In the Beginning there was….

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ― Aristotle

In the beginning, there was…..

A raisin.

“A what? What on earth are you going on about?”

Let me explain and it will all become clear.

One of the first; possibly the most basic of all mindfulness practices, is called the Raisin Practice. It is the first practice in the eight-week mindfulness programme written by Doctor Mark Williams that I completed a few years ago (a link to the book and programme is at the end of this blog post if you want to find out more). You can use a raisin, or you can use some chocolate – though that tends to get very sticky and messy as you have to hold the chocolate for a while! It is a fantastic and simple way for people to be introduced to the world of mindfulness.

So what is the practice and how can you do it yourself or with others? The Raisin Practice is a mindfulness exercise that requires you to focus your mind on the present moment using all your senses – what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The idea is that by focusing all your attention on the raisin, you help to bring your mind into the moment and train it to notice the present.

A favorite of children’s lunch boxes, handing these out and using them with adults in a mindfulness practice can sometimes come as a bit of a surprise. The technique may sound simple, but being still and present can be hard, especially with such a small thing as a raisin.

I am going to be holding an introductory session on Mindfulness; being held via video skype; to a group of work colleagues. I will be using the Raisin practice as the basis for the session. So how on earth am I going to do the exercise?

I plan to have a colleague hand out the raisins and then follow the steps below:

How do you practice the Raisin meditation? Before you begin, find a quiet spot where you can sit down and relax. You might find taking a few deep breaths will help you loosen the body and bring your mind to the practise. Once you’re ready, pick up the raisin and hold it in your hand. The next steps follow your senses.

1. Look at the raisin. Really concentrate. Let your eyes roam over the raison and pick out all the details– the colour, areas of light and shade, any ridges or shine from the crystalised sugars of the fruit. Before moving onto the next step, close your eyes, as this can heighten your other senses and help you focus.

2. Touch the raisin. With your eyes closed, place the raison into the palm of your hand. With your fingers explore the raisin’s texture. Is the skin waxy? Are there any edges? Is it sharp? It is soft or hard? Does it feel bigger that what you saw? Sometimes it can feel bigger.

3. Smell the raisin. Bring it close to your nose (don’t stick it up there!) and breath deeply. Concentrate on any scents and fragrances you can detect. Does the raisin smell sweet? Or perhaps earthy? Has this triggered your taste buds, saliva in your mouth or made your tummy grumble? Do you notice any other smells?

4. Taste the raisin. With your eyes still closed, place the raisin into your mouth. Notice how your hand instinctively knows where to go. Don’t chew yet, just spend some time concentrating on how the raisin feels on your tongue. Turn it over in your mouth and feel it’s texture on the roof of your mouth.Take a single bite into the fruit. Don’t swallow it yet. Focus your mind on the sensations just released into your mouth. How does it taste? How does this develop as the moments pass? How has the raisin changed? Do the smaller pieces of fruit feel different? Can you taste sweetness? Caramel? Any bitterness?

 

5. Finally, hear the sounds you make as you chew the raisin. You might hear the crunch of sugars; the motions of your jaws; the movement of your tongue as it helps you to maneuver the chewed raison and finally swallow it. Do you feel the remains of the raisin as it starts to travel down your throat?

Now take a moment to notice how your whole body feels. The calmness. The stillness of the moment.

When you are ready, start to awaken your mind. You might want to move gently, slowly open your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

With the meditation exercise now complete, you can carry on with your day. You will notice though a deeper insight into the day.

As mentioned at the start of the post, the link to the Book, “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world” is below. I have recommended this book to numerous people and they have found it of benefit, by following the audio guided eight week mindfulness programme. Check it out at:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindfulness-practical-guide-finding-frantic/dp/074995308X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Finally, as always, I leave you with the following quote.

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”  ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

…. Namaste ….

Tips for dealing with anxiety

“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.” ― Charles Haddon Spurgeon

A chance comment at the weekend sparked a long conversation on the causes of anxiety and how to cope with it. It is not often that you find yourself in the depths of a conversation about anxiety when you are getting your haircut, but that’s what happened to me. The person felt that they were anxious and had been feeling so for about a month. This had also affected their sleep pattern, work and home life.

So what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response to stress or danger and is often called the ‘flight or fight’ response. This is the expression that is often used when animals are presented with a danger – do they fight or do they run away? The ‘flight or fight’ process involves adrenalin being quickly pumped through the body enabling it to cope with whatever catastrophe may come your way. There are problems that arise when this response is out of proportion to the actual danger of the situation, or indeed is generated when there is no actual danger present.

