Mindfulness. It has evolved from a wellness trend to an embedded part of our personal lives and professional environments. But who else has tried mindfulness techniques and failed? Perhaps you tried to quiet your mind with focused breathing but instead, you experienced a rising feeling of panic? Maybe it left you feeling oddly disconnected from yourself? Or what if the act of slowing down taps into your FOMO fears and you finish up pent up and frustrated with the need to do something – anything?
If those feelings and thoughts resonate with you, then take heart you’re not alone. Contrary to popular belief internal mindfulness is not for everyone and is not a silver bullet cure-all. In fact, it’s important for organisations who are implementing mindful activities as part of their workplace well-being program or individuals who are downloading apps to reduce stress and increase ‘calm’ to proceed with a sense of caution. Mindfulness and meditation techniques have been known to create or increase the severity of symptoms with those suffering mental health conditions with symptoms ranging from panic attacks, insomnia, false memories, depersonalisation and in extreme cases, psychosis.
Meditation based mindfulness is simply another word for ‘awareness’ and its purpose is to create and maintain a nonjudgmental awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. So you can see why an increased focus on one’s internal environment can be so distressing and damaging for those with unrecognized or untreated mental health conditions.
This is where active mindfulness activities can be a helpful alternative. Active mindfulness places its focus on the present moment (eg. physical sensations, location) and takes an introspective approach to everyday activities instead of an internal focus on one’s self. Active mindfulness calms the mind, not with the mind based approach of letting go of thoughts and emotions but uses the body’s five senses to enable an individual to anchor themselves in the here and now.
The following are simple and effective external awareness techniques that can be effortlessly incorporated into our daily activities whilst still providing the calming and stress relief benefits of traditional internal mindfulness activities.
1. MINDFUL EATING
How often do you eat whilst checking emails, scrolling your phone or watching TV? You’re focused on what you’re doing not what you’re tasting, how much you’ve eaten or even if you’re full? This is mindless eating and does nothing for our physical health, let alone mental health. To turn mindless eating into mindful eating:
- Recognise the sensations of hunger and satiation. Eat when your body tells you, (not when your emotions or the clock tells you too!). Stop when you are full and not when the plate is empty.
- Choose food that makes you feel good not both in the moment and the hours afterwards. This means avoiding the caffeinated, fatty, sugary short-term energy hits and opting for nutrient dense, low-GI, healthier alternatives.
- Savour the experience. Breathe in the scent. Look at the colours and shapes. Notice the various textures of your meal. See if you can identify ingredients through taste, sight, smell. Consider the taste sensations (sweet, sour, bitter, savoury, salty) and how they change throughout the dish. Appreciate temperature and the effect this has on taste and texture.
- Slow it down. Chew. Pause between mouthfuls.
- Finally, ditch the multitasking. The simple task of eating should have your entire attention.
Not only does mindful eating bring you to the present moment in a non-invasive way it has additional health benefits of reducing binge or over-eating, clarifies poor eating habits, encourages smarter food choices all of which assists with weight loss.
2. MINDFUL WALKING
A leisurely 40-minute mindful walk in a natural bush/forest setting not only combines the benefits of gentle exercise and mindfulness but has also shown to:
- increase creativity and energy,
- reduce stress, anxiety, depression and anger
- improve mental performance and even
- boost the body’s own immune system.
The practice of immersing yourself into the natural environment has been a cornerstone of Japanese preventive health care and healing since the 1980’s with the benefits of ‘forest-bathing’ (or shinrin-yoku) scientifically confirmed in April 2006.
For full benefits, ditch your walking partner along with your device so your senses absorb the natural stimuli instead of being distracted by conversation, music, messages or podcasts. Once again, slow down and focus on the messages being received by your senses. What can you see, feel, smell, taste and hear?
Mindful walking is also the perfect way to break up the workday and improve your productivity and resilience to workplace stressors. For sedentary workers, regular movement is critical to avoid the negative health impacts of sitting which include poor posture, circulation issues and an increased risk of metabolic disorders including diabetes and high blood pressure.
3. GET CREATIVE
There’s a reason why adult colouring has been a recent phenomenon in the last few years. The predictable elements of repetition, pattern & detail calm our brains allowing us to maintain focus without placing a heavy toll on our cognitive brain processing. The good news is that if colouring doesn’t inspire you then there’s a myriad of other creativity-based activities that use that can also induce the same calming effect. These include knitting, crocheting, painting, woodwork, model making, lego building, cooking and more.
The beauty of these tasks is they require concentration and focus to perform them. This moves our mind’s attention away from thoughts to the activity in front of us.
Creativity based hobbies not only promote calm and develops technical skills but in the process creates self-esteem and confidence in ourselves and abilities. They promote internal growth, development and bring fun back into our daily existence.
So if you’ve attempted mindfulness before and have found it provoking reactions counterintuitive to the intended results, please, don’t give up! Give the above suggestions a go or adapt any everyday task into an active mindfulness technique by paying attention to the sensations (sight, smell, taste, sound, touch) being received from your body. Focus on these regularly and you’ll soon find yourself being aware and more in touch with your external environment than the thought and emotion-filled one within.