The Beauty of Mindfulness

What do you think about when you hear the word mindfulness? Not losing your mind, being quiet, being attuned to social cues, or staying in the present?

Mindfulness as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is the “quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; or the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”.

Why would someone exercise this practice at all?

In a person’s average day, thoughts and feelings that surface are appraised as either positive or negative. The thoughts and feelings appraised as negative typically are suppressed or avoided, which affirms them as powerful. This affirmation helps the thoughts and feelings develop into a disruptive part of a person’s framework. In the wake, lots of energy is spent on avoiding those negative thoughts and feelings at any cost. That can mean staying home, not engaging in enjoyable activities, or even self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness does not just help you relax, although that ultimately happens, but it also helps you acknowledge and accept the real time experiences in your mind and body without judging yourself for it. The hope is that as you acknowledge, accept and stop struggling to control every sensation, thought, or feeling, you realize its only a process that will pass on like a leaf floating on a stream. With enough practice, individuals can gain self-compassion and break the cycle of avoiding and self-medicating, which only maintains what could ultimately become anxiety or depression.

If you are calm, mindfulness can be relatively straightforward. And while it can be learned in many different ways, breathing exercises or eating exercises are probably the most common way to start. These exercises help slow down the restless mind and create an opportunity to focus on the simple act itself. During a breathing exercise, for example, individuals may be encouraged to be conscious of how the chest rises at inhale and falls at exhale, the temperature of the breath, the cold air as you breath in, the hot air as you breath out, the feeling of your arms hanging on your shoulders, or your bottom on a chair or on the floor. If thoughts arise during a breathing exercise, individuals are encouraged to look at them as non-judgmental observers, not trying to get rid of them or classifying them as good or bad, but just letting them pass on.

Mindfulness may not be as easy when you are not in a peaceful state of mind. Whether you are dealing with an overall feeling of anxiety, a specific trigger, or a fear of losing control, for example, mindfulness can require a great amount of discipline. And in the same vein, if negative thoughts arise during the actual mindfulness exercise, it’s easy for the person to become defensive and lose the intent of the exercise. However, it is these times that are arguably the most important to stay dedicated and re-center on the exercise itself and be a non-judgmental observer.

 

Emotional Fitness

“Let go of your stress and smile!” shouted the aerobics instructor over the loud music as she cheerfully encouraged the class to follow her lead. My first couple of negative thoughts were, “Are you kidding me? I’m lucky I made it here, and I’m not in a good mood because I’m really behind on several things that I had to set aside just to make it to class!” I won’t go into detail about my other negative thoughts but suffice it to say that I was tired, irritated, and stretched beyond capacity. As I mustered through the workout I wondered, “How did I let this happen?” I’m usually very good at time management but somehow I slipped this time around, and I was not in a good place.

Have you ever been there too?  You know, where your thoughts are racing a million miles a minute, time is running out, and it seems there’s absolutely nothing you can do to catch up???

As I looked around the room, I wondered if others were experiencing the same thing. There were a few individuals who looked intense—those who were at the front of the class—but others seemed to actually be enjoying themselves in the moment. I’m usually part of that latter group but not today. What happened?

Thinking back over the week, I began to realize where I detoured: I watched a little extra TV a few days, I volunteered to help a friend at the last minute, and one night I stayed up late surfing the Web. While none of these things are detrimental in and of themselves, when added together they inevitably worked against me. Although I had fun doing each of them at the time, in the end I paid for it—dearly. As I said before, I wasn’t in a good place.

Yet right on time my compassion reflex kicked it and as I sent myself positive messages (“You made a good choice to focus on your health,” and “You are getting back on track”), I felt my mind and body slowly begin to let go of the anxiety and tension, and I was able to focus on the workout with thoughts of getting healthy and feeling better. Once I realized I didn’t feel so stressed, I began enjoying myself and wouldn’t you know it—I actually smiled. I guess the aerobics instructor wasn’t too far off after all.

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Reflecting back later that day, I recalled two important life skills: boundaries and mindfulness.

While exercising relieves stress and keeps us physically fit, practicing boundaries and mindfulness results in improved emotional fitness. When we establish healthy boundaries, we inevitably protect ourselves, which enables us to be responsible stewards over such things as our time. In turn, having healthy boundaries frees us up to practice mindfulness—having the capacity to be present in the moment and to connect with our senses and the environment around us. Good self-care not only includes taking care of our physical bodies but also requires active management of our emotional health. When we make both priorities, we ultimately safeguard our well-being which results in a manageable and balanced life. Are we always going to be perfect in practicing good self-care? No, my account above shows anyone can make a mistake from time to time, but the key is to recognize when you begin to take a detour and then take intentional steps to re-route yourself back to the skills that will help you to restore your emotional fitness.

Building (and rebuilding) Balance

Balance in our lives is NOT a destination, meaning that once we arrive, we are done.  It is not a static goal we achieve and then maintain forever.