Physical symptoms can include:                         Psychological symptoms can include:
Butterflies in the stomach                                           Wanting to escape or run away
Racing heartbeat                                                            Inner tension and relaxation
Shortness of breath                                                         Feeling agitated most of the time
Chest tightness                                                                 A fear of losing control
Dry mouth                                                                          A feeling of detachment or loss

Is feeling anxious common?

Anxiety disorders are very common. In a Office for National Statistics survey 1 in 6 adults had experienced some form of ‘neurotic health problem’ in the previous week. More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life. The most recent Psychiatric Morbidity Survey indicates that there are some 3 million with an anxiety disorder. So it is common and more common than you think.

What causes anxiety?

My friend that I was speaking to, said that it seemed to come on after they had given up smoking. Within a couple of days, they had started to feel tremors all the time; a feeling of a racing heartbeat; fear of going to sleep and wanting to be outside. We did not discuss the details of what was the cause as there are many factors that can trigger an anxiety disorder – stress; physical factors; something that triggers a historical memory or even a biochemical imbalance. Knowing the origins of an anxiety disorder doesn’t help in dealing with the day to day problems that arise as a result of the disorder. My friend was not interested in what had caused it, as they could not identify the cause themselves, rather they wanted to know how to deal with it.

As we chatted, I shared that I, too, had felt anxious in the past and I had used the practice of mindfulness to help reduce my levels of anxiousness. A doctor had mentioned to my friend that mindfulness is recognised as an effective treatment method and they wanted to know more.

I shared some of the practices and approaches that I have used. A couple of really useful practices I describe below:

Breath counting

This technique is very easy and you can do it almost anywhere. It is generally better to do this with your eyes closed. On your next in-breath, count up to 6 as you breathe all the way in, and then on the out-breath, count up to 10 as you breathe all the way out. This technique has the effect of lengthening both the in-breath and the out-breath, slowing down your breathing. It also lengthens the out-breath more than the in-breath, forcing you to release more carbon dioxide, slowing your heart rate, calming you down and restoring emotional equilibrium.

Make sure you fit the numbers to your breath and not the other way around. If 6 and 10 don’t work for you, find another ratio that does, as long as the out-breath is at least two counts longer than the in-breath. If it’s too hard to continue breathing while counting, count for one full breath, then take one normal breath and count the next one.

Finger breathing

Finger breathing is another version of breath counting and does not rely on you closing your eyes. Hold one hand in front of you, palm facing towards you. With the index finger of your other hand, trace up the outside length of your thumb while you breath in, pausing at the top of your thumb and then trace it down the other side while you breathe out. That’s one breath. Trace up the side of the next finger while you breathe in, pause at the top, and then trace down the other side of that finger while you breathe out. That’s two breaths. Keep going, tracing along each finger as you count each breath. When you get the end of the last finger, come back up that finger and do it in reverse.

This practice gives you something visual to focus on and something kinaesthetic to do with your hands as well as focusing on counting and your breathing. It is very useful when there is a lot going around you and it is hard to just close your eyes and focus inwards. It’s also a very easy technique to teach teenagers and kids.

Why not give them a go and notice what happens.

I leave you with the following quote that made me smile.

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”  ― Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

Do you have just 3 minutes spare today?

“I don’t suffer from my insanity — I enjoy every minute of it.” ― Sherrilyn KenyonDance with the Devil

It has been a little while since I posted something. Work has been absolutely manic with a major change programme in full spate. Add to that the week’s holiday at the end of October, and it feels as if I have skipped the end of the summer and have landed with both feet in the middle of winter; looking around thinking where did that month go?

Anyway, I have been continuing to practice mindfulness, even in the midst of the pressure and work. With everyone rushing about, trying to deliver against deadlines, it has been difficult and at times; I have had to take only a few minutes during the day to be present.

Even 3 minutes, yes, 3 minutes are enough to bring yourself back to the present moment.  And this is where the three-minute meditation came into its own. I have practised this in the office and even first thing in the morning or at the end of the day, whilst in the car driving – through stopped in a traffic jam I might add.

So what is the exercise?

