Self care week 3: Training your brain to think about nothing.
When we talk about self-care, the word mindfulness gets thrown around a lot. This week I decided to look into what mindfulness is and how we can harness it in our everyday lives. There are a few different ways to practice mindfulness and preferences are very personal. The one thing that I think we all have to accept on our journey of self-care, and mindfulness in particular, is that it doesn’t happen over night. Being mindful is a skill, just like playing a sport is.
We need to exercise our brains daily in much the same way as we would exercise our bodies in the lead up to a big competition. I can almost guarantee that you won’t be successful on your first try, but the important thing is that you do it time and time again, and before you know it, all that exercise will have paid off and your mind will be doing one handed push ups with zero effort!
In its most basic form, mindful is the art of being in the present. Being in touch with all your senses and becoming completely aware of your surroundings. When our minds are unwell, we are often very far removed from the present. We enter our own little world of unwellness and this creates a cycle which only ends in instability. Often what makes us unwell is worrying about the past or about the future, we need to train our brains that at this moment, neither are important. At this exact point in time, all that matters for you in the world is that you are reading this article, sat in your room/at work/on the moon, and that is where your attention should be focused. Despite my deadlines and other pressures making me anxious, all that should matter to me is that it is 5:09pm on Tuesday the 7th of November and I am writing this article about mindfulness. Worrying about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow, or even in an hour will do nothing to help remedy what has been, or what is to come. Now I say this as though I have mastered the art of mindfulness, I have not, as I sit here I do worry about my deadlines next Monday and my applications due next Friday, and if you’re like me, then we need to get practicing.
I touched on depersonalisation/detachment disorders in week one, and this is a topic I’d like to keep touching upon as detachment is not just a stand alone disorder, it can also come about as a symptom of other mental health issues. The phenomenon is under researched in mental health, which can sometimes be a scary thing for people who are going through it. Feeling like we are not in our own body is almost the direct opposite of feeling mindful. While mindfulness cannot cure these problems, concentrating on practicing it every day can go a ways to keeping these scary and debilitating feelings from taking over.
Think of how much more productive, and happy we would be if we were able to focus only on what we were doing in the moment we are doing it. There are many ways to practice this, and a lot of them might seem monotonous or silly when we are trying to address quite a large concept, but bringing it back to basics can sometimes be the most healing thing of all.
What often first come to mind when you hear the word mindfulness is meditation. Meditation doesn’t only have to happen when you are sat on the floor of a beautiful forest, listening to calming music cross legged and resting your hands delicately on your knees. You can practice meditation while you are sat at the breakfast bar sipping your coffee, or at your desk while working, or even sat on the toilet!
All meditation is is focusing on your breaths, and almost nothing else. According to yoga instructor Ben Wolff, the art of yoga is focused as much around our breathing as it is around posture. While it may seem unnecessary to ‘relearn’ how to breathe, it is important, as our sedentary lifestyles have actually changed the way that adults breath, compared to breathing in babies. Babies breathe directly from their stomach, while adults breathe from their throats. This can have a direct impact on the spreading of oxygen throughout the body, and therefore also our brain, and mental health. When we sense fear, the evolutionary part of our bodies begins to tense up, and breathing is restricted, relearning to breathe is part of bypassing this stress-inducing reaction.
When direct all our attention to the way our body moves as we breath; the up and down motion of our chests, and the in and out motion of our bellies it is hard to think about it has a grounding effect, bringing us into the present and away from the distant world of stress or instability that we have created inside our heads. Learning the art of meditation involves acknowledging your feelings, whether they be stress, sadness, fear or anything else, and letting them wash over you. Instead of struggling against them we need to learn to sit back and watch them pass us by.
The hard part is…thinking about nothing is hard! It’s so easy to let your mind wander off without even realising you’re doing it, so there are some really great resources you can use to help you focus…on not focusing.
I personally use headspace, the app comes with ten free sessions, and from then on you need to pay. It’s a little steep at £74 for the year, however it comes with very specific meditation packs including sleep, anxiety, depression, eating problems and many more.
Another app is Calm, I don’t personally use it so couldn’t comment on what it contains, but it comes highly recommended and is considerably cheaper at just £29.99 for the year
If you don’t feel like paying, or even if you don’t have a smartphone, you can simply search for mediation guides on youtube! There are many channels that will take you through a session. Beneath is a link I found to a blog containing the ten best guided meditation channels for those struggling with mental health issues.
Adult colouring books
For some, meditation can be tough because it is hard to clear the mind with little else to focus on other than your breathing. This is where adult colouring books can be a real life saver. I used adult colouring books to help keep my anxiety at bay throughout my whole final year at university. Unlike meditation, when you are colouring in an intricate design you become totally focused on what you are doing without even realising it. It is a great way to unwind and take your mind off the struggles of the day. I personally enjoyed using them the night before an exam. You can buy the books almost anywhere, mine were from WHSmith.