Self Help: Practicing Mindfulness and Building Resilience
Mindfulness is considered today to be one of the most powerful self-care tools for emotional and physical health. Its origins go back to ancient meditation practices but it is used widely today in health settings, schools, the armed forces and many companies including Google, Apple, AOL, eBay, IBM and Yahoo. I really encourage all my clients to try it. Resilience is the ability to rebound from stress. But, equally importantly, it is the ability to sustain recovery and even grow as a result of stressful experiences.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means being aware of what we are doing while we are doing it. So…aware that we are breathing, walking, driving, making a phone call, cooking a meal and so on. When we have thoughts (and we ALWAYS have thoughts!!!), notice that we have thoughts and come back to awareness of what we are actually doing. When we feel emotions – whether fear, sadness or happiness, just notice the emotion – not trying to deepen it and not trying to push it away – and come back to awareness of what we are doing. The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness and if we are not careful, it’s very easy to live our lives in today’s busy and stressful world on automatic pilot.
Our brains naturally scan our surroundings looking for threats – just like an animal scanning the horizon for a predator. We tend to have what you might call a “negative bias” and it’s designed to protect us from harm. But it can also make us worry needlessly and even not notice when we are feeling happy. And all of us have a mean and tireless “self-critic” who points out in excruciating detail everything that is wrong about us – what we look like, how we perform, what other people think of us. Practicing mindfulness can draw our attention to the self critic and allow us to choose more self-compassionate ways to talk to ourselves.
You could call it “living in the now”
When we practice mindfulness, we gently bring ourselves back into the present moment every time we notice that we have drifted in our minds back to the past or into the future or into our imagination. The word “gently” is really important. Drifting is what minds do, all of the time, so just accept this fact and take your awareness back to the present moment. This doesn’t mean that we can’t plan ahead – but we often get lost in fantasies about things that haven’t yet happened. If it’s something that we are dreading such as having to give a talk or confront a difficult boss, we can replay these fantasies over and over, always the worst case scenario. So we can plan mindfully, being aware that we are planning and by bringing our minds back to what we are doing whenever they drift off.
Some quick ways to get going
Some people think that practising mindfulness has to involve weird chanting or sitting on the floor in a yoga position – chanting and yoga work well for some people but when you’re starting off, it’s a lot more simple:
1. Get in touch with your senses. Notice the temperature of your skin. Notice that you are breathing in and out. Notice background sounds around you. Notice your breathing again.
2. Just notice your breathing. Notice the in-breath and the out-breath. When thoughts come into your mind just return to your breathing. Do not get involved with them. Simply go back to noticing your breathing in and out.
3. Create mindfulness triggers. Pick some everyday things that you do routinely. Decide that whenever you do them you will be mindful and will be aware that you are doing them. Examples are: going up or down stairs, tidying and cleaning, washing up, taking a shower, talking to someone on the phone, drinking a mug of tea
Interested? Have a listen to a couple of my audio recordings!
WHAT IS RESILIENCE? and how can I develop it?
The human race is extraordinarily resilient: Research on US prisoners of war in Vietnam found that even in extreme situations and conditions, most people discover strengths they had never realised they possessed. For these prisoners, it meant preserving contact with other POWs during captivity using tapping codes, using the power of their minds to find the smallest of positives, recalling family ties, maintaining the will to live, trying to be of service to others, keeping a positive outlook towards the future, maintaining or re-discovering faith and spirituality or finding a sense of meaning even in suffering and maintaining a sense of humour.
Research has also shown that positive emotions are the key to resilience. The famous Nun Study (of 678 Catholic sisters starting in 1986) found that autobiographical essays written when they were in their 20s and 30s (in the 1930s and 40s) contained a high level of emotional content. These were analysed and the number of positive, negative and neutral statements were recorded. Astonishingly, the happiest nuns lived 10 years longer than the least happy nuns. 54% of the happy nuns reached 94 while only 15% of the least happy nuns reached that age.
We have further evidence from research on the common cold – when given the cold virus, those volunteers who expressed positive emotions before the virus was injected, were less likely to actually develop cold symptoms than those who expressed negative emotions.
In resilient people, positive emotions (such as cheerfulness, peacefulness and happiness) appear to sit side by side with their negative emotions – even though they might feel anxious, worried or depressed, they can still manage to keep positive overall. They seem to experience a wide range of emotions rather than just a narrow band. After the death of a loved one, which is one of life’s most devastating stresses, some people experience acute and long term psychological distress but some, even though they may go through the grieving process, do not. Some (the substantial minority) are able to experience and express positive emotions even while they grieve, and so recover and get with life quicker.
Healthy connections to other people is a key part of building resilience. Religion, spirituality or simply having a sense of meaning and purpose in life, is a powerful resilience factor. Mindfulness is also a very powerful tool – not so much in changing way we think but by encouraging acceptance. We observe, we step back (rather than stay on automatic pilot) and remain aware of all of our emotions and thoughts. This acceptance seems to be a major part of resilience – “yes, this is where I am and there are certain things I cannot change”. We see the reality (even if it’s painful)without any illusions. Sometimes being aware that we need more information or waiting for understanding can help, as can fully acknowledging our distress rather than squashing it down – without letting it overwhelm us. Maintaining a sense of mastery and control even if it’s only over our own reactions and feeling and working hard on an upward spiralling of positive emotions rather than a downward one. Finally believing that one’s decisions and actions have effect on one’s outcomes – rather than giving in to helplessness and hopelessness.
Some excellent ways to build your resilience
Reach out: Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are important. Accept help even this you find this difficult – you don’t HAVE to do it all yourself. There will be times when you will be able to offer help in return
Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems: You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations. Do you feel a little better this week than last week?
Accept change: Previous goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that CANNOT be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you CAN change.
Move toward your goals: Develop some realistic goals and do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward them. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
Take decisive actions: Rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.
Look for opportunities for self-discovery and growth: We often learn something about ourselves and find that we have grown in some respect as a result of hardship and loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality and heightened appreciation for life.
Remain positive about yourself: Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build your resilience.
Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualising what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly and eat as well as you can, even if your appetite is reduced. You may need to rest more and that is important – learn to listen to your body.and if course, practice mindfulness!
* The Nun Study was described in detail in Danner, D., Snowdon, D., & Friesen, W. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813.’
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For more information about mindfulness, read these articles: Mindfulness and acceptance, mindfulness and compassion, mindfulness and emotions, mindfulness and self help, mindfulness, mindfulness and fibromyalgia.