If you pay a little attention as you go through your week, you might notice yourself living in "What if" land. You'll know you're there because you will be having thoughts like:
I don't know a single person who doesn't have thoughts likes these, so don't feel bad if you have them! The funny thing is though, if you do have these thoughts, then you likely are making yourself feel bad. By wishing things to be different, you are doing two things:
If you can change this "What if" thinking into "What is" thinking, you bring acceptance to yourself and the situation. You are starting where you are, and not from a place of lacking (I/This is not good enough).
Examples of "What is" thinking are:
Set a reminder to check in with yourself as you go through each day, and if you find yourself "What iff-ing", change it to "What is", see how different you feel.
“You'll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that.”
What happens in the privacy of our minds often remains unquestioned, we tend to believe every thought we have. Why is this a problem? Because our thoughts are so easily influenced by our moods.
Imagine this scenario: You didn't get a great sleep last night, then, in work, you're told you didn't get the pay rise you had requested. You walk down the street at lunchtime and see a friend on the other side of the street, you wave but she doesn't respond. Given your already crappy day what are you likely to think? "I must have upset her"; "She must not like me any more"; "She's so rude!"
Now imagine this scenario: You slept like a baby last night and bounce in to work feeling energetic. You meet with HR and they tell you you got the pay rise you requested and they thank you for the great job you're doing. On your way to lunch you see a friend across the street and you wave, she doesn't respond. In your good mood you might think: "Ah she mustn't have seen me"; or "Gosh that's not like her to pass me, I must check in with her to see if she's ok".
When we are in a negative mood, our thoughts can follow suit. Negative thoughts lead to a more negative mood, and the cycle continues. The opposite is true for the positive mood and thoughts.
Remember this as you go though your day, and see if you can hold your thoughts lightly, question them to see if they are really true, or if they are a reflection of your mood. Questioning your thoughts gives you back control over your day, and stop the cycle of negaitivity.
"In mindfulness, we give our thoughts less importance. We know that while our thoughts can be useful, they can also be deceptive and unhelpful. One of the benefits of practising mindfulness is that your thoughts begin to take their proper place in your life. They become the servant and not the master."
The 3 Minute Breathing Space is a fundamental part of all mindfulness programs. It trains us to step out of the auto-pilot mode we spend so much of our time in, and see where we are at inside.
Checking in with our internal weather in this way opens up the opportunity to make adjustments as necessary. If we find we are stuck in thoughts of the past, or worries about the future, we can reconnect with the present moment. If we find some areas of the body are holding tension, we can invite the breath to relax those areas.
Set a reminder on your phone or smart watch to pause for a 3 Step Breathing Space at least 3 times a day, and if you feel a strong emotion, see if you can remember to use the practice.
Step 1 - Become aware of your inner experience in this moment.
What thoughts are in your mind? As best you can, see them as mental events, don't get involved with them. Label them, 'thinking'.
What feelings are present? Acknowledge whatever is present, and if it's unpleasant, try to turn toward it, and not away.
What sensations are in the body? Quickly scan the body to see what you notice, are there any sensations of tightness or contraction?
Step 2 - Focus your attention on the breath at the abdomen.
As best you can, focus on the sensations in the abdomen as it rises and falls with the breath. Remain here for at least three full breaths. If the mind wanders, gently and kindly bring it back to the breath.
Step 3 - Expand the attention to the body as a whole. Expand the attention again to include the body in the room and any sensations of touch or pressure on your chair or the floor. Gradually begin to open your attention to sounds in the room, the feeling of the air around you, and when you're ready, open the eyes and continue with your day.
"The breathing space sets us up to encounter life in a different frame of mind, coming fully home to the present, rather than just giving ourselves a break from thinking." - Teasdale, Williams, & Segal
A simple way to calm down from a stressful event, or during an anxiety attack, is to use something you always have with you–your breath.
When we are stressed the Sympathetic Nervous System is activated, this is the body's ancient method of helping keep us safe; if we met a predator in the old hunter-gatherer days, we had 3 options: to fight them, flee from them, or freeze (play dead). We are no longer hunted by wild boar, but the body responds in the same way to any perceived threat, real or imaginary. The same systems are activated whether we are in a fender bender, or a friend blanks us on the street.
You can probably tell your Sympathetic Nervous System is activated if your heart rate has sped up, your breath has quickened, and possibly your limbs are tingling or shaking (they're ready to sprint to safety!).
In the old days, once the threat disappeared, the Parasympathetic Nervous System would kick in and restore balance. This system reduces the heart rate and blood pressure, returning the body to a relaxed state. Now however, our faster pace of life can have us in a low level of stress, making it more difficult for the Parasympathetic Nervous System to do it's thing. We can add to this by keeping the threat alive in our minds, replaying the scenario over and over in our heads. The body doesn't know the difference between a thought and reality, so it responds in the same way, activating the Sympathetic Nervous System active against the perceived threat.
A simple way to calm down is by making the exhale longer than the inhale. Doing this, you consciously activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, telling the body it's safe to relax, the threat is gone, all is well.
If you count the breath as you go, your mind is kept busy and doesn't have time to go over the event, keeping it alive in your thoughts.
