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3 ways to transform your outlook through mindfulness

Take a few moments from your stressful day and practice these techniques to re-center

Stacked rocks

December 15, 2017

Editor's note: This story was originally published in December 2017. But these mindfulness tips can be useful to help you cope with any situation, including the current COVID-19 crisis.

We like to think of the holidays as a time of peace, joy and family togetherness, but very often the reality is quite different: feeling stress over gifts and finances, overwhelmed by bursting calendars and guilt over not being anything resembling jolly.

It's time to re-center.

Experts at Arizona State University's new Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience offer these mindfulness techniques to transform how you think, feel and act — whether it's the holidays, tax season or just one of those days.

“Mindfulness is a lifestyle, a way of reconnecting with the inner self,” said Nika Gueci, executive director for university engagement at the center. “Mindful meditation is one aspect of this lifestyle and has been linked to enhanced self-efficacy and time-management skills, decreased stress and burnout, increased compassion toward self and others, lessened anxiety and increased resilience.”

When trying out these and other techniques, Gueci suggests finding a quiet space you can use specifically for meditation.

“Practice at the same time every day so that it becomes part of your schedule,” she said. “It is also helpful to keep a journal so that you can see any changes that come up for you as a result of your practice.”

1. Move it

When the mind is stuck, your body has been still and you have been staring at devices too long, get unstuck by moving.

You don’t need a treasure trove of yoga postures, tai chi play or dance moves. Just get up out of your chair, bring a rhythm to your mind as you breathe in and out slowly and deeply, and begin to move with your breath. Let the hands move, then the arms, then slowly move your head in small figure eights. Move your hips and knees ever so gently to the rhythm of your breath.

Then move it a little faster. Let your body go and find movements that are new. Flow them into the whole of your body, making up the moves as you go along. And breathe!

Finally, slow it down to a quiet standing. Stay with the feeling of your body for a minute or so. When you get back to what you were doing, notice how clear your mind is — flowing thoughts, intuition and clarity, mental alertness and cleared emotions.

2. Transformation of the heart

Feeling through our emotions and valuing the signals they provide us is very important to our wholeness and wellness. For many, though, emotions may become stuck, swallowed down or too easily triggered in cyclic and burdensome ways, resulting in a trap that is difficult to escape.

Many mindfulness practices begin to reshape how our neurophysiology responds to emotional triggers, but it often takes a long time of dedicated practice (eyes closed, in a quiet place) to get to the point where one’s inner calm begins to function in the face of outer-world emotional triggers.

A very powerful tool that comes from the teachings of the HeartMath Institute is based on the science of heart-rate variability rhythms. The following exercise can be used anytime, standing or sitting, eyes open, even in the midst of emotional triggers, to begin to transform those traps into treasures. Practice on your own when the triggers are not present to deepen the skill, and then remember, next time you are in a situation where draining emotions come over you, do this: 

• Put all of your attention into the area around your heart and begin to focus as if you can breathe in and out of this focal area. Be present in the heart area as you continue to breathe, a little slower and deeper than usual.

• After several breaths, and after you have felt yourself be completely present with the breath in your heart area, imagine someone, something or someplace that brings a sense of rejuvenation or a feeling of deep appreciation to you. Is there a favorite place in nature that leaves you in awe? Do you have a memory of a child you love, or a puppy, climbing up into your lap? Think of that, but rather than “think” in your mind, bring the experience of that memory into your breath, into your heart. Breathe in the memory, breathe out the emotional experience.

• With each breath, allow this emotional medicine to wash through you, expand in your heart and through your body. Notice how this is now your emotional landscape, holding this as a very physical feeling of emotional uplift, and stay with this awhile. 

This practice can transform the impact of draining, painful emotions and shift neuro-hormones to a more positive, healthful state.

(The first two techniques were provided by Linda Larkey, a College of Nursing and Health Innovation professor who studies how mind-body methods can alleviate symptoms in cancer survivors. She is also a dedicated practitioner of qigong.)

3. Three-minute breathing space

One of the ways that mindfulness works to reduce stress is by helping us learn to recognize when we are on autopilot and are reacting more out of habit than responding with thoughtfulness.

The “three-minute breathing space” is a practice taught in many mindfulness-based programs as a way to integrate mindful awareness into regular daily activities. Taking time for this practice regularly throughout the day — particularly when tension, agitation and frustration are noticed — can assist in expanding our capacity to notice what is really happening rather than getting swept away in our perceptions, interpretations and stories about what is happening.

The three-minute breathing space involves three parts:

• Minute 1: Pause what you are doing and turn the attention to what is being experienced right now. Perhaps sit up a bit straighter in your seat and, if you are comfortable, close your eyes. What is going on right now? What sensations do you notice in the body (jaws, shoulders, chest, throat, etc.)? What is the state of the mind (calm, racing, confused)? Can you notice what thoughts are occurring right now? What are you feeling right now (content, frustrated, angry, etc.)?

• Minute 2:  Let all this dissolve from awareness now and just rest the attention on the sensations of the breath. Notice where the breath feels a bit vivid for you right now — movement at the belly or chest, air touching the nostrils as the breath moves in and out. Just let the attention rest on the full in-breath and the full out-breath. If the attention wanders to something else, no big deal — just escort the attention back to the sensation of breathing.

• Minute 3: Expand awareness of sensation again now to include the whole body. What sensations do you notice in the body now? What is the state of the mind? What are you feeling right now? When you are comfortable, open your eyes and proceed with your activities with a renewed sense of presence.

(This technique was provided by Ann Sebren, a College of Health Solutions principal lecturer who teaches courses on mindfulness-based stress reduction, both at ASU and in the community.)

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