It feels like it’s been a long winter but now March has arrived – and with it, the promise of spring, harking to lighter nights and better weather. (Although looking out of the window of late, on the snowy Manchester street below, where the latest winter storm is blowing a gale, I’m sure I’d be forgiven for being a tad skeptical!)
Traditionally, at this time of year, we tend to look towards having a good spring clean. Our homes get makeovers – so do our wardrobes, as is often the case. But why stop there? Wouldn’t it be fabulous to clean out the old grey matter and move forward into spring with a renewed, fresher perspective? Head this way for tips on how your mind can hit refresh.
MIND THE GAP
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel the health and wellbeing industry is taking a mindful shift towards mindfulness practices. They keep popping up on social media, TV, magazines – everyone seems to be pushing them. But is this just another trend doing the rounds? And, more importantly, do they work?
In short, after studying numerous articles/books/podcasts etc and having a go for myself, I can tell you they are so worth it and they definitely work. But don’t just take my word for it, there’s a whole host of doctors, scientists and wellbeing experts telling us this is one practice we all really need to be doing daily. Our entire health literally depends upon it.
Today, we live our lives in such a fast paced way. Modern life can be majorly stressful. There’s the juggling of family life/caring for others or simply gaining a work/life balance. Everything is on demand. Information is constantly at our fingertips. Work emails pinging on your phone late at night, social media being a constant distraction, catch up TV, to-do lists for your to-do lists… There seems to be no ‘off switch’ and the ‘blue light’ these devices emit plays havoc with your brain. It’s no wonder we can easily get carried along with it – to the point of burn out.
A recent study claims the human attention span has gone from 12 seconds to now less than that of a goldfish (8 Seconds) and it’s all due to our overuse of digital technology.
It is also said office workers now only get 11 minutes between interruptions. When you bear in mind it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the same level of the original task after an interruption, well it’s no wonder we can often feel overwhelmed by our schedules.
Of course, stress is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around in its many incarnations pretty much since the dawn of time. Our ancestors would have dealt with daily stresses too – albeit differing somewhat from our own. Being attacked by a sabre toothed tiger whilst out hunting, springs to mind. But they would also have had periods of ‘downtime’ where they had the opportunity to talk and relax. To let the body recover. Effectively, to de-stress. They obviously were without today’s technological distractions too. This is where modern life falls short.
To relax, or not?
Nowadays, relaxation often seems like a luxury we can ill afford. We claim to be so time poor these days. Always racing around with things to do and not enough minutes in which to do them. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s all about prioritising. Working smarter, not harder. Is it absolutely essential to be reading your social media feeds every time a notification lights your screen? or could you be using that time more wisely, say, to benefit your health?
The importance of making time to relax
There’s a plethora of health benefits from simply incorporating some relaxation and mindfulness into our daily lives. It not only has a proven direct impact on reducing our stress levels and balancing our outlook. It also affects our weight loss, promotes better sleep, the ability to concentrate and our mental health, amongst many others. Our bodies are hugely connected machines – when one cog is out of sync, it has a massive impact on the rest of the machine.
We can apply mindfulness to every area of our lives and gain some enrichment in return. For example, what happens when you take one of life’s knocks? Firstly, it probably will affect your very reaction to the situation itself. That’s pretty natural. It is also highly likely to affect your mood, perhaps even for the remainder of the day. It may also go so far as to affect your food choices.
Put simply: If you get upset by a person or event, are you likely to be mindful, not get stressed and make healthy choices come meal times? Or will you do what the vast majority of us would do and feel angered then opt for comfort food or alcohol because we’ve ‘had a bad day’ or ‘we deserve’ it? It won’t make you feel good in the long run. This also has a knock on effect on your weight – which, inevitably, leads to a downward spiral of mood. See where this is going?
By being aware and mindful of your thoughts and emotions, you are effectively arming yourself to be more in control of not only your reactions but to all the choices you make going forwards.
