The Christmas period is often a time of increased tension, stress or anxiety for many and can result in unpleasant experiences for individuals or families. Spending an extended period of time with friends and family doesn’t happen very often, so it would be beneficial for all if we were able to approach the festive season with a peaceful mind.
What causes stress at Christmas?
Mindfulness shows us that the struggles we go through in life often aren’t external to us (as we believe them to be) but are instead based in our perception and thoughts/beliefs about a situation. Most of us feel the pressure to get the right gifts for the right people, spend enough money but not too much money, make sure everyone has enough food and drink, wear the right outfit, attend the right events or parties, not drink too much,…and inevitably find time to demonstrate the right amount of merriment on social media…
A lot of the pressure we experience during the festive season can be found in our thought patterns or learned responses. Thoughts of how things should be and comparison to ideals or others can be harmful. If we tune into the present moment (no pun intended) and observe our true experience in the moment, we may find that we are able to enjoy the season more than previously. If something does go wrong – the turkey is dry, you couldn’t get that last minute gift because it had sold out – you can use mindfulness techniques to bring yourself back to the moment instead of getting caught in unhelpful negative thought patterns.
Tips to move mindfully through the festive season
A mindful queueing experience: You can’t avoid them, there are queues in shops, in supermarkets and on the roads this time of year. Every year we know it will happen the closer we get the Christmas, but every year we find ourselves frustrated, tense, irritated and sometimes infuriated with the constant waiting. Battling against the flow of life is a great source of stress for us. If we catch ourselves as frustration arises and instead of letting it take hold, we bring ourselves to our immediate experience of the moment. No judgment, no likes or dislikes, just observation. What does impatience feel like? Where is it held in the body? Try to feel it rather than think about it with the usual ‘why is this taking so long?’ ‘I should have joined the other queue’. You will notice almost straight away that tension eases out of your body and impatience gives way to patience naturally.
3 minute breathing space: When things get really testing (either during the build-up to Christmas day or during a family gathering for example) we often say things we regret or experience anger with ourselves or others. When we feel that a situation is getting too difficult, we can take 3 very effective steps to transform the moment mindfully.
- If you feel anger, impatience or frustration arising, catch it as soon as you are able and stop yourself from speaking or acting negatively. If you need to remove yourself from a situation, you can do so.
- Ground yourself in the moment by tuning into your breath. If you are agitated, try taking long slow breaths for a few minutes to give yourself space.
- Pay attention to what you are experiencing. Try to feel it in the body instead of listening to your thoughts about a situation or person. Bring your awareness back to the moment and your direct experience of it. Try to bring awareness to how a situation affects everybody, rather than just you.
Reclaim time: We always run out of time at Christmas. Not enough time to finish the shopping, wrap the gifts, visit friends and family, finish things off at work before the break. The constant rushing and pressure to ‘people please’ often leaves us more tired after the Christmas holiday than before it. This year, make a little time for yourself. The pressure we feel is often self-applied, so take a load off. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but a little mindful self-care can go a long way. Take a walk outside and take in all that nature has to offer this season. Take a long bath with some essential oils. Read a new book. Find opportunities to bring yourself and your experience back into the present moment as often as possible instead of living in an imagined future or re-living a past event.
Christmas is the perfect time to practice gratitude; not just for the gifts given and received, but for all the fortunate things we experience in life that often get swamped by thoughts of how life should be or what we should have achieved ‘by now’. Take a few moments each day to list the things you are grateful for…I bet that list is much longer than your Christmas wish list.
The changing of the seasons from summer to autumn is a favourite time of year for many. The turning leaves and the activity of wildlife can be a feast for the eyes if we get the opportunity to go outside. It may also signal the onset of SAD for many, from the darker mornings and evenings and less time to appreciate the daylight.
One way to improve mood and cultivate mindfulness, which can help through the darker months, is to practice mindful walking. Taking the time to tune into our bodies and our environment can bring a new appreciation for the colder months and can lift the mood enormously.
Mindful walking doesn’t mean taking a hike through the countryside however. It can be practised anywhere; in nature, during the commute or even indoors.
