Let’s face it, life is stressful. On a daily basis, we are pulled in multiple directions and constantly fight against the clock. Each hour, we must adapt, learn, process, multitask, etc. Our thoughts and feelings often go overlooked, or are jumbled up along the way, which results in stress, anxiety, a lack of sleep and sometimes physical illness.
The COVID-19 global pandemic brought out the best, but also the worst in humanity. One minute, we were sharing our fears and inspiring hope with balcony serenades, and then we were plunged into social warfare, racism, police brutality, riots, arguments and fighting on all fronts.
This has left people feeling lost, alone, fearful, mad, sad, prosecuted and more. People who lived relatively happy, normal lives are suddenly anxious. Parents struggle with frustration, children are agitated and bored, teenagers are depressed and those who suffer from mental illness are overwhelmed.
When it comes to health, our mind is the switchboard. Sure, organs, fluid levels, bodily functions and such are important to keep us going, but our brain is the control panel. If there is something wrong in the head office, our health suffers, be it profound suffering or a simple hiccup.
When negativity occurs around us, we withdraw inward. Events such as those we’ve experienced over the last few months not only emphasize such imbalances, but they also create them.
In most cases, people seek help in a physician’s office. Doctors pull out the antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds and relaxation drugs, such as our dear friend Valium. Then, they send us home. Wouldn’t it be nice to deal with the daily stresses of life in a non-pharmaceutical way?
Here enters mindfulness
Refuge to the man is the mind, refuge to the mind is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is living in the moment, a practice in which you acknowledge and accept where you are, what you are doing, the world around you and your thoughts, feelings and sensations, without judgment or reaction.
It helps individuals connect with themselves and understand their mental, emotional and physical processes, as well as how they influence each other. In turn, it aids us in our ability to function in the mindless chaos of our world in a calmer, happier and healthier way, instead of overreacting or becoming overwhelmed.
Over the centuries, mindfulness has proven to be able to strengthen a person’s mind by remodelling the physical brain structure. It not only benefits the brain’s health, but it also lowers stress, increases resilience and improves sleep, mood, memory, creativity and concentration. Moreover, it reduces the effects of anxiety and depression by restoring emotional balance. All without side effects.
It sounds simple. However, the mind is a complex organism. We are all naturally capable of mindfulness, but we are predisposed to judge, analyze and change not only ourselves, but what happens around us. Sometimes this is necessary. As a species, we are constantly guided by future aspirations, personal glory, life’s legacy and the past. All of which is important, when considered in balance.
The question to ask, then, is how do we accomplish it? With time and practice. You do not need to seek professional help or become a Zen guru. You simply need to incorporate small, simple exercises into your everyday life.
3 basic steps to get you started
Mindfulness is the ability to experience present sensations, thoughts and emotions without judgment. It’s not so easily done, as it is hard to control your mind and stop pre-existing habits.
Here is the good news: You don’t have to! Mindfulness is about being fully in touch with yourself. Therefore, if you do judge a thought or emotion, acknowledge it and let it pass by without reaction, analysis or overthinking. The goal is to create space between you and your reactions.
Practice makes perfect. Mindfulness is not something you’ll learn overnight. You need to practice, daily. This does not mean you have to sit at a desk as if you were doing homework, or as you would at a piano playing scales. Simply set aside 20 minutes or less, throughout your day, to make a conscious effort to reflect on the present. Focus on what is going on around you: your thoughts, emotions, motivations, words, actions, etc.
You can do this through meditation, if that suits you. For those less inclined to meditate, mindfulness can be practiced while you wash dishes, take a shower, go for a walk or even have a conversation with someone. Mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to quiet your mind or live in a state of eternal calm; it is about personal exploration and surrender.
There is no question that breathing is important. If we don’t breathe, we die. It is also essential for a calm, clear mind. The more oxygen the brain gets, the happier it is.
When you practice mindfulness, straighten your posture and take slow, deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Make sure your whole body rises and falls. Even in the worst situations, deep breathing will relax you and help you focus on the task at hand.
How mindfulness can help you
After reading the above requirements, some of you might think it is easier to take a mood-altering pill each day. That may be the case; however, it is not the healthiest solution. As a person who grew up surrounded by mental illness, substance abuse and trauma, I can attest that although medication is necessary in many cases, it is not always the only answer.
Mindfulness and mental illness
Mindfulness is not a cure for mental illnesses or disorders, but it can help alleviate symptoms. Stress, anxiety, depression and ailments such as PTSD all stem from negative thoughts, which result in negative emotions.
Such feelings can bloom into a manic, uncontrollable force that disconnects a person from reality and themselves. Substances such as alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications and other narcotics merely cover the bubbling chaos.
By incorporating mindfulness into one’s treatment program, a person can retrain their brain to view damaging thoughts as being distorted, and make them less powerful. With deep breathing, a person can calm the mind to alleviate growing stress or anxiety and become aware of their emotional state, which will help them acknowledge it and let it pass without dwelling on it.
The biggest benefit of mindfulness, for the mentally ill, is it teaches us that it is OK to feel, think or act the way we are in the moment. Something very important for those who suffer!
In my own personal circle, there have been five suicides since the pandemic struck. I can’t even imagine how many more there have been around the world. Mindfulness might have helped these people. However, adults are not the only ones who suffer. Sad as it is, children can fall victim to the weight of the world as well. Mindfulness may help prevent this.
Mindfulness and children
Children are naturally curious about themselves, the body, the mind, the world and others. In many ways, they already practice mindfulness. As parents, we need to cultivate this ability. The easiest way to do so is to be mindful with them. Monkey see, monkey do. Children love to mimic. It is how they learn.
Teach them patience, acceptance, kindness and calmness through everyday experiences. Encourage awareness of their senses with physical, visual and audible aids. Get them to blow bubbles and play with windmills, or have belly-breathing buddies to teach them deep breathing exercises.
Lie under the stars with them or watch a butterfly cross the yard, and then have them express what is happening in the moment. Whatever you do, don’t force it. Don’t make them sit still, just let them be and guide them as well as you can.
Do your best in the moment
No matter how old we are, life can be an emotional rollercoaster with no end, unless we flip the switch. This year of 2020 has enhanced the struggle, but mindfulness can help us regroup from our latest exposure and move on. By letting everything else fade away and focusing on the present, we will become stronger, calmer, healthier individuals who are better equipped for what’s to come.
It won’t be an easy transition, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Don’t expect yourself to succeed immediately, though. As with everything else in life, you must do your best in each moment and expect nothing more. Realistically, the only place we can be is right here, right now, so we might as well make the most of it.
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