No matter who you are or where you come from, this moment in modern life brings challenges to our personal, local, and global safety and wellbeing. There is no denying the current crisis affects our many basic needs including our health, the health of our families and our communities, the loss of jobs or income, and even questions about the long-term trajectory of our social order. With all this uncertainty, it is completely normal that we may experience deep fear, sadness, depression, and grief. Our mind may take us on some dark and scary journeys.
Talking to a mental health professional might be part of your healing. Please note there are now services offered free of charge to all to help us navigate these troubled times including a free mental health hotline organized by New York State 1-888-NYC- WELL or text WELL to 65173. https://nycwell.cityofnewyork.us/en/get-help-now/.
There are also simple self-care tools we can use on a personal level to help us navigate difficult times, not the least of which is creating a mindfulness practice. Studies show that creating a regular mindfulness practice can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep, and improve overall well-being. Changing our relationship with stress can even help the immune system. Starting a mindfulness practice is not difficult, and there are many ways to incorporate mindfulness into life depending on how much time and energy you can dedicate to a practice.
What is mindfulness?
Simply put, “mindfulness” is the act of being in the present moment. Mindful.org states “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” Mindful.org points out:
“Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.”
Mindfulness practices have been around for thousands of years, but modern mindfulness became popular in the late 1970’s with the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn a Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
How do I practice being mindful? Meditation
Meditation is a common way to practice being mindful. There are many different types of meditation that are practiced, but a common misconception about meditating is that it is the act of eliminating thoughts from the mind. Rather, most meditation practices do use attention of focus on something we can connect to using our senses such as the breath, a sound, or words (aka a mantra: words repeated to help you concentrate). The awareness practice is usually coupled with gently recognizing and letting go of distractions as they become evident.
Meditation has been used for many years to alleviate stress and calm the mind with great success. Now recent research has shown potential for meditation to impact emotional processing and potentially reverse or stall brain aging.
So why doesn’t everyone meditate? Meditation can be intimidating as a beginner. Know that like anything, it requires practice and consistency. There are loads of resources available to begin a meditation practice. I use Headspace, an app with guided meditations of different lengths – some as short as three minutes – and on different topics. A quick Google search can bring up many resources that may be a good fit for you.
How do I practice being mindful? Breathe
Breathing is one of the tools I find easiest to use for a mindful practice, especially as a beginner. If your mind is racing or you feel stressed, it is very simple to sit back and take a deep belly breath. Yes, if you are bringing your attention and awareness to that action, that counts as being mindful!
Belly breathing AKA diaphragmatic breathing is known to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system which produces stress hormones. Being stressed in the long term increases our exposure to stress hormones and weakens our immune system as well as results in wear and tear on our cardiovascular system and other parts of our body. By practicing breathing deeply into the full capacity of our rib cage including our posterior rib cage, the diaphragm – the main muscle of breathing – massages our adrenal glands and our internal organs. This gentle action helps to reset the nervous system into a more relaxed AKA parasympathetic state.
Try this breathing exercise for 2 – 3 minutes 1 – 2 x per day to start.
- Lay on your back with your knees bent (or a pillow under your straight legs to support them), and a pillow under your neck so it is neutral and supported. You may also sit in a comfortable position if you prefer.
- Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest to monitor your breath.
3.Take a few normal breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Notice which hand moves first, (belly hand or chest hand), and how much each hand is lifted with each normal breath.
- Consciously take a deep breath through your nose into your belly. Feel the breath move under your belly hand, let your belly rise on the inhale and gently fall on the exhale.
- Now consciously breathe in through your nose and direct your breath to the back of the body. Bring your awareness to filling your ribcage so that you can feel the back of your ribs gently expand into the floor. Exhale through the mouth, slowly, imagine blowing away stress, anxiety, or discomfort, or whatever you feel like letting go.
- Now breathe into your belly and your posterior rib cage. Again, slowly exhale. Repeat this gentle deep breathing.