On a daily basis, it’s absolutely crucial to hit the ‘off switch’. Putting the brakes on our busy lives and making a little time for us, as I said it is critical to both our mental and physical health. We need to calm our minds and nourish our souls. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes at a time. This is one practice we simply need to be including into our busy days.
Before I get an eye roll, let me tell you this is no hippy dippy approach either. It may seem like (yet another) passing fad, but it’s one that has actually been present for thousands of years and that even science backs up. Practicing mindfulness helps people manage their mental health themselves and makes us simply feel happier. Perhaps surprisingly, it can also make us more productive too. So go ahead, turn off those social media notifications. What’s the worst that can happen? Also you could set an alarm each hour to remind you to take some time out for you. You’ll really reap the benefits.
To practice mindfulness you don’t have to sit cross-legged in a Zen garden saying ‘OM’ to a water fountain, to get a little headspace. Unless, you want to, of course. There’s a plethora of practices you can choose from and dozens of apps to assist (see the list at the bottom of the page), in order to gain some calm into your hectic life and give a little nourishment to your soul.
From meditation, breathing techniques, practicing pockets of silence, stillness, writing a journal, digital detox’s, random acts of kindness, gratitude lists… this is one list that goes on and on. It’s all about taking some time out for you to gain a little perspective.
Several years ago I came across a ‘light & sound’ device called The Little Calm Machine. It was in association with Paul Wilson, the guy who sold over 10 million copies of his ‘ Little book of Calm’. The user wears a set of glasses with gently pulsing lights in them which tap into your brains rhythms, whilst listening to a ‘Guided Journey to Calm’ track. The voice is very soothing and the results are surprising.
You are gently lulled into such a deep state of calm that there’s just deep, black space and nothing else. Just a big, black void. It’s unbelievably relaxing and a wonderful place to visit. I’ve no idea if these machines are still available but they retailed at around £250 at the time, I believe. Not to everyone’s pocket, I grant you. But what if you don’t necessarily need to shell out to experience the personal rewards that getting into a state of calm or just being present can offer? There are many ways to do this and for the most part, they’re free! I’ve covered just a few here for you…
So what is Mindfulness?
Put simply, it’s a technique where you bring your attention to what is happening in the present moment. Forget about all the things you have to do in 10 minutes or tomorrow. Or who needs what from you now. It’s about focusing on this moment. On what is happening in your body, your mind, your surroundings or even just with your breathing right now. It’s non-judgemental and there’s no pressure on you to get it right. If your mind wanders, simply bring it back to the moment. Mindfulness gives us the headspace to approach things in a calmer, more focused and less reactive way.
As convenient as it may seem to live in a world where we can be reached at all times and have a universe of information at the touch of a button. It’s not always a good thing. It’s rare we are able to go ‘incommunicado’. The practice of simply detaching and being in the moment can be a real challenge in our busy lives, but the benefits of practicing presence are immense.
It’s not only about those personal health gains I spoke of earlier. It can build relationships, reduce techno-addictions, improve cognitive function…it’s an impressive list that goes on. When someone is talking to you don’t allow yourself to think about other things, instead be in the moment – focus on what they are saying and listen intently. You may even learn something!
Some people struggle with even the idea of meditation and mindfulness. The notion of just sitting still when you have a thousand other things you could be doing, can be one that puts people off the practice. But the beauty of practicing mindfulness is your body doesn’t have to be perfectly still to practice it or reap its benefits.
Moving mindfulness is basically being aware of your body’s movements and breath for a designated period of time. You can simply go for a walk and be mindful of your stride, breathing and surroundings.
But many people find Yoga and Pilates beneficial. Because you really have to concentrate on the poses and breathing, you are totally in the moment and not thinking about what’s going to be happening in an hour.
But if you are okay with sitting still for a few minutes or you have no idea where to start on your mindful journey, why not just try practicing a few breathing techniques? Meditation or focusing on breathing has been proven to reduce anxiety. It’s unbelievably calming and incredibly easy to do.
