By: Simone Steyn
Today in the world we live in stress is naturally a part of our lives. It is a human condition and is unavoidable. In no way are we immune to the uncertainties of life such as ageing, illness, or the loss of a loved one. Modern times are now laden with all sorts of threats. Threats such as nuclear warfare, terrorism, global warming, and environmental catastrophes, alongside the strain of having enough finances to survive. These are all resulting in chronic stress and causing disease in the body, leaving one fatigued, unmotivated, and fearful. To add to this there is a current COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc throughout everyone’s lives, making now a good time to learn some mindfulness-based techniques for the reduction of stress.
A frequently asked question is how mindfulness differs from meditation. Mindfulness and meditation are like mirror reflections of one another. Mindfulness, which is an informal practice of meditation, is about presence and being in the moment. Mindfulness brings attention to the body and mind without trying to judge or alter the experience and can be practiced throughout the day. Meditation is a more formal practice that is done at a certain time everyday with the aim of decreasing mental chatter. The use of visualisations, guided imagery or mantras are often used.
In summation, mindfulness has a focus on outer life awareness and meditation has a focus on going within.
I would now like to provide some basic mindfulness exercises that can be used throughout the day and especially when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. A common exercise I like to use is called bring awareness to. This can involve focusing on anything in your immediate surroundings such as a flower, breathing, chocolate melting in your mouth, a piece of furniture, or even a chore such as washing dishes or having a hot shower. These all involve awareness using your five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing).
Try this mindful hand exercise for 3 minutes: start by getting comfortable and then I want you to stare at your hand, palm facing upwards. Notice it in complete and intense detail. Notice the outline of your hand, the spaces in between the fingers. Notice the colour of your skin and its different tones. What does it feel like: rough or smooth, soft, hot, or cold? Now trace the outline of your hand with your finger and feel the ridges of all the lines and then move your fingers backwards and forwards in a fist and see how this impacts the colour of your skin. Notice all the spirals in your skin on each fingertip. If thoughts happen to enter your mind during this exercise, simply acknowledge them without judgement and move your awareness back to your hand. This is a brief example of how one can bring awareness to something as simple as your own hand with the intention of feeling calmer afterwards. This is a link to more in depth guided mindful hand exercise that you can try out.
Another mindfulness exercise that I enjoy is the use of all my senses while taking a walk. While walking notice the colours of trees and their shimmering leaves as the sunlight catches them, observe flowers and the colour of yellow in hovering bees that may be buzzing around the flower, or of the style of a car driving by. Notice all the sounds: the cars, trees shaking their leaves in the wind, dogs barking and children playing. Notice how the wind and sun feels on your skin and how the air feels when you breath it in. What does your water taste like when it runs down your throat? What smells are you aware of? Once again when thoughts enter your mind, and they will, simply notice them without judgement and then let them go and bring your awareness back to any one of your senses and your surroundings during your walk.
This mindfulness exercise is one that I like to use either daily or when I am very stressed: Start by taking a 5 minute time out, sit down and then take the troubling thought and imagine it floating by in a cloud or picture it running down a river on a leaf or you can create any form of a visual that works for you and keep doing this for the full 5 minutes. The important thing is to not judge the thought when it arises, (try to not attach an emotion to it, as challenging as this may be) then let it go on your cloud or leaf. Here is a link to a document explaining a longer version of leaves on the stream mindfulness exercise.