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Posts from the ‘Everyday Mindfulness’ Category

Keep calm… and carry on breathing: The simple exercises that can alleviate pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression

First appeared in the Mail on Sunday

  • Breathing is so ordinary – but many of us forgot how to breathe correctly
  • But this can have huge implications on our overall health and happiness
  • Mindfulness can beat depression, enhance happiness and creativity
  • And correct breathing techniques are the cornerstone of mindfulness

 

Breathing is so ordinary that its true significance can easily pass us by. But many of us have forgotten how to breathe correctly.

And this has huge implications for overall health and happiness.

For thousands of years, people have used simple breathing exercises that, ultimately, can have profound effects on the mind and body: they can relieve chronic pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression.

Some even claim these practices lead to spiritual enlightenment.

But I am as spiritual as a housebrick. Instead, I use breathing exercises to stay positive, focused and appreciative in a crazy world (and especially when I’m stressed out by a looming deadline).

DON’T BREATHE ‘BADLY’

I first discovered the art of breathing as part of my research into mindfulness meditation, about which I have written three books, including the international bestseller Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness – the modern take on the ancient practice of meditation – has been clinically proven to beat depression and enhance happiness, clarity of thought and even decision-making and creativity. And correct breathing is its cornerstone.

My latest book, The Art Of Breathing, gathers a range of mindful breathing techniques in one little volume that will allow anyone to incorporate some mindfulness into their life.

These techniques work because of the way your breath reflects and amplifies emotions. Incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression.

It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress.

Breathing then becomes a little faster and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed…

It is a vicious circle.

But there is an alternative….

A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm. Soothing hormones flow, calming negative thoughts so you begin to breathe a little more slowly and deeply.

You begin to relax. To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this simple exercise:

  • Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Close your eyes.
  • Place your hands on your stomach. Feel them rise and fall as you breathe in, and out.
  • Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Relax into the breath’s fluidity.
  • Within a few breaths your heart will begin to slow and beat more effectively. Your breath will start to become deeper and more rhythmic. You will begin to relax and think more clearly.

EASE ACHES AND PAINS

Most of us breathe incorrectly, especially when we’re sitting slumped at desks for far too long each day. Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.

When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work.

But the secondary muscles are designed to shoulder only 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed. If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.

You can counteract such tension by using a simple breath-based meditation. All you need is a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.

HERE’S HOW…

Sit erect in a straight-backed chair with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes.

  • Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. Stay in touch with the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath.
  • When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the sensations of breathing.
  • Shepherding your awareness back to the breath is central to mindfulness.
  • After a few minutes, or longer if you can manage, open your eyes and soak up your surroundings.

After this, you’ll probably be feeling less tense. Maybe any aches and pains you have will be less bothersome. Hopefully, you’ll have gained a bit of clarity and started to realise that your breath is one of your greatest assets.

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published by HQ, rrp £7.99.

How to Embrace Life’s Difficulties at Christmas and the New Year

First appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

Christmas and New Year may be the most stressful times of the year but they also offer countless opportunities to become more mindful. So use these ideas from my new book Mindfulness for Creativity to embrace life’s difficulties and become more adaptable, creative and resilient. And when you do so, you will gain as much peace and contentment as any number of weeks spent in a meditation retreat.

 

Drink a glass of wine (or beer) mindfully: At this time of year it’s easy to drink too much while barely tasting a drop. So try drinking a glass of wine or beer with mindful awareness by following these steps:

1) When you ask for your drink (or pour it yourself), briefly ask yourself why you chose it. Is it your genuine favourite or was it out of habit?

2) Take a few moments to soak up the smell of the drink. Close your eyes if that helps. Flick through the aromas, noticing as many as you can without trying too hard. Connect with them and soak them up. Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness.

3) Take a sip. What’s the first taste that you notice? And the second. The third…. Wine has scores of different flavours. Other drinks can be similarly complex. Try to gain a sense of the different flavours washing over you. How many of them do you normally taste? When you drink without paying attention you miss out on so many wonderful flavours, textures and aromas.

4) When your taste is saturated, swallow and take another sip when you feel ready.

5) You may feel the need to drink the whole glass, or you might feel satisfied part way through. Either way, tune into the thoughts, feelings and emotions that may be pushing you one way or the other. Notice how compulsive they feel.

6) Carry on repeating steps two to five for about five minutes or until you’ve finished your drink. Did it taste different to normal?

 

Go to the cinema with a friend at precisely 7pm: Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected – the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these. Most of us only go to the cinema when there’s something specific we want to watch. However, if you turn up at a set time and date and only then choose a film you will discover that the experience is totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally consider. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness. Once you’re inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film.

 

Only give gifts to children: Everyone else can be given a card where you explain your rationale and how much you appreciate them. You could even make your own cards and write the greetings with a calligraphy pen. And while you are writing, feel the pen gliding over the paper. Try not to make anyone feel guilty about giving gifts but simply explain why you have chosen to focus your energies on children and on making and writing the cards. How does this make you feel? Creative, stingy or relieved?

