Image Credit/Source: GettyImages, Stockphoto, Photographer Injenerker Fedorov Ivan
We have all been in that situation where we feel comfortable and content with our life, our choices, our work, until we find out that someone has it better. For instance, we learn at work that a colleague at the same level in the practice earns more than us or they have just been promoted ahead of us. All of a sudden we will automatically feel unhappy and badly treated. Suddenly we forget about all the things we have achieved to get where we are and we focus on the one thing we don’t have.
Desiring the things we don’t have
This is what we constantly do. Everyone has dreams and hopes, and this is good as it keeps us motivated. But sometimes we are so busy pursuing our dreams that we forget to notice what we have now and to appreciate and enjoy it.
That has become even more applicable in our digital world where information is easily on tap. We are bombarded by messages that tell us that we should have this, learn that and do this, in order to be happy and feel accomplished.
If that wasn’t enough, there is the additional stress that comes from urban life – traffic noise, air pollution, crowds. All of this creates emotional disturbance in our brain.
We are nearly always in a ‘fight or flight’ state where our brain is processing so much information and telling us that, somehow, we are in danger and we should be ready to defend ourselves or run away.
Can you be transported away from that?
I would like you to do a little exercise with me. Ideally you should close your eyes whilst doing this, but you need to keep reading so let’s skip that part. Take yourself somewhere quiet and solitary and sit in a comfortable position in a room that is neither too hot or cold for you. Now, think about this evening after work.
Imagine yourself at home with your favourite dish or food on the table in front of you. It’s well presented and ready to eat. You can see and smell it. You sit at the table, comfortably. There is no television, no phone, no one is talking to you so you can really savour your food. You start taking the first bite, bringing the first piece of food to your mouth and you start to chew it ever so slowly, to savour it. It’s so delicious. It’s just melting in your mouth.
Now let’s move on to your favourite smell. Is it the delicious sweet smell of freshly baked bread? The aroma of freshly made coffee? Or perhaps it’s the fragrance of freshly cut grass? For many, it will be the scent of your loved ones, the odour of their skin.
And what about your favourite sound? Is it music? Perhaps the voice of your favourite musician or the soothing sound of your favourite instruments? Or maybe it is the sound of the waves lapping the shore, birdsong, or the chimes coming from an ice-cream van.
Positive impact of exercises
During these little exercises, I hope you noticed how you have moved your attention to your senses. Before this exercise, maybe you were still concentrating on something from work - a patient or colleague that bothered you, a task that you left unfinished, or something that you saw or heard that irritated you. Another thing we all often do is ruminate about the past or worry about the future.
An important step in managing stress involves recognising and stopping negative self-talk. The more you engage with negative thoughts, the more power you give them. But the reality is that most of our negative thoughts are just that – thoughts and not facts. When you catch yourself believing the negative and pessimistic thoughts that your inner voice speaks, it is time to stop and take a moment to slow down and observe yourself and what is around you, so that you reconnect with the real world. This way you will be more rational and have more clarity in evaluating the reality of things.
What you just did was simply practicing mindfulness – being present in the moment. With mindfulness you practice taking away your focus to one of your senses – taste, sound, touch, smell or sight.
As soon as you put your attention on a physical sensation, your brain automatically calms down, the stress hormones shut off, your heartbeat becomes slower and steadier, and your blood pressure lowers.
Essentially, you can’t be thinking and sensing at the same time. It’s one or the other.
Forget about the nonsense of multi-tasking. It’s just like putting your car in first gear and reverse at the same time – you’re going nowhere.
The repetition of going from your thoughts to a single sense strengthens and thickens the insula, the insular cortex. This is the workout for the brain. You need to repeat the exercise over and over again to benefit from mindfulness. You can’t just do it once for a few minutes. It’s the repetition that builds the mental muscle. This is your brain workout.
So when you are sitting still with your eyes shut, focusing on your breath or any of your senses, you are actually doing the hardest exercise of all.
Each time you go from thinking to sensing, you are reinforcing your brain and you will eventually be well equipped to deal with stressful situations and overwhelming emotions while seeing clearly in time of difficulty.
Mindfulness is a precious tool to keep your rationality, clarity and lucidity and help you stay focussed on the things that matter.
As William James said: ‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.’
For more information about the benefits of mindfulness, here are some helpful articles:
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