To start you could breathe in for 3, hold for 4, breathe out for 5. Simple as that. Or try breathing in fresh ‘positive’ air deeply into your lungs, back and stomach then expelling all the stale ‘negative’ air out. Focusing on the breath: in with the good, out with the bad. Imagine positive thoughts coming in, negative thoughts being expelled out. Try this for a few minutes and see how much calmer it makes you feel. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, just breathe and focus on that.
This can also be a very useful tool to make you be less reactive when life throws its inevitable curveballs your way. Instead of being quick to react, just take a few deep breaths in and out.
Pockets of Silence
This is one that many may struggle with but it’s worth a try. Switching off all devices so there are no noise disturbances – even just for 5 minutes, is a healthy practice. It restores the nervous system, aids concentration and helps sustain energy. This practice can help you to perform better at home, at work and within your self.
Something else which has been proven to improve our mental wellbeing is writing a gratitude list or keeping a journal. Journals are great as they get your thoughts out of your head clearing space for new, fresh thoughts to come in.
But you don’t even have to write anything down at all to benefit. You can simply think of the things which you are grateful for. Mix them up each day.
Do whatever suits you. There’s no pressure. I tend to practice this as I am walking my dog. As I’m plodding along, I just think of at least 3 things I am grateful for each day. They can be big or small, you decide. Like the saying goes “Every day may not be good, but there is good in every day”.
I also find this is a great time for practicing mindfulness – taking pleasure in the detail of the moment. For example, taking a little bit of time out of my busy day to walk my dog gives me both gratitude and makes me mindful (and I get extra exercise in the process – which alone produces the happy hormone, Seratonin!).
I notice the little details like how my little pup trots happily along with his tail wagging and one ear flopping about. He’s not thinking about what’s happening later, he’s enjoying the moment. The NOW. It just makes me smile – even on my most stressful of days. I just love how happy he looks!
Why don’t you try it now? Take notice of the detail of your surroundings for a few moments. Think of 3 things that you feel grateful for. Remember, life really is a blessing and there are so many beautiful reasons to be happy. Simply count them!
A family affair
You can even practice mindfulness and being in the moment around the dining table with your family. It’s as easy as engaging in conversation. By asking ‘What have you learned today?’, ‘What has made you happy?’, ‘What have you done that made someone else happy?’ That sort of thing. It makes you instantly feel better. You’re in the moment, listening and communicating and feeling gratitude. 3-in-1 mindful targets – smashed!
In our modern world, there seems to be so many people who can’t see past their preoccupation with their own lives. It’s often not intentional either. We’re just so busy. Also for many their first reaction – the easiest reaction, is to criticise, condemn or complain. But just stop for a moment before you say anything. Have you ever thought what the impact of a kind word or gesture may have on someone who is having a really hard day? Say something encouraging to them and see the difference. It really can be amazing. Remember, what you give out you also attract –there may come a time when someones kind words may give you the boost you seek.
Research indicates that helping others – without any agenda of our own – can be beneficial to our own mental health. It reduces stress, improves emotional wellbeing and may even benefit our physical health. Be the change you wish to see in the world.
I feel good
Participating in random acts of kindness has a two-fold positive effect. It not only makes US feel pretty good because we’ve done something nice for another, but that small gesture, may have a hugely positive impact upon the life of the other person, who may be having a difficult time. By undertaking this selfless act, it sends out ripples of positivity to the wider world. In essence, you are giving and receiving an unconditional, no strings attached form of love.
Kindness has the power to change how people see and experience the world. When it comes from a place of generosity without any expectation of anything in return, it is magical. A simple random act of kindness could prove to be life-saving to the recipient. These little acts have the ability to create waves of positive change to people’s lives.
Small change. Big difference.
