To say this last year has been an emotional rollercoaster may be an understatement. With the ups and downs of Covid-19, it’s been a stressful and anxiety-inducing time for many of us. Today’s blog covers mindfulness – a strategy that is getting more widely recognised as a strategy and tool to manage times of high stress and anxiety. In this blog, we’ll explain the benefits of mindfulness and examples of how you can get started.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a concept of learning how to be fully present in the moment, being aware of where we are, what we are doing, and how we are feeling without becoming overwhelmed or overly reactive to it. It is a way for us to take a step back from our chaotic, and sometimes obsessive, day-to-day thoughts and to simply observe and accept things as they are. Meditation is one of the most common ways people practice mindfulness.
What are the benefits of Mindfulness?
Stress relief and improved productivity
Stanford University Professor Robert Sapolsky articulated it best - “Stress should only be felt imminently before death, the ‘fight or flight response’.”
In a survival situation (e.g. being chased by hungry lions), stress responses are important to sharpen your senses and prompt your body into an alert state to keep you alive. This type of stress is important in survival situations, however, this same response can be triggered by psychological reasons including memories, emotions and thoughts. This prolonged stress response is not as helpful in daily life and tasks, such as meeting deadlines or preparing for exams. In this state, it is hard to engage with hobbies, work, and people as all your focus and energy is spent keeping you tense and alert for a non-life-threatening factor in your life. Not only does it impede on your productivity and ability to logically problem solve, but it is also exhausting to be in this state for prolonged periods. Mindfulness can be used to reduce this heightened state of stress.
The human body contains calming internal rhythms such as slow breathing or a relaxed heartbeat. Mindfulness works to shift your focus to these relaxing rhythms that can bring you out of the fight or flight response and back into a calmer state. Once your brain is aware that you are not in a life-or-death situation and begins to settle, your attention can be drawn to the tasks at hand through a calmer lens.
Research has suggested the most creative ideas appear when the mind is wandering, in neither a state of stress nor absolute focus. How often have you had an epiphany or idea while relaxing and letting your mind wander in the shower?
Mindfulness has been suggested as a strategy to manage persistent pain.
Persistent pain (i.e. pain that lasts beyond a few months) understandably causes feelings of frustration, depression and anxiety when trying to get through the day. Pain research has proven that heightened mental stress, fear and anxiety can have a profound effect on the levels of pain that is felt by an individual. Over time, the brain gets more and more efficient at sending signals to the body to feel pain – even if there is no threat to the body.
Mindfulness meditation works to lessen the effect of stress and anxiety that are associated with heightened of sensitive pain signals. Although you still feel the sensory pain during meditation, the brain networks related to memory, emotions and thoughts regarding the pain are less active as your mind wanders and shifts the mind’s focus away from the pain. Doing this over time helps to train the brain to reduce the stressed or emotional states that amplify pain.
How can I practice Mindfulness?
There are many resources on the web on mindfulness in the form of meditation with focus on breathing techniques or while walking. To start with, here’s an easy meditation guide to try in a quiet space:
- Take a seat on a sturdy chair with your feet planted on the ground. Sit upright, but do not tense, allow your body to relax so that you maintain the natural curves in your spine. Allow your shoulders to relax and let your upper arms hang parallel to your torso with your hands comfortably resting on your lap.
- Close your eyes or lower your gaze and slowly inhale into your belly, then into your chest and finally your head. Hold this breath for a second and slowly release the breath in the reverse order you inhaled. Try to allow your muscles to relax as you exhale, visualizing the tension leaving your body with your breath.
- While you focus on your breathing, your mind will begin to wander. Allow the thoughts to come and gently acknowledge them and let them go before returning your attention back to the present.
- Continue this for 5 minutes, focusing on your breathing and the sensations you are feeling in your body.
- That’s it! There are many resources online with alternative instructions and tips/tricks to make the mindful meditation more effective. Feel free to experiment!
Remember to be patient – just like any other learning process, it can take time to understand and feel the benefits of mindfulness. Start out with short meditations and slowly increase the time as you get better at it.
Mindful meditation in conjunction with a tailored exercise program can be greatly beneficial for managing conditions such as persistent pain. Schedule a free initial physiotherapy assessment with Back in Motion Mentone to see how we can help you get that pain under control so that you can get back to the things you love!
Author: Jason (Zi Xuan) Zhang
Physiotherapist, Back In Motion Mentone