Mindfull or mindful?
How full is your mind lately? Do you find that your brain just won’t shut off lately? Too many things to think about at once, not enough time to organize your thoughts or get everything done? Before the pandemic, holiday times were stressful enough…but now, that stress seems to be multiplied tenfold. Any trip out of the house requires more planning that usual, and the safety precautions – although necessary – can make you feel on edge. And these things aren’t likely to change very soon.
You may also find yourself worrying about the future. Perhaps you’re considering how to safely plan a family gathering outside or wondering if you can travel with mitigated risk. Maybe you’re worried about school closures or the potential impact on your job if/when this happens again. You could be navigating caregiving needs for multiple family members. Regardless, there’s a really good chance that you have more on your mind than usual this year.
It might seem as if constantly thinking about everything that needs to be done helps you to stay on track. However, it’s just the opposite. Frequently multi-tasking or focusing on several issues at once not only reduces your ability to concentrate, but also slows down your task management ability and therefore takes up more of your time. It's rather counter-intuitive. And this is likely to make you feel more frustrated and anxious as a result!
Speaking of anxiety though, worrying about future events more often than not just creates unnecessary anxiety. While it is important to plan and be prepared, there is a limit to the effectiveness of this when it takes away from the enjoyment of the present. It is better to remind yourself of ways you are prepared for and tools you have to handle any concerning situations in the future, and then focus back on the present. It can be challenging to train your mind to pay attention to only what’s happening now, or only one issue at a time, but it can be very beneficial to do so.
So how is this accomplished? Try just these few steps this week as a starting point.
First – wait for it – breathe. Yes, breathe. Nice and slow, in through your nose and out through the mouth. Remember that slowing down your breathing calms your nervous system, allows you to relax, and provides an oxygen boost which improves mental focus.
Pay attention to your surroundings. What do you notice? Listen to the sounds you hear, notice any smells, and just observe. This is particularly useful to practice if you are outside where you can be immersed in nature.
Prioritize. Is there something you really have to do this moment? If so, attend to it, but only that one thing. You don’t have to stop a necessary activity to be mindful (in fact, the goal is to be mindful in all activities!) If not, then just stay present in the moment observing what’s around you.
Notice any thoughts that are going through your mind. Are they helpful thoughts, or are they worries? Try to clear your mind of any thoughts that aren’t necessary. When I do this, I like to imagine a little ship in the ocean that I place the extra thoughts on and watch them float away. It works for me, maybe it will work for you too. Do that repeatedly until you feel your mind clear.
Put down your phone. Avoid scrolling mindlessly or checking for messages, that will just add clutter to your thoughts. If you notice that you feel anxious when you actively disengage from technology for a bit, realize that this is common and just recognize the emotion. Name your emotion as well. Saying to yourself "I am feeling anxious" (or distracted, or tense, or sad, etc.) has a different effect than saying "I AM anxious" (or distracted, or tense, or sad, etc.) It helps you to recognize that you are having an emotion, instead of being caught up in the emotion. Remind yourself that any messages or emails or comments will still be there later as well.
Focus on your body. Take a quick scan to assess how you’re feeling. Are there any spots of tension or places of stress? Do you need to relax or take a walk? Maybe you’re hungry or thirsty. Tune in to your own needs.
Be present. Whatever it is you are doing – or not doing – pay attention only to that. It doesn’t matter if you’re completing a household task or going outside for a walk. Just be present fully in the moment. Enjoy it.
Try that for the next week and see if you notice any changes in your perceptions or how you are feeling. If worries creep into your mind, it’s okay to notice them but don’t let them take hold of your thoughts entirely. I love this image of a person walking with their dog outside. I’ve used it for years to illustrate the concept of mindfulness to people. Notice how the person’s thoughts are full of clutter, and they’re concerned about multiple problems that are not occurring right now. And this is distracting from the activity they’re actually doing. But the dog? That dog’s thoughts are completely focused on enjoying the moment outside with its human.
That’s exactly how we want to teach our minds to be. And it’s very possible, with a little practice. It doesn't mean that difficult events won't occur in the future, but it helps you to enjoy what is happening right now without the potential worry of those events taking away from that experience. Remember to practice being mindful and clearing your thoughts ever day, and it will get easier over time. Hopefully this posts gets you on the path to a calmer, clearer mindset!