So what is it?
Mindful walking can take many forms but largely falls into one of two categories (or a mixture of both): body awareness and environment awareness. To practice body awareness, we can move with the breath, observing the natural breathing pattern or tuning the breath into each step taken. With environmental awareness, we move steadily but turn our attention to our sensory experience of the environment. What we can see, hear, smell, feel etc. The important thing to remember, mindful walking is not about travelling from A to B, it’s not about getting somewhere. It’s about fully experiencing the present moment through the action of walking.
How to do it
- Start walking at a slow and steady pace. Try to match your steps to your breathing but keep the breathing pattern natural rather than extending the breaths.
- You can hold your hands and arms where they are comfortable – at your sides, behind your back, wherever you like
- Get used to this pace as you walk around your garden, around your house or along the street – wherever you choose
- Start to bring your awareness to the feeling of your feet touching the ground. The contact points at various moments of each step. Notice how your arms move. Notice the sway of your hips and your balance as your step from one foot to another. Notice how you hold your head and shift your gaze as you walk.
- If you get distracted, gently bring your attention back to the awareness of your body in motion
- Try mindful walking for 10 minutes and as you finish, pause for a few moments and set an intention to take mindfulness into the other activities of your day.
- Start off following the first three steps as for body awareness above
- When you are walking with the breath at a comfortable pace, start to shift your awareness to what you can see. Raise your eye level to take in your surroundings fully. Notice the shapes, colours and textures of the things in your environment. Really take in the details.
- Next move to what you can hear; the breeze, trees rustling, birdsong, vehicles, people talking, machinery – whatever it is, really pay attention to the sounds in the moment
- Move on to what you can smell and feel. Use your senses fully to anchor yourself in the present moment.
- If you get distracted or carried away by thought, just bring yourself back to the sensations of the moment as you steadily continue to walk.
- As you finish, set yourself a mindful intention for the day.
As you become more experienced at mindful walking, you can try increasing the pace (if you want to) so that you can move mindfully wherever you are going. Otherwise, you can keep mindful walking as a formal practice that you make time for each day.
Every day should be a mental health day, but while we have the chance for global recognition of the importance of mental health, we should take it. The World Health Organisation recognises the importance of mental health each year with a day dedicated to spreading recognition and education.
Wellbeing is an active, participant led experience. We can’t passively wait for wellbeing to improve (although time may help), instead, when we have the opportunity, we can make small changes and take small steps to improve mental health and all-round wellbeing.
What should you be doing on World Mental Health Day? You will see lots of campaigns all with different mental health themes highlighting action, education and impact studies on mental health. Here, I’d like to highlight some small things that you can do for yourself or with someone who may be experiencing mental health struggles to make a difference today.
If you don’t feel ready for practical action, remember to show yourself kindness and compassion. We are good at looking after ourselves when we have the flu or a broken bone, but often berate ourselves internally when our thoughts or negative states of mind get the better of us. Mental health needs as much care and compassion as physical health. Try to reconnect with the moment through breathing meditation and allow yourself to ‘be’ rather than constantly trying to ‘do’. It’s ok to not be ok…
Try going outside
We have been lucky that the weather this WMHD is sunny and warm. Try sitting outside and taking a few moments in mindfulness. Tune into what you can hear (whether you are in the city or countryside) in the moment. Are the sounds near or far? Loud or soft? Natural or man-made? Next try noticing what you can feel – the sun on your face; breeze in your hair. Just being outside for a few moments can bring an appreciation for the beauty of life that is often lost when your mental health is affected.
Read a good book
It’s often hard to focus the mind or hold down thoughts when our mental health is suffering. Starting a simple task like reading a book can help relax the entire body and direct your thoughts into the present instead of the negative or ruminative thoughts that can occupy our minds. If you don’t enjoy reading, try mindful sketching or colouring, listening to music or playing an instrument. Even activities like baking can really bring you back to now, where your mind and body can rest.
