Mindfulness – Whaaat?!

You are on the highway. You are in a hurry. The speedometer needle is threateningly approaching the maximum on the display. “Who cares”, you think, there’s still a small buffer. Up ahead, the road goes downhill for a few kilometres. You step on the gas – trying to use the momentum again so that the coming climb doesn’t slow you down later.

You’ve been riding like this for hours. Suddenly you notice subtle changes. A slight imbalance in the tyres, the track no longer holds properly, something is knocking in the engine compartment. And does it smell slightly burnt? And then you see light smoke coming out of the bonnet. What are you doing?

The answer should be obvious, shouldn’t it?

Now imagine that the driving is your life, that the car is a symbol of your physical and mental limits, and that the next goal is already there – the career jump, the big house, the salary increase. You are speeding along the motorway of your career and it starts to smoke.  What are you doing?

Are you sure? Absolutely sure?

Life in our modern times is not always relaxed. We rush out of bed early in the morning, rush to our work, rush from meeting to meeting, rush to private after-work activities and rush home afterwards to rush to bed so that we can rush out of it again the next morning. This is what everyday life is like for many people.   

As a result, we are increasingly stressed, sleep badly, feel unwell, are unfocused, and some people fall into depression or worse as a result. Those who are always running from stress to stress usually do not pay attention to their bodies. Often the warning signals are ignored until it is too late.

And quite often we consciously ignore these warning signals. We would rather quickly pop a painkiller to counteract the backache or headache instead of thinking about why these symptoms occur

It is important to be mindful of oneself in order to recognise the warning signals in time and to be able to reduce stress. And it is precisely for this reason that the concept of mindfulness has become more and more established in recent years in working life and in managing employees. Being mindful of oneself and one’s environment.

However, mindfulness is not a new invention. In psychology, mindfulness techniques have been used for many years, for example in the treatment of depression. But mindfulness is much older than that, having its origins in Buddhism, where meditation and the necessary mindfulness play a major role.

When I first came into contact with mindfulness a few years ago, I thought (and I have to be honest now) that it was esoteric hokum. What was mindfulness supposed to be? Do you have to stand on one leg to spherical sounds and recite an “Ohmmm” for hours wrapped in incense?

Well, this scepticism lasted until I tried the first techniques and found that they actually had a positive influence on me. It helped me to deal more with me, and at that time I was shocked to realise how little I had taken care of myself.

But why is this important for leaders now? Well, as has been mentioned many times before: “You can’t lead other people if you can’t lead yourself”. A guiding principle that leads in particular tend to forget. The team comes first, your own needs take a back seat. But what good does it do the team if the lead is absent for six months because of burnout, then slowly drags himself back into working life via the Hamburg model 1 and then quits because he feels branded and prefers to start all over again somewhere else?

Mindfulness has different facets. Today I would like to focus only on those that have to do with one’s own self.

There are many different techniques for being more mindful of oneself. Not everyone can cope with all of them. Some may have no effect. Others may even be disturbing or frightening. Everyone should make their own experiences if they want to go deeper into the matter.

In the following I would like to present a few techniques that have helped me to deal with stress better and to listen more to myself. Maybe they will give some of you an impulse in the right direction. Trying them out is expressly allowed. And they can’t do any harm either.

Breathing techniques

Let’s just start with the hardest part and get it over with – breathing.

“What, breathing? What’s so difficult about that? I can breathe”, can I already hear the gentle reader exclaim.

And yes, it is not breathing that is difficult about this technique. It is the thinking.

There are many ways to apply breathing techniques. Some prefer guided meditations that focus precisely on the process of inhaling and exhaling. Some prefer silence. Still others prefer the whole thing lying down or standing up.

What they have in common is that one’s thoughts often wander. The meeting that still needs to be prepared, the children’s homework, the tax return should be done soon, the transfer for the sports club is still due. There are many reasons to digress. And then you are no longer with yourself, but with everyone else.

And that’s what makes conscious breathing so difficult. Air in, air out – we should all be able to do that more or less well. But what do you do when your thoughts always want to go somewhere else?

First, it is important to be aware of your thoughts – to be mindful of the things that haunt our minds. Often many thoughts circle in loops. Become aware of the thought you are having and then put it aside. One technique that can help is the following:

Imagine a small river and a paper boat. Look at your thought for a moment, but realise that now is not the time to deal with it. Then just mentally put it on the little paper boat and watch it disappear into the distance. Then concentrate again on your breath. If the thought comes back, simply repeat the process.