I like to call it “building” balance; as opposed to “achieving” balance—because like building a house, it is a work in progress, it requires maintenance, and occasionally needs reworking.   So how do we “build” this elusive thing called balance?

1)     Stay Present.  Live in the moment instead of fretting about yesterday or worrying  about tomorrow.  If you feel angry about something—feel the anger and work through it.  When you feel joyful about something, embrace the joy fully.

2)  Stop the “Spinning”.  Learn to recognize an manage your internal conflicts. (Anything that disturbs your inner peace, such as unnecessary guilt, excessive worry, unhealthy people pleasing, etc).  Be honest about who you really are and don’t be afraid to stray from the norm.  Live life according to your core beliefs.

3)  Simplify Your Life.  The more “stuff” we have and the more activities we have to manage, makes it more difficult to find just the right balance.  Learn to set appropriate and healthy boundaries for yourself.  This means allowing yourself to say “no” when necessary without feeling guilty!

4)  Know What You Want.  Take time to know WHO you are first.  Figure out what you value, by examining each aspect of your “self.”  Make active choices that lead you toward balance.  If your choices don’t line up with who you are and what you value, then you are not holding fast to your own integrity and your life will feel out of balance.

5)  Nurture Your Spirit and Embrace Love.  We all have a spiritual element to our being and with that comes an innate need to love and be loved.  With all the ups and downs in life, love is the gift that balances it all and brings us back toward a more peaceful state.  Exercise your faith.  Enjoy nature.  Keep your soul filled with positive and inspiring activities.  Be brave enough to let go of activities and relationships that squelch your spirit and prevent you from being your authentic self.  It is then we will be able to give generously of ourselves.

Balance is a fluid state that changes from day to day.  Just like the ocean tide moves in and out, look at whether your life is moving away from or toward balance.

Assess it over a period of time—one or two stressful days here and there does not mean your life is out of balance.  BUT, if chaos is the norm for you, try some of these ideas!

Hopefully, it will be a good “jumpstart” toward building better balance in your life.

Life Lessons From My Lab (George) #3: Enjoy Every Moment

GeorgeDog#3

I walked into our back room to find our dog, George, frozen in front of the window. Every muscle in his body was tense and his concentration was locked in on something in the lower windowpane.   I was surprised that he didn’t turn his attention to me as I strolled through the doorway. No, at this moment he was 100% focused on the thing that had his attention. Very slowly, George inched forward, careful not to spook the tiny black speck on the glass. I almost busted into a belly laugh when I realized what George was doing.   My hundred pound yellow lab was, “hunting,” a house fly. I held in my laughter so I could watch as the pursuit unfolded in front of me. The small insect skittered a couple of inches across the pane and George’s nostrils flared a couple of times as he sniffed the bug.   Suddenly, the fly took flight, and in the same second, George’s jaws clamped down on the insect mid-flight. Almost immediately, George spit the fly out. He nudged it with his nose a couple of times, and cocked his head curiously to one side, but the fly didn’t move. I knew the, “hunt,” was over when George sighed and plopped down next to the window. He was successful. It was time to rest. He needed to regain his energy for the next big chase.

There was something about this entire scene that made me smile; and as I sat down to write this blog post I realized that I was smiling because of the way my goofy dog was demonstrating some of the mindfulness skills that I work on with my clients. If you are feeling stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed (emotionally, mentally, physically), and hurried, the following skills will help you to calm down and focus on what really matters NOW.

  • Prioritize – Really think about how you use your time. Does how you spend your time reflect what you truly value?
  • Use your senses – When we slow down enough to pay attention to each of our five senses, not only does it help us to relax, but it makes the task at hand more enjoyable. Touch, sight, taste, sound, smell
  • Don’t multitask- efficiency decreases when we try to multitask. Whether we are spending time with a friend, doing algebra homework, cleaning the house, or finishing a project, we will be more efficient when we focus our attention on one task at a time. You might find the task even more enjoyable.
  • Refocus your attention – When your attention wanders to something else, don’t beat yourself up. Just refocus… again, and again, and again.
  • Breathe – Taking deep breaths slows down our respiration, decreases our heart rate, and brings our blood pressure down. This helps us to stay present to the task at hand.
  • Practice – Don’t be discouraged if these seemingly simple skills prove to be hard to implement. Just like anything else, the more you practice mindfulness skills, the easier these skills will become.

The Anxious Athlete: Practical Techniques to Help Alleviate Your Child’s Fear

Every parent of a child who competes in any sporting event has most likely witnessed some level of pre-game jitters. Sports anxiety isn’t just for the professional athletes, especially considering the emphasis that our culture places on success and competition. That’s right, kids are more than just a little susceptible to pre-game pressure. This nervousness can either be channeled as a driving force of motivation or as a paralyzing numbness they can’t seem to shake. It’s important to remember that at least some degree of nervousness before and during a sporting event is completely normal. But, if the anxiety gets out of hand, there are a few strategies that may be helpful to alleviate the stress. Three of the simplest exercises associated with sports related performance anxiety are visualization, mindfulness, and breathing.