Talk it over or write it down
Easier said than done I know, but when you are experiencing mental ill health, it’s important to maintain contact with family and friends. If you are experiencing difficulties, it’s important that you don’t try to struggle through on your own. It’s easy to stay at home alone under the duvet, but as I said at the start, wellbeing is an active process. Even a few words spoken in the gym or the shops can help you feel better. If you’re not ready to speak in person, try journalling your thoughts. Writing down your thoughts helps to rationalise them and gives context. What you may have spent all day worrying about could take on a new perspective when it’s before you in black and white. Writing or talking about how you feel helps you to let go of the grasp that we sometimes have when rumination kicks in. Turning thoughts into words can be a great release.
I’ve done a lot of ‘gratitude diaries’ over the years and I admit to being skeptical almost every time. However, they are a very useful activity for changing negative or unhelpful thought patterns. We can tend to get lost in our struggles or feel like we have a mountain to climb every day. If you spend a few moments throughout each day to list everything that you are grateful for, you will start to see that there are many things that can lift your mood each day: the sunlight coming through the curtains, the sound of birdsong, a good night’s sleep, an excellent cup of coffee on the way to work, the laughter of colleagues, a small kindness from a stranger, a good news story in the press, a good movie on TV, a long soak in the bath.
When your mood is low or life feels like a struggle, it often seems that when you wake up in the morning, the day seems to loom over you like an insurmountable obstacle. Try to break your day up into smaller sections so you can tackle each one with more energy and a lighter mood. Try to stay focused on the immediate activities that you are doing instead of casting your mind ahead with what-ifs and rumination. Stay present and let go of the weight of the future and the past.
I visited a primary school in Warwickshire recently and was pleased to see a display promoting wellbeing through 5 practical steps that are now promoted as basic steps to wellbeing all over the world. The ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ outline simple steps that we can all take to improve our wellbeing and are now advocated by the NHS in order to help people actively take control of their wellbeing. Starting small and building to a holistic approach to wellbeing can help us lessen or avoid more long-term conditions such as depression or anxiety that can effect physical and mental health for many years.
But what is wellbeing exactly? What are we trying to improve? Undoubtedly our mental health and states of mind, but wellbeing is a whole of life experience. An improvement in our overall quality of life and experience through practical, active steps to increase our levels of enjoyment, self-worth, physical and mental health and interactions with others.
This sounds like a big challenge, right? Definitely. But luckily the 5 ways to wellbeing really do work and are a great start to improving wellbeing.
The 5 Ways to Wellbeing
- Connect – There is strong evidence that being around others (friends, family, social groups) not only increases our all-round wellbeing, but also increases our longevity. Talking is the best therapy. You don’t have to share everything with others; start small. Make a meaningful connection instead of living in the digital world all the time. When you ask someone how they are, actually listen and pay attention to the answer. Speak to a stranger or make conversation while waiting in a queue. Try car sharing with a colleague; they might even become a friend.
- Be active – We have all read the decades of evidence that shows being physically active improves our mental health…so why do we still doubt it? Because it’s not easy to get active and stay active. But it’s not hard either. There are small changes we can make on the way to becoming more active and improving wellbeing. Take the stairs instead of the lift. Take a class after work with colleagues or organise a new sporting activity for all work colleagues to try. Go for a walk at lunchtime. Get off the bus a stop earlier and walk to your destination. If you feel like more of a challenge, take up a regular class that is proven to aid concentration, inner peace and help sleep…yoga is the obvious.
- Take notice – The basics of mindfulness; notice your surroundings. Be present in the moment and just ‘be’ instead of always ‘doing’. The only moment that exists is right now, so try to pay more attention to what is really going on instead of living in your head thinking about what has already happened or what might happen. Being mindful increases our awareness and knowledge of the self. If we know what we spend our time thinking about, we can start to change our thought patterns for the better. Living mindfully is a difficult task for the novice, but we can all try small steps. Choose a mindfulness cue; a sound or sight that whenever you hear/see it reminds you to take 60 seconds to be mindful and notice what’s going on in the environment.
