Way back in July I mentioned that I had just completed an eight week Mindfulness course arranged by my company for any staff members who wanted to take part. Even though I went in with a relatively open mind, the course surpassed all of my expectations in unlocking clarity and focus (and, unexpectedly, creativity) from within the incessantly whirring cogs of my brain. Much, perhaps, to the disappointment of some, I haven’t become a yoga-legging wearing, lotus-position folding, tiny cymbal chiming, ohmmmmming zen goddess that the terms “Mindfulness” and “Meditation” can often conjure.
I have always been an overthinker. I was the child who, at any given moment, would burst into inconsolable tears because I realised that one day I was going die and my little brain couldn’t comprehend not being. In my late teens/ early twenties the tendency to catastrophise manifested itself in the form of panic attacks (and I was regularly pushing myself out of my comfort zone during that time, so they were frequent!). These days I try not to worry so much, but the “monkey brain” -as my mindfulness teacher liked to call it because it is always swinging from tree to tree, never resting- is ever active. Having an active mind is a blessing when you are working on projects that require creativity and innovation, and during the working day when I’m occupied with brainstorming new ideas, collaborating with colleagues across different departments and corresponding with customers in different languages I can honestly say I have few worries to speak of. It’s during the downtime, however, that those cogs start to whir and whip up clouds of worry, self doubt, confusion- all the “What if”? worst case scenarios.
We live in an increasingly stressful society- rushing from busy home lives to ever more demanding deadlines and budgets at work. Except, I don’t, really. I rent a room in a shared house with nobody to care for but myself; I don’t have to work a second, evening job to put food on the table (though at times my impatience to jump onto the property ladder has led me to consider it!)and I am challenged and encouraged to develop in a really supportive environment every day at work- it’s actually a lot of fun! It turns out, though, that it is quite commonplace to fabricate stress from the tiniest seed of a throwaway comment/ minute hint of negativity and blow it up out of all proportion.I’m the kind of person who, when struggling to fall asleep at night, will try to count sheep only to very quickly have those sheep take over in my mind and begin stampeding, thousands upon thousands over that tiny wooden dream fence. It’s ridiculous- of course- but the course taught me that I’m not the only one 😉
There shouldn’t be a stigma about mental health, but there is. People are happy to pay for physio to work out the knots of a bad back, or hop straight to A&E with a broken leg, but acknowledge that you are stressed because you feel an aspect of your life is out of control? You have to be kidding. Stiff upper lip, chaps, don’t show weakness. I’ve only been in the working world for just over three years, and I’ve already seen colleagues so stressed it is visibly impacting their daily lives both in and out of the office- and, believe me, where we work is about as far as you can get from the dog-eat-dog “Wolf of Wall Street” mentality, it’s lovely!). That’s why when our HR department announce the “Emotional Wellbeing” program I almost whooped with excitement- the more everyone starts to talk about mental health rather than just mental illness, the closer we are to removing the stigma altogether. So, what did I learn from 8 weeks practicing Mindfulness with my colleagues?
- Everyone has their own Achilles’s heel- some overthink the smallest things and “catastrophise” situations; others genuinely have quite difficult home/work lives and are struggling to compartmentalise these and avoid them bleeding into each other. Whatever the difficulty, there is a mindfulness technique to suit.
- Understanding how different personality types react to varying degrees of pressure can help working relationships; if you know how to identify triggers you can find ways to work around them.
- Focussing on one thing (be it breathing, the feeling of grass on your bare feet, or the sound of an air conditioning unit humming through the silence) for any period of time feels impossible to start with!
- It’s not about getting rid of stress, its about learning to deal with it. Accept it for what it is at that moment and don’t let it impact any other aspect of your day.
- You’ll find yourself being mindful about everything. I’ve realised that foods I thought I loved actually don’t satisfy me as much as I was telling myself. I’ve realised that the feeling of sun on my face makes me euphoric- but so does the feeling of rain! I’ve also become much more sensitive to general noise around me- you win some, you lose some…
- Your mind is capable of so much more than you give it credit for. We have all heard about the elasticity of our grey matter but it isn’t until you really start flexing it- training it- that you see a glimpse into it’s true potential. For me, this came in the form of almost hundreds of ideas- from novel plots to “maybe one day” ethical startup companies- flooding my brain. The real beauty of mindfulness though, is that even if these ideas come at the most inopportune moments (mid- nighttime sheep stampede for example) I’ve learned techniques to acknowledge them and bring my focus back to whatever I’m currently doing. Hint: carry a notepad/diary EVERYWHERE.
So, I’ll come to the end of this post by recommending the book we followed during the course, which is Mindfulness in Eight Weeks by Michael Chaskalson. I can’t say if it’s the best or most comprehensive because it’s the only one I’ve read so far, but I did certainly find it useful.
To finish, I’ll share the video below created by Oxford Mindfulness and Professor Mark Williams. Arguably one of the most practically applicable techniques in mindfulness is the 3 minute breathing space. Once you’ve gotten used to the format of the practice you can go it alone without the recording wherever and whenever you need to take a moment to center yourself, and that most definitely includes the bathroom! Yes, ladies and gents, after receiving a stressful email at work I have been known to go to the loo, pop the seat down and take a few minutes finding my breathing space in order to come down from my rage. It works!
Have you ever tried mindfulness? I’d be really interested to hear about your experience, or of any great resources you’ve found!