We’ll start with the easiest of the three- breathing. I know this sounds like a suspiciously simple solution, but when you help your player learn how to exhale effectively, you may be surprised at the outcome. Sports psychologists call this “performance exhaling”. Teach your child to experience the relaxation response that accompanies an intentional exhale. This technique can be useful in situations both on and off the field and can be practiced nearly every day. Once your child is able to associate the intentional exhale with relaxation, he or she can apply it during a game as a part of settling into the batter’s box or while approaching the free throw line.

This next technique involves visualization. Have you even been lining up a putt while thinking “don’t hit it left, you hit it left last time, don’t hit it left”? Chances are good that you ended up hitting it left. Think about it- the only information your brain was getting was left, left, left. Teach your child to 180o those thoughts and visualize what they DO want to do, instead of what they don’t want to do. When the night before the big game comes, encourage them to focus on and actively visualize not just hitting line drives, but the specifics of what goes into hitting that line drive: where the ball hits the bat, head down, elbow in, and “squishing” the bug with their back toe. Encouraging your child to visualize the positives, or what they would like to happen, also offers them that mental training that no amount of time in the cages can accomplish.

The third technique for reducing your child’s pre-game anxiety is mindfulness. I realize this concept sounds a bit “new age-y” or possibly too advanced for a younger child. I assure you- helping your child develop mindfulness in age-appropriate ways is an excellent strategy for regulating any emotion, including pre-game jitters. For most of the older kids, the act of being mindful involves not just intentional breathing and visualization, but being actively aware of these experiences. Encourage your child to pick a moment before a sporting event. This can be breakfast the morning of a big game, loading up on the bus before heading to the stadium, or crossing the white line while running out onto the field. This is the moment that all the tension, all the anxieties, all the fears get put on the back burner and focus is turned onto the task at hand. The act of narrowing down the field of focus can result in your child reaching a peak-performance state, or what pros call “the zone”.

Helping to ease your child’s sports related anxiety can be achieved in a lot of ways. Sometimes, a child may only need a reassuring smile to feel better before the big game, and the best way to get to know the needs of your child is by creating and maintaining open communication. Whether you’re raising a 6 year old athlete or a 16 year old athlete, helping to reduce the pre-game jitters using these techniques will instill in them personal coping skills that will last a lifetime.

How You Eat

How do you want to eat this year?

Notice that the question is not what do you want to eat but, rather, how do you want to eat?  Year after year, people approach this season of resolutions with a desire to lose weight, eat healthier, and get into an exercise routine.  This year, I’d like to challenge you to think less about what you are going to eat and more about how you are going to eat it!

Consider the difference:  If you are just changing what you eat, you may switch over to eating lots of leafy greens and heart-healthy fish.  However, if you rush through your meals, multi-task while eating in front of your computer, and choose to eat “FFCFFF” (my abbreviation for fat free, calorie free, flavor free) foods…You will NOT enjoy this new way of eating or achieve your goals.  In fact, I might argue that you’ll dread it and end up with the same frustrating end to next year.  So what can you do to change how you eat?  Start with the following practical tips:

•    Don’t multi-task while eating!  I know, I know…You are busy at work, there is laundry waiting, and the kids need help with their homework.  Pay attention to your food at a table (that’s the round thing in your dining room with all of the papers on it) and use a fork and knife (those are the silver tools that kids say look like a sword and pitchfork).  Set a timer for 10-15 minutes for your meal-time and see if you can eat….just eat…without cell-phones or distractions.  You might be surprised with the flavor and fullness that surrounds the eating experience.

•    Use your senses.  Remember those?  Sight, smell, touch, sound, and then taste.  The next time you pick up a sweet treat or salty snack, take 5 minutes to analyze the food according to your senses.  Pick up that piece of chocolate and describe what you see, smell, feel, and hear as you hold the tiny wrapper and open it.  Then, take a bite, close your eyes and let it melt in your mouth.  Maybe you won’t actually need another one once you’ve eaten this one mindfully.

•    Chew your food.  No, I’m not talking to you as if you’re five years old.  Research suggests that people who take a bite of food, put their fork down, and chew their food eat slower and, thus, take in less calories.  The extra time allows your brain time to signal to your stomach that you are full.  For the average person, this “full” signal typically takes 15 minutes.  By that time, most of us have overeaten and are on our way back to our to-do list while feeling like we ate too much.  So, if you’ll slow down and chew your food you may eat less and enjoy it more!

•    Recruit a fellow-eater.  Sure, these tips feel strange and are initially inconvenient.  They will take some practice before you feel like you are really eating differently.  Find a friend, co-worker, spouse or child who will commit to changing how they eat, too.  Then, talk about your eating experiences together.  Meet up for coffee or lunch with the goal of having a good conversation AND enjoying the eating process together…mindfully.

Mindful eating is a new start…but an old tradition!  If you find these tips intriguing but would like to learn more, contact us for a nutrition consultation where you can find out more about what AND how to eat differently this year.