- Keep learning – Not only is the mind kept active, but there is the chance for social interaction, being mindful and being active all rolled into one here. Continued learning can enhance self-esteem, motivation and can help you to prioritise goals and your own happiness. This doesn’t have to be a formal class to count as learning. You can try learning a new word each day, try reading the news in a foreign language, listen to classical music, join a book club.
- Give – By giving to others we develop our compassion which in turn increases our compassion for ourselves. Engaging in acts of kindness helps us to gain perspective on our own internal struggles and gain an understanding of the greater good. Giving your time, expertise or just random acts of kindness to others can greatly increase your wellbeing and decrease your attachment to seeking happiness through material gain.
I challenge you to try the 5 Winning Ways to Wellbeing for one week and track how you feel in body and mind. Leave a comment below about your experiences and check back to see my review of a week of Winning Ways to Wellbeing.
Mountains are often admired from afar for the qualities that they appear to have. Some of these qualities we find beneficial and seek in life: stability, longevity, calm, unwavering and balanced. When we spend some time really contemplating the image of a mountain, we see that it is constant and reliable through the seasons; it is a home for plants and animals; it provides shelter and protection; it abides in tranquility through the centuries.
While it’s often the case that we try not to actively ‘think’ in passive meditation, we can use the visualisation of a mountain in active meditation to assist us in contemplating and finding inner peace. If we spend time on the visualisation we can imagine ourselves taking on the qualities of the mountain.
The Mountain Meditation can be used as a regular practice or as an escape from the rigours of daily life as and when required. I use the Mountain Meditation often as a precursor to sitting with mindfulness of breathing; it acts as a relaxation technique and brings focus before working on expanding awareness.
How to do it…
- Sitting in a comfortable position on a cushion or chair, have the back straight but not tense and the hands resting in the lap.
- Bring the gaze down towards the floor and gently close the eyes.
- Spend a few minutes on breathing meditation/mindfulness of breathing
- Picture in your imagination a mountain – it could be a snowy mountain of the Alps or Himalayas, it could be a forested mountain bathed in sunshine
- Try to bring your image of a mountain into clear focus
- Observe its shape, lofty peak, solid based, gentle or sharply sloping sides, its surface (rocky, smooth, dusty, forested, snowy etc)
- Notice it’s enormous size and how solid and unmoving it is from afar and up close
- Try to bring the qualities of the mountain into your own body – your head becomes the lofty peak, sitting in your chair you are rooted at the base. Your arms become the slopes of the mountain. Feel the sense of uplift from the base of your body projecting through the crown of your head.
- The mountain experiences the force of the seasons – sun, rain, snow, gales. Through it all, it sits unchanging, experiencing all that comes its way
- The mountain never resists, complains or judges – it accepts everything, just being itself
- We can imagine embodying the same unwavering stillness and calmness.
- We can experience the fullness of life and its changes through the seconds, hours, years
- We will experience the changing nature of our minds, our body, the outside world. We will have periods of shade and of light. We can maintain the peace of the mountain throughout.
- Sit in stillness for a while.
- Gently open your eyes and mindfully arise from meditation after around 20 minutes.
The importance of raising awareness and recognition of mental health conditions is gaining a lot of support in the press and is high on the agenda for employers and health groups. It was great to hear that the Scout Troop Leaders at Armitage were exploring the theme of mental health with the Scouts over a number of weeks. Different activities were tried by the Scouts to encourage stress reduction and ways of helping to improve mental health.
I was invited along to teach a yoga class for the Scouts including some relaxation and meditation. There were around 30 Scouts ranging from 10 – 16 years old and all very eager to get started with yoga! I gave an introduction telling the Scouts how yoga can help improve mental health through concentration in the present moment, release of endorphins and breath control.
We tried some breathing exercises to lower the heart rate and increase oxygen circulation before going into a class themed with animal postures to keep the Scouts engaged throughout. After some downward dogs, dolphins, camels, tigers and flamingos thrown into the mix, we settled down to a final relaxation of counted breath. Surprisingly, quiet came to the room as everyone concentrated on their relaxation.
The session was a big success with the Scouts and the Troop Leaders who joined in, and gave a valuable taste of an alternative method for improving mental health.