge that I am likely preaching to the converted, exercise could not be left off this list. Your body is a reflection of how you live, and incidentally, so is your brain. So it’s not totally surprising that exercise can have great brain boosting benefits that are similar to the effects of meditation. Exercise, while technically a stressor, builds stress restraining brain centres and invokes parasympathetic activation as a compensatory reflex after your sweat. To kill two birds with one stone (sort of ironic in a mindfulness article detailing the downsides of multitasking…) you can add a more deliberately mindful element to your exercise routine by making a couple tweaks.
Tips for mindful exercise:
Leave the tunes at home! We often use music as an external motivator to get our butts out the door and keep moving one foot in from of the next when we feel like walking – we use it as a distraction from the visceral experience of pushing our bodies physically. As a more mindful practice, try exercising without music and tune in to the sensations of your body like the rhythm of your breathing, and find a quietness in your thoughts.
Exercise outside – I’ve written about the benefits of being in nature and this is extremely true of exercise in the context of mindfulness. Take in the sites and sounds of your run, bike, swim, skip (skip?) through trails or over snow. A calmness and different sense of satisfaction with your workout will follow.
Forget the log book – since many people exercise to see changes in their body, it can become a source of stress itself. Trying to find a time to get that training run in to stay on pace for an upcoming half-marathon or just feeling negative about a week that you haven’t made it into the gym, can have the opposite consequences as those we intend when we exercise. Even if you’re training for something, leave the gadgets at home and experience the love of your body in motion. Feel the feelings of a fast run, or an efficient stroke: numbers may be helpful for checking in but it’s also easy to get lost in the data and forget how great it feels to put in a good effort.
Track your fitness gains with the sleek and stylish Motiv Fitness Ring.
Related Article: Exercise Induced Sleep Improvements
Actively being grateful, either privately or publicly, trains your brain to look for positive aspects of an interaction or situation. Over time, as you flex this brain pathway more, the positive framing of events becomes the default way your brain interprets or responds to scenarios. This doesn’t mean lying to yourself about something that didn’t go right, but simply putting more deliberate emphasis on the positive elements of a scenario that can easily be ignored, forgotten, or otherwise lost in the shuffle. This is done largely through forming stronger neural networks in the same regions responsible for executive function (the process is scientifically referred to as “cognitive reappraisal”). Forging these pathways also promotes resilience and minimizes stress experiences, positively influencing health, function, and well-being.
Gratitude journal – start or end your day with a gratitude journal. Be specific and genuine (it’s up to you if anyone ever sees it….) and really try to dive deep into the important things other people have done for you, opportunities you’ve had, or simple pleasures you get to enjoy. Personally, I like the 5-minute journal (https://www.intelligentchange.com/products/the-five-minute-journal) because it’s simple and is a really easy and cohesive start and end to my day.
Write letters – If you’re like me, it took a village to make you who you are and to get you where you are. For most of us, even if we appreciate the important roles or contributions other people have had to our paths in life, we don’t say it out loud or adequately celebrate what they’ve done for us. Writing unsolicited letters to those people can be a really great way of staying in touch, making people know how much they’ve meant to you, and I dare you to not feel great after! It’s also contagious! When you are appreciative of someone, you’re more likely to do nice things for others and they’re more likely to do additional nice things for other people! Win x3.
While it can feel like mindfulness is making a full fledged blitz on our society these days, it really is one of the trends that is rooted in science, tradition, and is totally accessible to everyone. Give it a chance with one (or better yet, all) of these mindful endeavours that resonates with you and see what all the fuss is about! My guess is that if you approach mindfulness with an open mind, even the biggest skeptics can be converted.
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