The Three-minute Breathing Space meditation

Step 1: Becoming aware

  • Deliberately adopt an erect and dignified posture, whether sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes. Then, bring your awareness to your inner experience and acknowledge it, asking: what is my experience right now?
  • What thoughts are going through the mind? As best you can, acknowledge thoughts as mental events. Don’t judge them. Just see them as thoughts.
  • What feelings are here? Turn towards any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging them without trying to make them different from how you find them.
  • What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or stiffness, acknowledging the sensations, but, once again, not trying to change them in any way.

Step 2: Gathering and focusing attention

  • Now, redirect the attention to a narrow ‘spotlight’ on the physical sensations of the breath, move in close to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen . . . expanding as the breath comes in . . . and falling back as the breath goes out.
  • Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out. Use each breath as an opportunity to anchor yourself into the present. And if the mind wanders, gently escort the attention back to the breath.

Step 3: Expanding attention

  • Now, expand the field of awareness around the breathing so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture, maybe even your facial expression or how you are sitting as if the whole body was breathing.
  • Aware of the whole body, moment by moment.

And that is that as they say.

 

 

So go on. Give it a  try. What have you got to lose in that busy; hectic; full on the day ahead of you. 3 minutes is all it takes.

I leave you with the following quote:

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Lao Tzu

Stress and the pressures of life

“The reason many people in our society are miserable, sick, and highly stressed is because of an unhealthy attachment to things they have no control over.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

I have been silent for a while.

Not in the speaking sense, but from a blog posting perspective. Life and mostly work have been the focus for the past month. A major transformation programme got to launch position and from that day on, it has been full on. Not just for me, but for a whole group of people.

The teams involved have been working long hours, resolving issues as they came up. As someone said “Fixing the wings, at the same time as the plane was flying”.

This put a huge amount of pressure onto everyone involved, me included.

Some people reacted to the stress and pressure by going silent. Some by shouting and swearing. Others still, looked like they were carrying the world on their shoulders. Everyone was impacted in some way. I, too, felt the stress, but, I feel I dealt with it in a slightly different way.

I became more focused; but at the same time, more focused only on the moment at hand; rather than the whole situation. This is part of the mindfulness training and background that I have developed over the past few years. Experiencing “present moment awareness” and only the “present moment”. It is one of the cornerstones of Mindfulness practice and it is something that you can use, not only in a formal manner, but also day to day, even moment to moment.

So what is Present Moment Awareness?

So often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. Present-moment awareness involves monitoring and attending to your current experience rather than predicting future events or dwelling on the past. In effect focusing all your attention on the “now”. The present moment is all there ever is. If you don’t believe me, let me give you another premise.

I will do a follow-up article on some of the steps you can take to develop present moment awareness, over and above formal Mindfulness practice.

How long is “now”?

Ugghh? What on earth is Martin banging on about now?

Well, according to a number of studies, it is approximately 3 seconds. Yep, 3 seconds. Whether it is giving someone a hug (I would not necessarily recommend that at work), through reading an e: mail marketeers latest e: mail to you extolling the virtues of xyz; different studies suggest that “now” or the present moment is about 3 seconds in length. In fact, we go through life perceiving the present in a series of 3-second windows. Outside of that timeframe, we then start to either use memory as an aid, or we start to store what is going on around us in short term memory.

Part of my mindfulness awareness, is that I can not change the past, nor can I impact the future. I can only exist in the present moment. Neither can I influence the actions of others, or correct the mistakes that other have made. In addition, I am not responsible for the outcomes of others.

Does this make me more detached? Nope. In fact it helps me increase focus on the present activity and helps me deliver the task at hand. It also helps, as I am more calm and for those around me, that can help them as well.

Nope. In fact, it helps me increase focus on the present activity and helps me deliver the task at hand. It also helps, as I am calmer and for those around me, that can help them as well.

So being present is literally, as short as 3 seconds. I would not advocate using that as a reference when being at work, but I would say, that recognising life is lived in the present moment, is key to dealing with the stress of life.

If you would like to read the article on e: mail marketing or the article on hugs, which both reference the 3 second effect, check out the following links.

https://www.digitaldoughnut.com/articles/2016/march/your-marketing-email-has-only-3-seconds-to-capture

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/01/hugs-follow-3-second-rule
In the mean time, I leave you with the following quote.

“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

Fears, Worries and anxieties?

Above all, we don’t know the future. It’s the other side of our dependence on chance. Things can get slightly better for reasons it’s hard to foresee. Just as pleasures fade and can seem meaningless in retrospect, so pains (at least sometimes) can pass or soften. The School of Life, on Feeling Depressed

Stress is an unavoidable part of modern life.

There are two main kinds of stress — acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.

