Mindfulness: 5 Tips for Practice Success

Mindfulness meditation seems to be everywhere these days, and for good reason.  Its practice has been scientifically shown to be beneficial for improving mental health, reducing depression recurrence, managing chronic illness, and addressing insomnia.  Neuroimaging studies are beginning to uncover the effects of mindfulness on neural activity.

Contrary to a popular misconception that emptying your mind and getting rid of thoughts is the cornerstone of success or doing it "right," mindfulness involves training the mind to attend to the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude of openness, acceptance, and curiosity.

The following are five simple tips to get you started with your mindfulness practice:

1. Opt for guided practice initially.  As with any new skill, having someone guide you through the practice initially will be invaluable, as it will provide pacing and structure for the practice.  Guidance might be from a therapist who offers individual or group training, or from online sources.  The appropriately named, Franticworld.com, and Headspace.com, are good, free sites to start with.  Franticworld features downloadable MP3 files both for general mindfulness practice and for applying mindfulness to coping with health conditions.  Headspace offers a 10-module crash course in mindfulness practice with clever animations and videos to illustrate key mindfulness concepts.

2. Allow the mind to wander.  The truth is, your mind will wander.  Your mind wanders throughout the day and it will wander during mindfulness practice.  There really is no way around it.  Trying to control the wandering mind or expecting otherwise is a recipe for frustration and disappointment.  Regarding mind wandering: Expect it, accept it, notice it, then redirect your mind back to being mindful of whatever you are being mindful of, such as your breath or body sensations.   Noticing when your mind as it wanders and redirecting it to present experience is an important mindfulness skill thought to be central to managing mood.

3. Practice first thing in the morning.  Think about your current morning routine and how it sets the stage for the day for you, mentally and emotionally.  Does your current routine reinforce or encourage a mentally and emotionally grounded approach to the day? Or, does it engender franticness, dread, and stress?  The nice thing about practicing mindfulness first thing in the morning is that you can settle your mind and bring a sense of centred awareness into your daily activities.

4. Practice in the evening.  Mindfulness practice at the end of the day can be an effective way to calm the mind and settle the self emotionally and physically.  This can be part of an evening wind-down routine that can promote separation or distance from the events of the day, which can also be beneficial for sleep (For additional ideas on how to sleep better, click here and here).       

5. Keep an eye on judgment.  A frequent question that may arise during mindfulness practice is whether you are doing it "right."  Or you might ask if mindfulness is "working" or why it is that you cannot seem to settle your mind? Such questions are natural but shift your mind from being open and observing of your present experience to being judgmental or evaluative of your experience which is counter to the core intent of mindfulness.  When these types of questions or thoughts arise, notice and label it as "judgment or evaluation" and redirect your mind to practicing mindful awareness.          

Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will include tips for mindful living.

Emotional First Aid

Image courtesy of  samarttiw

Image courtesy of samarttiw

The concept of first aid for physical wounds and injuries is a simple one that is often learned early on.  When there is a minor cut on your finger, most of us have learned how to clean it, disinfect it, and bandage it.  For more serious wounds or injuries, we generally know to seek medical attention.  When we fall ill with the flu, we know to stay home, drink lots of fluids, and get plenty of rest.  It amazes me that even my three year old niece knows the protocol for basic first aid.  When she spotted a cut on my hand, she asked, empathetically, with a furrowed brow, "Are you hurt? Do you need a Band-Aid?"

But what about emotional hurts and injuries? What do we know about emotional first aid?  What have we been taught?  What has been modelled by significant others with respect to how to express and address their own or others' emotional pain?

Emotional first aid is an area that is less intuitive and straight forward as putting on a bandage or seeing a doctor.  Not uncommonly, people disclose to me that they have few or no helpful strategies to address their own emotional wounds and injuries, often relying on strategies that are less helpful in the long run, such as self-criticism, avoidance/procrastination, or overindulging in various vices (e.g., videogames, shopping, work, food, alcohol, sex, substances).  What are the potential costs to the individual, family, or even society when people do not learn how to adaptively regulate their own emotions and empathetically address their own emotional wounds?

If you are interested in learning more, Psychologist Guy Winch describes 7 ways to practice emotional first aid: http://ideas.ted.com/7-ways-to-practice-emotional-first-aid/

What I would love to see happen is a perspective shift where emotional education and emotional first aid is prioritized and prized as much as academic achievement is, where it is taught at an early age, at home and as part of the standard school curriculum.         