They don’t have to be grand gestures either. Small changes can make a big difference. Some examples might be: picking up some groceries for an elderly neighbour; buy a homeless person lunch or just engage in conversation with them; smile at someone and say good morning just because; help a parent struggling with their pushchair; hold a door open for someone; donate time/money to a charity; pay someone a compliment; give a hug to someone who needs it…the possibilities literally are endless. Go on, make the world a kinder place and spread some happiness today!
I witnessed this first hand during the weeks after the Manchester Arena attack last year. At the memorial in St Anne’s Square, strangers were giving each other a comforting hug. Sharing grief and spreading love. Someone did it to me and it was just what I needed at that moment. So I did it to another lady, as she was in floods of tears. It was witnessing humanity at its best, overcoming the worst. It was wonderful to see and to be a part of. (Read more about this in my blog here).
My own random act of kindness
Since I started writing this piece, I have inspired myself to do a random act of kindness. I regularly buy homeless people a drink and look out for my elderly neighbours. Now, I have also signed up to a ‘Mighty Hike’ for Macmillan Cancer Care in July. I will be hiking 26 miles across the South Coast of Britain to raise money. And I’ve never hiked before. Thinking about it, it is a little spontaneous and crazy – but knowing without people doing such acts they couldn’t carry out the essential work they do. So I already feel good for signing up – just got to convince my knees it’s a good idea now! Eek! (If you wish to sponsor me in my quest you can do so here – I would be so grateful).
This may seem like the flip side of the above. It may also not come naturally to many of you reading this (especially the carers amongst us) yet for others it will be a breeze. But we really should be more selfish. Yep, you read that right. Just by taking time out (ideally 15 minutes) for ourselves, can have such a powerfully positive effect on our wellbeing. Take yourself off to a café, read a magazine or book, dance like no-one’s watching, paint, go for a walk, practice yoga, sing, do some gardening, play an instrument. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you enjoy doing it.
Being selfish may seem like odd advice, but it’s imperative you take this time for yourself. It nourishes the soul and can make a huge difference to your health. As with many other factors of modern life, it’s all related to stress levels and in our massively connected bodies, one thing has a knock on effect to another. Once we effectively manage our stress we find we are actually more efficient, healthy and productive in other areas.
Whenever you have a goal, it’s a good idea to incorporate an accountability element. It keeps you motivated and on target. Many groups already incorporate this into their membership. For example, slimming groups ask you to weigh in each week: this is you being accountable for your actions of what you’ve consumed, over the course of that week.
Buddying up with someone, who checks in with you daily, is often a great idea too, to keep up those healthy habits your aiming for. You can even hold yourself accountable for your own health goals if you’re strong enough to see them through. After all, its you that you will be letting down if you fail…
But we can do so much more and have far wider impact, if we only were to use our minds. Here’s a thought for you: just imagine if we, as individuals, were each actively conscious in taking responsibility for our own health…
If we chose to look after ourselves efficiently; incorporating ‘down-time’ to distress our minds; feeding our bodies wholesome, nourishing foods instead of processed junk; incorporating movement into our days; getting a sound nights sleep. We could propel the NHS out of the sorry state we’ve put it in. Just think about that for a second. Now, that’s accountability.
It all has to start somewhere and being mindful is a really good a place to start, as – in that connected body I spoke of – it affects every other area of our lives.
Final words, then Om…
There are a zillion other ways to take time out for yourself and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. I have only touched the surface here. But I’m sure you get the idea. By making this practice a part of your daily life – and being accountable to do it, you are dramatically improving your own health and wellbeing and that, in itself, will have a positive impact on those around you.
So go on, show yourself a little love. You are so worth it!
PS Don’t forget to let me know how you get on in your mindful, self love practices!
Apps for Mindfulness & Meditation :
There are many apps out there you can choose from but here are just a selection of some really popular ones:
The Mindfulness App
Simple Habit – meditation
Stop, Breathe & Think
Meditation Pro Timer
Basic Mindfulness Meditation
3 minute Mindfulness
Midfulness: The art of being human