A few weeks ago, we covered an article on Stress Awareness Month for April. One of the simple things we can each do without requiring medication or a course of therapy to help us cope with our low-level every-day stress, is something called ‘mindfulness’.
What is Mindfulness?
Put simply, it is reconnecting with the small things around us. Most of us practice mindfulness all the time even though we are arguably unaware that we are doing so. Some everyday mindfulness you may enjoy include:
- Taste such as taking notice of how good your favourite food tastes. A good cup of tea and a biscuit, or a glass of wine or a bar of chocolate for example, and taking the time out to appreciate them.
- Touch such as enjoying environmental sensations such as the sun on your face or the satisfying crunch of snow under foot. Even a relaxing massage can be a mindfulness exercise for the recipient.
- Scents are amongst the most pleasurable as they stimulate our other senses. Brewing coffee, fresh cut grass and ocean brine are generally considered pleasurable smells.
- Sight – the things we look at. Going for a walk up a hill or along a river valley, you may stop to admire the landscape or wildlife. Even decorating a house with Christmas lights in a configuration you find most pleasurable can be mindful.
- Sound, such as music or waves lapping against the shore. Perhaps you take pleasure from music that helps you to relax? When you use music to wind down and invoke certain sensations, you are doing so mindfully.
Mindfulness is not just about noticing these senses, but focusing on them and their sensations – letting the stresses and other things that clutter our minds to fade into the background. They relax us, they stir memories, they comfort us and help us wind down when there is so much else going on in our lives. Here, we present a couple of exercises you may wish to try to help you de-stress.
Mindful Breathing Exercise
- Lie down in a room where there are likely to be no distractions – the night time is best but this can be done during the day if you are unlikely to be interrupted. Close the door and the window and get comfortable.
- Begin by noticing your breathing pattern: particularly how fast or slow it is, and shallow and deep. You’re going to spend the first minute or so really drawing your mind to your breathing, noticing it but not controlling it. The ironic thing is that once you notice your breathing, you can’t help but not notice it.
- Bring your breathing under control, trying to slow it down is best and the deeper and slower the better. Notice the sensations it has on your body as your lungs fill with air – how your chest expands and rises. Some people find it useful to imagine their stomach is a balloon inflating and deflating with each breath. Focusing on an imaginary balloon can help anchor your thoughts and minimise the wondering mind.
- Notice your heart rate. You may find, particularly if you are stressed, that it is quite heavy and hard. A good breathing exercise like this can help calm the body and the heart and the muscles over time.
- Spend about five minutes on this exercise, gradually allowing yourself to be swallowed up by the sensation of focusing on breathing; you will find your body calms, your breathing stabilises and your muscles relax. It is normal to feel a ‘floaty’ sense of calm by the end of the exercise.
- Take a simple piece of food. Most mindfulness self-help books and courses recommend something very simple like a raisin and it’s surprising how much detail you can extract from a raisin, sultana or currant.
- Begin by experiencing the sensation of touch – poke it, prod it and stroke it. Is it rough or smooth? Does it leave a residue? Does it give way under your pressure? If so, does it leave an impression or pop back into place afterwards?
- Once you feel you have noticed all there is to notice about the touch, raise it to your nose and sniff it. Try to identify all of the scents; imagine it is a fine wine and you are a connoisseur trying to identify the various complex scents that make up the label.
- Place the object on your tongue and roll it around if you can. Don’t chew or swallow just yet; here, you’re trying to pick up – like you did with the scent step – all of the various flavours that make up the item. In a raisin, you might detect a bittersweet note like cinnamon or pepper.
- Bite / chew it between your teeth and notice the sensation that makes. What does it feel like? Did you pick up any extra flavours? Nibble away between various pairs of teeth and identify the sensation.
- Finally, swallow it and once again notice what happens, how it feels and how it tastes as it slides down your gullet.
Connecting with food and breathing are two of the simplest mindfulness exercises we can indulge in, and two we take for granted.