8 Tips for Stress Relief


My last article focused on increasing awareness about the signs and symptoms of stress, as well as how to determine when stress becomes problematic.  As mentioned in the previous article, be sure to consult your doctor to rule out any physical causes or medical reasons for stress-like symptoms.  Of course, stress can often make a medical issue more difficult to manage and patients often find that their symptoms are worse when life gets stressful.

Tips for Stress Relief

  1. Learn, then regularly practice a breathing or relaxation exercise to dial down your nervous system's response to stress.  There are many forms of breathing and relaxation exercises, ranging from visualization and imagery exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, Qi Gong, yoga, tai chi, autogenic relaxation, etc.  Find something that works for you, then carve out time to practice on a regular basis.
  2. Learn about mindfulness.  Mindfulness hails from Eastern traditions and it involves paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and nonjudgmentally.  If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, consider the writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams.  The site, http://www.franticworld.com is a good starting point as it has free guided meditations that will provide a taste of what mindfulness is about.
  3. Make time for exercise every day.  Exercise is a powerful way to dampen your body's stress response.  Research has shown that even a brisk 10 minute walk can boost your mood.
  4. Reduce alcohol, tobacco and caffeine use.  Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine use can often escalate during times of stress.  Many people find that these strategies may feel helpful in the short-term, but given the risks to physical and emotional health over time with prolonged and excessive use, it's best to find other, healthier ways to cope with stress.
  5. Maintain a healthy diet.  Appetite may increase or decrease during times of stress.  It is also not uncommon to crave certain high fat, high sugar foods when feeling stressed.  Consult your physician or a dietitian regarding healthy eating habits and a dietary plan that is right for you.
  6. Share your concerns with a friend or loved one.  The stress buffering effects of social support have been well documented in scientific studies (for a recent review, click here).  If you are unable to access emotional supports within your personal network, consider seeking professional support from a mental health professional.  
  7. Learn to say "no" to unnecessary or unfulfilling activities.  People often feel obliged to say "yes" to all requests, large or small, necessary or not.  This is especially true of those of us who are by nature, "people pleasers."  During times of stress, energy conservation is key, thus learn to suppress that inner "pleaser" and be selective about the requests, favors, or new projects that you take on and say "yes" only to activities or tasks that are fulfilling, necessary, or meaningful to you.
  8. Make time for hobbies and leisure interests.  Work-life balance can be sorely missing or off-kilter during times of stress.  Life can start to look like it's composed strictly of work, deadlines, responsibilities, errands, and obligations.  Reintroduce balance by deliberately scheduling leisure or fun activities into your calendar.  Scheduling the activity will make it more likely to happen and will provide something fun to look forward to.    

Consult a psychologist or other health professional if you are having difficulty managing stress on your own.

When does Stress become a Problem?

(c) jtanki

(c) jtanki

The word, "stress" seems pretty ubiquitous in our everyday language.  It's not uncommon to hear people say, "I'm so stressed out!" or "there's just too much stress!"  Based on the findings of the Canadian Community Health Survey (2011),  23.6% of  Canadians aged 15 and older reported that most days were 'extremely or quite a  bit stressful.'  Gender differences were noted, such that 25% of females reported that most days were 'quite a bit' or 'extremely stressful,' compared with 22% of males. 

There can be countless of sources of stress; it can arise from positive events (e.g., getting married, having a baby), negative life events (e.g., a health-related crisis, death of a loved one), daily hassles (e.g., argument with your spouse, being stuck in traffic), or major life events/milestones (e.g., promotion, retirement).   

Is all stress bad for you? The fact is, stress is a normal and unavoidable aspect of our daily living, and without the stress of overcoming challenges, changes, and hardships in our lives, we would not grow to develop resilience or "grit."  So the old adage, what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, rings true where stress is concerned.  

What are some common symptoms of stress?  Due to the non-specific nature of some of these symptoms, prior to concluding that a symptom you have is stress-related, especially if it is a new symptom, please consult your doctor.  Of course, people often find that stress can makes an existing physical or emotional concern worse or more difficult to manage.  Here are some common signs and symptoms of stress:   

  • Feeling tense, restless, on edge
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Concentration difficulty
  • Uncontrollable worry
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol
  • Smoking more than usual

When does stress become a problem? Stress becomes a problem when it significantly affects your emotional well-being, self-care, or your ability to function at home, work, or in your personal relationships.  

What to do when stress is taking a toll? In the next article, strategies for managing stress better will be shared.  However, for additional support, consult a health care professional with expertise in stress reduction.