As a mindfulness meditation teacher and health coach, it’s been a joy to witness the transformation in the participants attending the mindfulness meditation programs I run locally.
Becoming more mindful during the day in addition to a regular meditation practice is a beautiful antidote to the overwhelm and chronic stress that is an all too familiar experience for many of us.
Let’s look at 4 ways we can boost our health with mindfulness and how sometimes the best thing for our health is to add in a little mindlessness!
Bring mindfulness to your moments of decision
Our habits help us easily navigate our way through life.
Many of the choices we make occur subconsciously, from the way we hold our car keys to which part of the body we dry off first after the shower.
An awareness of the moments where we make unhealthy decisions or fail to make healthy choices shines the light on influences that otherwise would have remained hidden.
What was happening in your world when the new exercise habit you were so proud of petered out?
Had you succumbed to a dose of the flu or did the shorter days of winter mean it all felt too hard?
Or maybe your regular meditation practice or exercise routine has fallen by the wayside as you work longer hours in a new job.
Life gets in the way sometimes.
Instead of blaming ourselves, which undermines our motivation and makes it more likely we’ll give up, becoming aware of the obstacles in our way allows us to create a plan to get up, over or around them.
Sometimes this means really getting those creative juices flowing.
A new job for me meant longer hours and no time in daylight hours to exercise. I’d arrive home from work tired and hungry just in time to start preparing the evening meal.
Instead of relying on my well worn excuse of not having enough time or blaming myself for not following through, I looked at what I COULD do given the constraints I was now facing.
A home exercise session divided into two or three ten minute bursts while the evening meal was cooking was the perfect solution.
Bringing the beautiful light of awareness to those moments when your actions didn’t align with your goals works best accompanied by self compassion. This brings a gentle curiosity which encourages your most creative solutions to come forth.
It’s all about trial and error until you find something that works perfectly for you.
What are YOUR moments of decision when your best laid plans fly out of the window and what might work instead?
Mindfulness reduces chronic stress
A primitive evolutionary reaction, the stress response produces a cascade of effects in our bodies designed to keep us alive in times of acute danger such as a wild bear deciding we’re on the menu for lunch.
In an ideal world, providing we survive the experience, the relaxation response then kicks in and life goes on as normal.
Unfortunately in this day and age, chronic stress has become the new norm and our default modus operandi.
The stress response never switches off with disastrous consequences for our health.
It’s been estimated that stress accounts for anywhere from 75% to 90% of all doctor’s visits and it is strongly linked to the leading causes of death.
Chronic stress and excessive thinking are inseparable best friends, a deadly duo that together create a vicious self perpetuating spiral.
Mindfulness interrupts incessant thinking and brings us gently into the present, stimulating the relaxation response and quietening the stress response.
These days we also have the technology to measure changes in the brain and regular meditators experience growth in the pre frontal cortex, the area at the front of our brains that influences our willpower.
I like to think of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation as my secret weapons against stress and overwhelm with the beautiful side effect of also boosting my willpower.
Minding your emotions
Who hasn’t indulged in a bit of emotional eating?
I certainly have! There was a time in my life when a bad day at work meant consuming copious amounts of chocolate, Coke and potato chips.
As a strategy this brought with it thousands of extra calories as well as a ton of extra guilt and shame.
I know I’m not alone. While a small amount of emotional eating is normal and repressing emotions can be a useful survival strategy in times of crisis, when done to excess, it can have devastating consequences for our health.
It’s only natural to avoid pain.
Mindfulness of emotions on the other hand allows us to feel the emotions in our body without trying to run away from them.
As Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, says about any painful thought or feeling,
‘If we respond to it with mindfulness – we will find there is no need to struggle with it or hide from it. Instead we can drop the struggle, and make peace with it’.
If the emotion is very strong or traumatic this is best done with a trusted counsellor, but most people find it’s something they can do with a mindfulness meditation teacher or even an MP3.
Instead of staying stuck with the same old story playing in our head, we can easily process the emotion and move on.
The process is simply one of bringing your attention to the area of the body where you’re feeling the emotion and sitting with it with a gentle curiosity and non-judgemental awareness.
When I first learned this technique, I was a workaholic control freak who couldn’t believe something as simple as this would help at all.
After all, we weren’t actually DOING anything!
Sometimes the most effective solutions come from BEING, not doing.
Minding your thoughts
What were you thinking when you grabbed the chocolate bar from the vending machine in the middle of the afternoon during an impossibly frantic day at work?
Was it ‘Just one won’t hurt’ or ‘I deserve it’ like I used to tell myself or maybe you were longing for that burst of energy you desperately needed to power through?
Without mindfulness that little voice in our heads can sabotage the best of intentions.
I seemed particularly susceptible in the morning with ‘It’s too cold’ or ‘I’m too tired’ or ‘Five more minutes’ being preludes to yet ANOTHER missed morning exercise session.
The first step is being aware of your thoughts, as we talked about earlier, particularly at your moments of decision
As we become more mindful of our thoughts, we can simply observe them and allow them to come and go without engaging with them or allowing them to influence our behaviour.
Sometimes replacing the thought with an alternative one can help. For instance, ‘I deserve that chocolate bar’ might become ‘My body deserves to be nurtured with healthy food’.
At other times, that wonderful Nike slogan, Just Do It (or JFDI for added emphasis) couldn’t be more perfect!
How, then, can mindlessness help?
Some of the best strategies involve restructuring our environment so we mindlessly make healthier choices.
Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating and Slim By Design and also the lead author of over 200 academic articles and books on eating behaviour says,
‘For 90 percent of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mindful eating – our lives are just too crazy and our willpower too wimpy.’
Instead, implementing strategies such as using smaller plates, keeping unhealthy snacks out of sight and the fruit bowl in plain view, make it more inconvenient for us to make unhealthy choices.
Rearranging your cupboards and refrigerator so that the first food items you see are healthy pays dividends. In one experiment those who moved their fruits and veggies from the crisper bin in the fridge to the top shelf and banished unhealthier items to the crisper ate nearly three times as many fruit and vegetables!
The research is extraordinary. I talk about the effectiveness of tiny changes all the time but this takes it to a whole new level.
It happens naturally and one or two changes can make a huge difference over time.
So there you have it, mindfulness and a dose of mindlessness – beautiful tools to bring more health and happiness into your life.
Let me know in the comments – what is one tip you can implement today in YOUR life?