Chronic stress — the kind most of us face day in, day out — is a killer.

However, what does not help is that we pile even more onto ourselves in terms of fears. worries and anxieties into the chronic stress mix.

I came across a really great phrase that seems to capture the idea of fears. worries and anxieties. The phrase came from Henry David Thoreau. He talked about “quiet desperation: a large, grey hinterland in which beneath an outward surface of endurance, we feel exhausted, close to tears, beyond the sympathetic understanding of others, easily irritated and daunted by the simplest task”. Perhaps we should call it “Thoreau stress”.

Many situations can trigger it. Work. Family. Friends. A social situation.

People try to hide their feelings. We can all put on a facade of fake happiness. I am sure we have all done it in the past. It is hard to maintain and since it is false, people quickly see through it. This makes it even harder as people around you know that there is something not right, but because you can not share, it places a double bind on the whole thing.

I have experienced it and I am sure those that are reading this have experienced it too. It is not something that comes upon you quickly and then fades as quickly. Rather it is something that builds over time. Normally based on a constant pressure that you are trying to cope with.

You might feel that it is all “your fault”. But it is not. I have come to realise that many times, it is self-talk and not stepping back from the situation that piles on the pressure. In addition, you can get caught up in your own emotions and feelings. As I call it “self-ruminating”, over the same situation or course of events.

Tasks and activities; even talking, can become hard. You might lose focus. You might feel that you can not move forward, sideways or even backwards. Stuck in a hinterland of fears, worries and anxiety.

For me, my continuing journey with Mindfulness helps. Is is the cure-all? No. Absolutely not.

I still get those feelings and can get caught up in those Thoreau moments. The first step on any journey is to recognise where you are and that is the case for me now. When those moments come, I know that they are happening. I can recognise the signs. With the mindfulness programmes I have done, I know I can do a breathing exercise; or a body scan; or even mindful walking. The last one is the one I find the best for me.

I have always loved getting out in the fresh air. Walking in the countryside. I combine this with a deliberate walking exercise. And it certainly helps. Does it fix everything? No. But as the quote at the start of the article says “Above all, we don’t know the future. It’s the other side of our dependence on chance. “ And that is what I believe in.

By the way. The photo I am using, was from a recent walk. Enjoy.

The article that inspired this blog can be found at:

http://www.thebookoflife.org/on-feeling-depressed/

I leave you with the following quote:

“If only we could see into the minds of strangers, friends and loved ones we would feel so much less alone and recognise we are all feeling similar things. Hopes. Dreams. Fears. Desires. Wanting to connect. “

 

 

Ruminating and how to change how you think?

“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.” ― Terry Pratchett, Diggers

We all self-reflect on situations and life’s events. Constantly. Every moment of every day. I do it. You do it. We all do it. It is one of the most powerful, and yet potentially destructive features of our makeup.

We ruminate.

When people ruminate, they over-think about situations or life events, including; work challenges; relationships issues; problems with friendships; money worries; and even health issues. Research has shown that rumination is associated with a variety of negative consequences, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, binge-drinking, and binge-eating.

Ruminating is like a record that’s stuck and keeps repeating the same lyrics.

Sorry, that is an ageist analogy. I used that with my children, they looked at me blankly. I just asked my teenage daughter and her comment was that sounds like when you watch something on playback on the internet and you have to keep restarting the playback session.

What causes rumination episodes?

It is not clear exactly why we ruminate, although there are strong reasons to believe that it may be an unsuitable mental coping strategy adopted to try and cope with strong emotions; such as the fear of loss, impending significant change or a major life / relationship challenge.

What is the impact of rumination?

Rumination paralyzes your problem-solving skills. You become so preoccupied with the problem that you’re unable to push past the cycle of negative thoughts. You cycle round and round not able to break out of the self-talk. You start to feel helpless and if left unchecked potentially into depression.  It takes time to cycle out of a rumination event. For some, it can be hours, for others, it can be days. For some, unfortunately, they are unable to cycle out of the rumination event and cycle down into a depressive episode. We all have experienced a rumination episodes. For me, my most recent one took about twenty-four hours to cycle out of the event. A number of the techniques below helped me.

How do you begin to change your mind and reduce rumination episodes?
There are a number of ways to help reduce the impact of a rumination episode and even shorten the duration.

Positive problem-solve the situation: People who ruminate not only replay the negative and helpless situation in their head, they also focus on abstract questions, such as, “Why does this happen to me?”; “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why do I keep making the same mistake?” or the ultimate one “Why am I a failure?”.