The next time you find yourself feeling stressed, or after an upsetting event, thy this:
"If prolonged, however, the stress signals whizzing through the body wreak havoc. Besides maintaining a mental feeling of constant stress, the extra epinephrine and cortisol damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure and promote a buildup of fat. So, while the fight-or-flight response serves a purpose, you don't want it switched on all the time." - Live Science
One of the major contributors to anxiety is the habit of worrying about, or trying to predict the future. We might think we are being sensible, we might think if we can plan ahead enough we can prevent things from going wrong, and keep ourselves and our loved ones save from harm.
Of course, a little bit of forward thinking has it's uses--e.g., if you're going on holiday get travel insurance, regularly check your car tyres, oil, and water (or get your Dad to do it like I do...:)), eat healthy foods and take some exercise. Taking actions like these make sense, they help put your best foot forward.
However, many of us can stay stuck in a place of fortune telling, and this actually has the opposite of the desired effect. It's tiring, stressful to mind and body, and it can have us in such a state of fear that we become afraid to life life to the full. Th irony is that being stressed out, exhausted, and fearful will make the world seems like a more dangerous and dark place, so it's actually making your fears come true!
This week, take a mindful pause several times a day (I set a reminder on my watch so I don't forget), and check in with your thoughts.
If you find yourself fortune telling, STOP.
Ask yourself if there is anything practical or helpful you can do to help whatever you are thinking or worrying about.
If there is, do it, or make a note to do it later.
If there isn't, let it go. It's robbing you of the present moment, and this moment IS your life.
"How much pain have cost us the evils that have never happened." - Thomas Jefferson
Christmas can be a time of great joy and fun, for family and friends, for Santa and presents, for contemplation and prayer. But for some, it can be a time for sadness, for people who are no longer with us, for a holiday spent alone, for worry about finances.
For all of us, no matter what our circumstances, we can find solace in this very moment, the one we are in right now. If we can take a step back from the stories in our minds, the worries in our heads, the sadness in our hearts, -- breathe deep, and open ourselves to the potential in each moment. Then perhaps we can remember that each moment has the capacity for goodness and love, for forgiveness and healing, for possibility and hope. The past does not write the future, you do.
Merry Christmas and Love to everyone.
“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” ―Edna Ferber
It's that time of year again, and the to-do list might be looking quite long at the moment! It's very busy out and about, and during some time out in the stores yesterday I saw more than a few frayed tempers! A lady swore at me (in front of children) for getting in her way, and the cashier in the supermarket told me she couldn't wait for the day to end as so many people had been rude to her that day.
I get it, crowded streets and shops, combined with the pressure of a never-ending to-do list form the perfect recipe for bad moods and short fuses, AND a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness.
As we go about our Christmas business, would it be possible to check in every hour or so to see how the mood is?
If we find it's darkening, perhaps we could pause, take a belly breath, and remind ourselves spirit of Christmas - to share love and joy with family and friends. Make this feeling alive in your body, feel the warmth of it.
Then perhaps it would be possible to soften the hard edges of anger and frustration, and see the humanity in each other - the cashier in the shop, the stranger in your way, the old lady counting out change at the till?
See what a difference this attitude can have, not only for you, but for everyone.
“If you can't find the spirit of the holidays in your heart, you'll never find it under a tree.” - Michael Holbrook
When you feel tension in the body or in your thoughts, spend a minute (or longer if you have it) doing the following:
This really simple exercise works to bring equilibrium back to the nervous system, and you can do it anywhere!
"When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace." ~ Author Unknown
Instructions for "Tight Spots"
We are entering a busy time of year, I have noticed the traffic in Galway begin to increase this past week, as well as the queues in the shops! Being stuck in traffic, or standing in a queue, are great opportunities to practice mindfulness and let a little stress go. It's not serving you, it never makes your day better, so let it go.
Set a reminder to do this practice several times a day wherever you are, and you'll notice the benefits.
Remember, the more often you do it, the more natural it will be come, and you will find your stress diminish over time, and your mindful calm increase.
"...the brain changes physically in response to experience, and new mental skills can be acquired with intentional effort, with focused awareness and concentration. Experience activates neural firing, which in turn leads to the production of proteins that enable new connections to be made among neutrons, in the process called neuroplasticity." Daniel Siegel
Instructions for "Breaking Old Patterns":
For the past minute, you have practiced being in control of your 'monkey mind'. You have promoted relaxation, and improved your focus.
Aim to do this several times a day for the next week. (It may help to set a reminder on your phone.) Each time you practice, know that you are doing a little more to break the habits of your automatic thinking, and take control of your life.
If you have any questions about Breaking Old Patterns, email me!
Neuroscience research shows that "neurons that fire together, wire together" (Hebb, 2009). Like a path worn in grass, neuronal pathways strengthen with repetitive use. Mindfulness practice is your opportunity to establish healthy pathways in your brain, so it no longer chooses default responses such as anger, anxiety, stress, or fear.
The Weekly Minute is a blog I write each week with the aim of providing legitimate tools to help promote positive mental health.
The collection of short, practical mindfulness and therapy tools for self-reflection and self-improvement, can equip people to take their mental well-being into their own hands, and improve their quality of life.
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