Of course, you can also think of something else. The important thing is that you briefly draw attention to the thought and consciously put it aside. This might be very difficult at first. The thoughts will probably come back again and again. But the more often you practise consciously putting the thought aside, the easier it will become.

There are many articles on the subject of breathing. If you practise it regularly, it can – when used consciously – help you to clear your head in stressful situations. The reason for this is that under (emotional) stress we often tend to breathe too shallowly. As a result, the body is less well supplied with oxygen: everything is buzzing around your ears, you don’t know what to start with and suddenly you feel very tired. You have to sit down, maybe you even feel dizzy. All the consequences of breathing too shallowly.

Another reason why conscious breathing can help with stress (and I am talking about distress2 here) is that stress tells the body that we are in a dangerous situation. Consequently, it raises blood pressure, releases hormones that make us react faster and increase our performance, and prepares us for an emergency. All useful qualities if you have ignored the “Beware of Grizzlies” sign and it suddenly cracks in the forest behind you. In work or private life, however, this permanent state can have negative consequences for health in the long term.

Unlike the bear that wants to eat us for breakfast, most stress in our working lives takes place in our heads. Conscious breathing can help to bring ourselves and our bodies back under control. Through calm breathing we say, “Everything is OK. No danger. You can calm down”. This leads to the reduction of stress hormones and ensures a clearer head.

To practice and train proper breathing, simply find a quiet place, preferably sitting down. Get into a relaxed position where you can breathe easily. Then slowly breathe deeply in and out, trying to put your thoughts to one side.

There are also guided meditations that can help you to learn the technique better in the beginning. If you find pure breathing difficult at the beginning, you can also start with a body scan3. This is a little easier because the thoughts are consciously directed to the body.

Positive thoughts through positive texts

An old insight in psychology is that thoughts influence feelings and feelings influence thoughts. You could easily observe this by watching a movie. Pay attention to your emotions and your body. Observe what happens when the action hero is given a helping hand at the last second in a hopeless situation and can thus turn the whole situation around. Or when the nervously twitching strings of the background music already announce that the young man in the cemetery on the night of the full moon is not quite as alone as he thought. Or when the obvious lovers live past each other for the entire film and then get each other in the end.

Very sensitive natures may even have felt slight emotional changes while reading these lines. For everyone else, this little experiment is highly recommended. If only because looking at one’s own emotions promotes mindfulness.  

The brain is not good at distinguishing between real and imagined situations, which also has its advantages. A scary film without thrills would be boring.  

Unfortunately, this also happens without our conscious exposure to the stimuli. If we read something sad, we become sadder. If we read something funny, we are more pleased.

Now, most of the media that surrounds us is based on negative news. It is the disasters, scandals, shocks and dramas that fill the news. Open any daily newspaper of your choice and look at the headlines.

What happens to us when we consume bad news every day? We become more stressed, more tense.

But we can also use this mechanism to free ourselves from this situation. First, we can reduce our consumption of negative news. I know this is difficult. Once you are caught in the news addiction, you get scared when you think about no longer having the latest information. But you can also live without consuming the latest headlines every day. A little less can do you good here.

In addition, you can start consuming more positive news. There are now several sites and apps4 that specialise in collecting positive news. Just try it out and see what effect it has on you.

Mindfulness walk

Movement is good for the human body. If that were not the case, we would all have been born with a chair on our backsides. Various studies have also shown that taking walks is not only important for physical well-being, but also for mental well-being. For example, active walks can prevent depression5 6

A special form of walking is the mindfulness walk. What is meant by this is the attentive observation of the surroundings while you walk. We often tend to wander through life with our heads hanging down, preoccupied only with our own thoughts. Mindfulness walks try to break out of this pattern. It’s about pushing thoughts aside and actively engaging with your surroundings and yourself. The goal is to consciously use all the senses as much as possible.

The best place to try it is in nature. Take a look at the leaves on the trees. What colour are they, what structure do they have? Do you know what kind of tree they are on? Take a leaf in your hand, feel the structure. Smell the next flower. Can you perceive the sounds in the forest, maybe even identify the source?

Through this conscious occupation with the surroundings, you could not only more easily put aside your brooding thoughts, you would also become much more attentive to the sensory impressions that surround you, sensory impressions that you otherwise do not perceive because your mind is busy with thoughts. But the human being is a sentient being that uses all his senses every day. See what your senses do to you when you use them purposefully.

