Heard about the benefits of mindfulness for your mental health, but not sure where to start? We asked an expert for her advice on how to incorporate this simple form of self-care into your working from home routine.
If you’re still a bit confused when it comes to the concept of ‘mindfulness,’ you’re not the only one.
Despite all the meditation apps and breathing exercises designed to help us be more mindful, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about what mindfulness actually is, what it can do and how it can help our mental health – and it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to incorporating mindfulness into our daily routine.
In its simplest form, mindfulness is what experts call “present-moment awareness” – an ability to slow down one’s thoughts and pay attention to what’s going on both inside ourselves (how we’re feeling, emotionally and physically) and outside ourselves (the sights, scents and sounds of the world around us).
It’s not easy – as humans, we have a natural tendency to do things on autopilot and juggle multiple lines of thought at once – but by consciously slowing down and trying to pay attention, we can gain a greater understanding of ourselves and our emotions, and more easily analyse and deconstruct harmful thought processes.
And it’s because of this that mindfulness can be an effective tool for our mental health – studies have repeatedly shown that regular mindfulness practise has the power to boost mood, reduce anxiety and emotional reactivity and decrease our risk of becoming emotionally exhausted (believed to be a key symptom of burnout).
As Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, explains on the NHS website: “Mindfulness allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts we experience and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful.
“This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not control us.”
Williams continues: “Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’ Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better.”
Although there’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to understanding how mindfulness might help our mental health in the future, it’s clear that incorporating mindfulness into our routine is a great way to ground ourselves and pay more attention to how we’re feeling day-to-day.
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This is especially true at a time when so many of us are working from home and dealing with increased levels of stress, self-doubt and anxiety – by tuning into our thoughts and making a conscious effort to understand what’s going on inside our heads, we put ourselves in a better position to take care of ourselves and ensure we’re getting what we need.
With this in mind, we asked Sarah Romotsky, director of healthcare partnerships at the mindfulness meditation app Headspace, how we can make mindfulness part of our daily WFH routine. From the simple act of taking regular breaks to the concept of ‘mindful cooking,’ here’s what she had to say.
1. Incorporate mindfulness into regular breaks
We all know how important it is to take regular breaks away from our desk, so why not use some of that time to practice mindfulness?
“Using your breath as a tool to reset your mind and physiology is a great way to establish a habit of meditation,” Romotsky says. “The simple act of focusing on your breathing can help you to unwind, reset and step away from the worried mind. You could do this in the kitchen when making a coffee in between Zoom calls, in the bath or sitting in a car.”
For Romotsky, engaging in something as a simple 10-minute breathing exercise can make all the difference.
“Start by taking deep, full breaths and exhaling slowly out of your mouth,” she says. “Focus on counting your inhalations and exhalations as that can help you transition from faster breathing to slower, even breaths, which promote relaxation, counting aloud after each breath. Observe the sensation that it creates in your body, the rise and fall of your diaphragm.
“It’s completely normal if your mind wanders. Notice these thoughts, but then let them go, bringing your attention back to your breath.”
2. Get active
Alongside providing an opportunity to listen to your favourite podcast or tune into your favourite playlist, an at-home workout or daily run can be a great time to practice mindfulness.
“If you already have a workout routine, incorporating mindfulness into the sessions helps to bring body and mind together and instil a relaxed focus to physical movement,” Romotsky explains. “It’s about incorporating your breath into exercise, focusing on the present moment and being aware of the movements of your body and surroundings.”
Because mindful exercise is all about paying attention to the movement of your body and breath, any form of exercise will do – from a gentle walk to a high-intensity workout.
“There is no right way to exercise mindfully,” Romotsky says.
“A mindful at-home workout, for example, could be a full-body mobility and stability workout to help you stay physically active, while also ensuring your mind stays active by focusing on your breath and releasing stress, letting it go through movement.”
“This can help you learn how to remain relaxed and confident, even while physically pushing yourself, and lead to more enjoyment and fulfilment from the run, rather than simply surviving it.”
3. Practise ‘mindful cooking’
Whether or not you enjoy preparing a meal, practising mindful cooking is a great way to make the most of your time in the kitchen.
“Remove your smartphone from the kitchen: attempting to do too many things at once reduces your ability to switch between tasks and makes you less able to focus on one activity at a time,” Romotsky recommends. “Whilst you are there, turn off the radio and other music you may have playing too.
“Be aware of the food with all your senses: allow yourself to be entirely present with the sounds, smells, textures, and physical sensations of the kitchen. If you start thinking of other tasks, take a minute to acknowledge that your mind has wandered off and notice where your mind wants to travel. Gently return your focus back to the meal you’re cooking, focusing on one particular sound, smell or activity in the kitchen such as the sizzle in the pan or boiling water in a pot.”
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Thinking about the origin of your ingredients and the flavours, textures and smells you’re choosing to cook with can also help you to remain present, Romotsky says.
“Be mindful with ingredients: throughout the process of cooking, pay attention to the ingredients you’re using. Consciously ask yourself what is the taste, texture, and smell of this? How did it grow and where did it come from? Curiosity in the ingredients you’re using will create a different level of appreciation of the meal you end up eating.”
4. Start your day with meditation
Setting aside a few minutes each morning to start your day with some mindfulness meditation can help you to feel more prepared for the day ahead.
“There’s no right or wrong time to meditate but starting your day with a morning meditation can gently release grogginess, help set the conditions for a more successful day and anchor you in unpredictable situations and variables,” Romotsky explains.
“We’re also giving ourselves the opportunity to be fully aware, awake and alive before doing anything. By creating a regular morning practice, we cultivate peace of mind and happier relationships where we are kinder and less judgmental of ourselves and others.”
5. End your day with mindfulness
If morning meditation isn’t for you, consider using the time just before you go to sleep to ground yourself and pay attention to your thoughts.
“If you struggle to fall asleep or find yourself waking in the middle of the night, close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths,” Romotsky says. “Starting at the number 1,000, just slowly and gently count backwards to zero. Focus on the counting, rather than trying to will yourself to sleep.”
She continues: “Living a mindful life can be the answer to achieving more restful sleep because when we settle the mind, we rest the body – and that restfulness is what makes it easier to wind down and drift off.”
For more information on mindfulness meditation, and to download the Headspace app, you can check out the Headspace website.
If working during the pandemic is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.
So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.
Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of wellbeing during this strange time.
For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.
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