Other mindfulness ideas – awareness to a moment in your everyday routine
A quick and easy way to practice mindfulness is to bring awareness to something simple that you do frequently throughout the day. A recent example I loved from a podcast that I listen to was repeating “peace begins with me” while washing your hands – definitely something we are all doing LOTS of these days! Do personalize your routine by choosing an action and mantra that resonates with you. It can be anything you chose to bring awareness to.
Other mindfulness ideas – awareness to movement
Another great tool for mindfulness is awareness in movement. Mindful movement is really the basis for a lot of physical therapy. MANY of my patients have heard me say moving well is part of practicing awareness, and one of the most basic things we usually practice before moving on to more complex movement is moving from sit to stand with neutral posture alignment.
Be mindful of how you perform simple tasks that you do each day such as sit to stand, lifting your child, or even how your foot accepts weight while walking. Bring awareness to your posture in your daily environment such as at your desk or while you sit on the sofa at night. If you find yourself moving or sitting in a way that is not ideal or doesn’t feel good, don’t be too hard on yourself, just take a moment to acknowledge it and then correct it.
Even though you may be spending more time at home, make sure you keep moving. Set a timer to get up and stretch. Do some movement at regular intervals like squats between conference calls, or wall sits every half hour. If you have the space and it is safe for you to do so while social distancing, walk, bike, run, skip, do yoga, play fetch with your dog, take the stairs – WHATEVER it is that you can do to keep moving. While you are engaged in your activity, do your best to stay fully present while doing it. If your mind begins to wander off, acknowledge that, and then gently bring it back to the task at hand.
At Cynergy, we are still offering physical therapy services using telehealth platforms. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you are in pain or need guidance in your movement. Remember we are here for you!
Other mindfulness ideas – awareness with food
The many modern multitasking tools always at our fingertips coupled with all our obligations have eclipsed the act of being present during simple activities of daily living. For example, for many of us, lunch and dinner have become a time to catch up on paperwork or emails, or even to mindlessly scroll through various media. Instead, make mealtime a device free and TV free time for you and your family. As you eat, pay attention to the taste and texture of your food. Enjoy the way your food smells. Take small bites, and chew each bite thoroughly. Eat slowly so that your body has time to tell you it is full. Online jokes mention “the quarantine 15”, and we all know how stress can contribute to relying on food for comfort. Eat when you are hungry, not out of boredom. Replace mindless snacking with a mindful choice to instead have a cup of herbal tea or water.
Other mindfulness ideas – cultivate a gratitude practice
It is easy for the mind to get caught up in the negative aspects of the present, especially when we are in a place of hard times. Though times may be dark, each day take some time to think of one or two things you are grateful for and write them down. This can be something as simple as being grateful for the sunshine, or as epic as getting a promotion. Research shows that regularly keeping a gratitude journal can help us to deal with stress, especially when used in conjunction with mediation and other mindfulness skills.
Other mindfulness ideas – mindfulness for kids
Stress in childhood can have long lasting effects, but children have been shown to benefit from the stress reduction of simple mindfulness activities. Mindfulness activities for children have also been shown to help regulate emotions and to improve self- esteem. The Imagine Project, Inc. has tools and tips to help parents find ways for kids to deal with stress using simple mindfulness activities. Examples include cooking together, reading a book or drawing together, and even something as simple as using a singing bowl or chime at bedtime and paying attention to the sound until it has finished.
These are just a few ideas for you to explore if you are interested in beginning a mindfulness practice. Do know that taking small actions towards improving mindfulness can greatly impact your physical, mental, and emotional health in both the short and long term. Remember that even just taking a deep breath can have an impact on how your body reacts in times of stress. Being mindful requires a little effort, but with attention and consistency, we can all reap the benefits of this amazing practice.
Wishing you all the best of health and peace!
Jena Blackwood, PT, DPT,FMS
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