Positive thought activities: Engage in activities that foster positive thoughts. These could be anything from a favorite physical activity such as swimming, walking, running or cycling; to a hobby; or even to meditation, which is the technique that I use to help deal with the episode. The main thing is to get your mind distracted away from the rumination for a time so that the thoughts begin to subside and hopefully die out.

Instead, when you can think positively and clearly you can try to change the “self talk tape”. Identify at least one positive, constructive and concrete thing you could do to overcome the problem you are ruminating about.

For instance, if you’re worried about a situation at work, commit to sitting down with a close colleague to discuss the situation and how to deal with it.

If you have a relationship challenge, commit to sitting and talking through the positive aspects of the relationship; the things that you both appreciate in each other.

There are many different ways to help change your self-talk. If you have techniques that work for you, it would be wonderful if you could share.

I leave you with the following quote.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Mahatma Gandhi

How stress affects your brain?

“If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.” ― Śāntideva

In my previous post, I shared with you some of the physical effects that stress can cause to your body. The most common causes of stress include work, money matters and relationships with partners, children or other family members. Stress may be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement,

What are stress hormones?

Chronic stress increases stress hormones and these affect many brain functions, putting you at risk for mood disorders and other mental issues. When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brain’s core functions and even its structure down to the level of your DNA.

There are two types of stress hormone, one called adrenaline and the other called cortisol.

Adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) are stress hormones produced on an as needed basis in moments of extreme excitement. They help you think and move fast in an emergency. They are the body rocket boosters to help you move quickly. Adrenaline does not linger in the body, dissipating as quickly as they were created.

Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long, and that’s what makes it so dangerous. It can leaving you feeling exhausted and wired but tired in the short term. In the medium term it can lead to weight gain, mood swings, poor sleep, short attention span, and memory issues.

Long term excessive cortisol leads to a host of health problems including: diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, cancer, and even heart disease.


How does stress affect the brain?

While stress and cortisol take a toll on your body, they take an equally high toll on your brain.
Stress can affect your thoughts and feelings. In fact, it can change the very brain itself, its wiring and structure.

Some of these brain-related stress symptoms will be obvious to you, like memory problems, anxiety, and worry. But most of these effects of stress on your brain are “behind the scenes.” You don’t notice they’re happening but you will notice the side effects … eventually.

Here are a number of ways chronic stress impacts your brain health and mental well-being along with simple steps you can take to counteract the damage.

  • Stress creates excess cortisol which in turn creates a surplus of glutamate. Glutamate creates free radicals that kill brain cells.
  • Chronic stress makes you forgetful and emotional. Studies show that when you’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen.
  • Stress builds up an area of your brain called the amygdala. This is your brain’s fear center. Stress increases the size, activity level and number of neural connections in this part of your brain. This makes you more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress.
  • The cortisol hormone blocks the production of a protein that is used to create new brain cells.
  • Stress depletes critical brain chemicals, especially serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.
  • Stress predisposes you to developing a variety of mental illnesses including anxiety and panic disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug addiction and alcoholism.
  • Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times — exams, job interviews, and major life events. Stress impairs your memory and makes you bad at making decisions.
  • Stress can measurably shrink your brain. Cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories.
  • On Top of All This … Chronic stress destroys your happiness and peace of mind. It wears you down mentally and emotionally and saps the joy from life.

How do you begin to deal with Stress?

The first and most important point is recognizing that you are suffering from stress. With so many physical and emotional symptoms, you can be confused as to what is actually going on. For me, I came to recognize it was stress through the changes in the way I was dealing with situations. I was feeling far more emotional than normal.  It seems counter-intuitive, but trying some of the stress relaxing techniques helps you to understand you were suffering from stress.

Exercise: You can try physical exercise, such as running, walking or swimming. I love to get out and go for a walk. I can’t swim for toffee and my running days are long gone after I broke my ankle a few years ago.

Connect to others: The simple act of talking face to face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress. Being helpful and friendly to others also helps to reduce stress as well as providing great opportunities to expand your social network. I go to a monthly Mindfulness sitting group and also go to retreats, combining mindfulness practices with being with other like minded people.

Mindfulness: Set aside time to practice Mindfulness. A little and often is far better. Check out some of my blog posts on Mindfulness practices. Mindfulness actually helps you to train your brain.

I leave you with the following quote.

“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” Frank Herbert, Dune