And another little tip: The principle behind the mindfulness walk can also be practised on the side. Instead of sprinting through a traffic red light, just stop for a moment. Use the short break to concentrate on yourself and your surroundings. Look up and around you. You will most likely discover things that you didn’t notice before, even if you walk the route every day. 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Another way of dealing with oneself in a mindful way is progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR for short. PMR is a relaxation method invented by the American doctor Edmund Jacobson7

The principle is very simple. One after the other, certain muscle groups are tensed for a short time and then relaxed again. This gradually relaxes the entire body.  

Try it out. Lean back in your chair, close your eyes and then tighten your right fist as much as you can. Hold the tension for about 10 seconds, and then just let go …

Well, did it tingle? Did you feel energy flowing through your arm?

If sitting is not your thing, you could also try lying down. It is important that you generally adopt a relaxed posture.

PMR works well as a guided relaxation exercise where you are led through the muscle groups by a speaker. You can find numerous examples on the video platform mentioned above. Some health insurance companies also offer free audio files. If you want to try it out, find a voice that you like. This makes it easier to let yourself fall.

If you practise progressive muscle relaxation just before going to bed, the relaxation can help you fall asleep better. Of course, you can also try PMR at any other time of the day. It’s up to you.

Qigong

No, don’t worry. You don’t have to enter a monastery or endure years of hardship to find out if Qigong can help you reduce your stress.

Qigong is a several thousand year old technique that combines movement, breathing and meditation for various purposes8. In this sense, Qigong can be used spiritually, medically or in the field of martial arts and has roots and strong connections to Buddhism. To go into depth here is beyond the scope of this article. So let’s just focus on what can help us reduce stress.

Qigong focuses on your Qi or Chi – the energy of life. Qigong aims to strengthen this energy. In practice, this is done – in very simplified terms – through a sequence of movement elements, which can be repeated in a row or individually. It is important to coordinate the breathing with the movements. This can have a meditative effect.

If you want to try it out, you should take a look at very simple forms such as the Five Elements Exercises. These are easy to learn and can be practised individually or in combination. There are numerous instructions on well-known video platforms or on the internet.

Like breathing techniques, Qigong promotes a more conscious use of one’s own breathing and thus helps to focus on oneself. In addition, it supports the development of a healthier posture.

The nice thing about Qigong is that it combines meditative elements with physical movements. Because the movement elements are not too “sporty”, Qigong can be practised into old age.

Qigong can have a very calming effect. Practised in the morning it can help you to start the day in a more relaxed way. You could also practise it before meetings that you know in advance can be stressful, in order to approach the subject with more calmness and composure.

Qigong has also been used for many years as a support in outpatient and inpatient psychotherapy, as it can help to (re)teach patients to be mindful of themselves and to bring them to a conscious approach to their own bodies and thoughts.

Qigong, by the way, is not Tai Chi9, although the two are strongly related. But this story would be even longer …

Smile

Finally, let’s move on to my favourite technique. I like this technique so much because it is so easy, and yet it has a great effect. It takes no time and is very simple. The only thing you need to do is what we should all do much more often in our daily lives: Smile. You don’t even have to think about anything positive. Just the movement of your facial muscles can trigger stimuli that lift your mood.

There are various studies that prove that (your) smile can actually lift your mood. The nice thing is, I don’t need to link any articles here to prove it to you. You can do it yourself, right now. Go to the nearest mirror, or switch your smartphone to selfie mode. If you don’t want to look at yourself, then just skip this step. It works the same way. It’s not complicated at all.

Now look at your mirror picture, or at another point, and then … pull your cheeks up. Laugh! Grin all over your face, if you like. Is anything happening?

If so, congratulations! You’ve just learned a simple and easy way to lift your spirits in a bad situation and get rid of some dark clouds.

If not, well, just try it again later. And if it still doesn’t work, ok, then maybe it won’t have any effect and you can try some other techniques. But no matter how it turns out, you’ve just taken a few seconds to take care of the most important person in your life – yourself.

In the end

A small warning at the end: If you think that you can use the techniques presented here to optimise yourself in no time at all, you are mistaken. A quick 5-minute meditation in the lunch break between the toast next to the keyboard and the afternoon meeting planning, and then being as if freshly recharged, does not work.

And always remember – you are at the wheel of your life car. You can decide how fast and where you drive. But you are also solely responsible for its maintenance. If you don’t look after your car, you won’t be able to use it for long. And if it starts to smoke and burst into flames and you don’t pull over, then it happens what inevitably has to happen – it burns out.

With this in mind, stay mindful!

*all images from https://www.pexels.com/

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