 

Watch adverts: Research carried out by former ‘Mad Man’ Dr Robert Heath at the University of Bath suggests that the best way of evading the influence of advertising is to pay it full conscious attention. If you try to ignore it, your deep subconscious will latch on to the adverts and soak up their seductive emotional messages. Paying full mindful attention undermines this and helps you to spot the tricks that are played upon you. So one day this week actually watch the adverts on TV and pay attention to the ones in newspapers and magazines. Notice the sounds and images used. Pay attention to each element of the advert. Deconstruct it. What emotions are aroused? Can you notice any flickerings of sexual desire, humour, or perhaps wonderment and awe? Some latent fear? Fear that you might miss out, or that you are not young or attractive enough? Shame even. Can you notice the overwhelming pull of these emotions? Now pay attention to your body. Can you notice how each emotion is localised in different parts of the body? Fear or shame might be found in the tightness of your stomach. Desire in your hands or face. The precise location isn’t important. Each time you become aware of your emotions, return to paying attention to the adverts. Do you feel immune to them or a little annoyed that they influence you at such a deep and visceral level?

 

If you’re a party animal – don’t go to ANY parties over the coming week. If you’re normally shy and retiring, or simply hate parties, go to one (or even arrange an impromptu one). Any disturbance to our normal social life can feel unsettling. So pay attention to how you feel when you are ‘deprived’ of your normal social life – or thrust into the centre of a new one. Do you feel a little nervous or relieved? Disappointed or uplifted? Remember this isn’t a permanent change, just a taste of a different way of approaching the world.

 

Watch the traffic for 15 minutes whilst driving: Begin by broadening your awareness and paying close attention to the vehicles around you. Do they travel in straight lines or weave slowly from side to side, speed up or slow down without rhyme or reason? Do some push in aggressively while others passively give way?

 

After a few minutes of watching the traffic, take a moment to ask yourself:

What is going through my mind?

What sensations are there in my body?

What reactions and emotions am I aware of?

 

If you are feeling angry, stressed or frustrated then your mind has switched on its emotional autopilot. You can defuse these unpleasant emotions by teasing apart the two major flavours of suffering – primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as being stuck in traffic. Secondary suffering is the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration. You have no control over primary suffering but you need not make the situation worse by reacting to it and creating secondary suffering. It’s akin to being stuck in quicksand. The more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink. If you instead pay attention to your frustration, by accepting its unpleasantness rather than struggling against it, then it will tend to melt away of its own accord.

 

Continue paying attention to your reactions to the traffic for another ten minutes. In this way, you can learn to respond rather than react.

 

Go on a Creative Date: this is a block of time for you to nurture your inner spirit or creative flame. It can be a visit to a museum, art gallery, or perhaps a trip to the theatre. You might like to climb a hill, visit a castle or perhaps watch a murky sunrise or sunset… or perhaps learn how to be a fire-eater, a circus clown or how to ride a unicycle. If you can’t think of anything to do, think back to a time when you were half your current age, what did you enjoy the most? Why not do that? Try to approach this Creative Date with a spirit of open-hearted playfulness. Set aside the time to do it now, otherwise it will get squeezed out by seemingly higher priorities.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers here:

You can download free meditations from ‘Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World’ from here:

Why I’ve Gone On A ‘Media Diet’

I’ve been feeling quite miserable lately for no apparent reason. Not depressed – or even desperately unhappy – just a little lacking in enthusiasm for life and feeling ‘stuck’ and ‘trapped’ in some indefinable way. I knew that this state of mind, like all others, would eventually pass. Nevertheless, I decided to embrace the feelings and probe their origins. It led me to a surprising conclusion.

Whenever I’ve felt unhappy in the past I’ve cheered myself up by listening to my favourite music (techno always makes me smile) and then going for a walk. It never fails to cheer me up. But for some reason, this time it only lifted my spirits for a while, which is why I looked a little deeper. If you’ve read our book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World you’ll know that thinking about your state of mind can easily tip you into a downwards spiral that can create an awful lot of mental distress. This does not mean that you should avoid your troubles but rather that you should not dwell or ruminate over them excessively.  As with everything else in life, a balance has to be struck. Avoiding your troubles can be just as toxic as endlessly churning them over in your mind.

Last week I decided to mindfully follow my negative states of mind as they waxed and waned through the day. I found that they began as soon as I opened my eyes (which was a little worrying to say the least). Once I realised this, the origin became blindingly obvious; the radio news was making me miserable and angry – and this set the tone for the rest of the day.

The most hard-hitting news programme in the UK is BBC Radio 4’s Today. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a bear pit where the brightest and fastest thinking politicians, thinkers, and business leaders are torn to shreds on a daily basis (usually by John Humphys or Evan Davis). Both journalists are without doubt brilliant and a credit to the BBC. Without them, and the rest of the Today team, the UK would be a far worse place.

My day would typically begin at 7am with the sound of a politician being crucified by John Humphrys. My mind would click into gear with a phrase such as: “What have those idiots done now?!

Or, ‘Are they stupid?…’

Or perhaps: ‘Do they think we’re stupid?…’

‘Bloody bankers…!’

‘People are turning into cattle…. Why do they put up with this…’

You get the picture.

And so I’d begin the day with an argument. Not good.

The rest of breakfast time would proceed in a similar vein. Perhaps there’d be a story of a factory fire in a third world country that had killed hundreds of desperately poor workers. Or maybe a plane had crashed in a fireball over a primary school. Or perhaps cornflakes had been contaminated with hospital waste…. After such cheery news the politicians would return for a re-match and would end up slinging meaningless and contradictory statistics at each other.

Last week it all started to get a bit overwhelming so I switched to the BBC World Service only to hear that there had been an upsurge in acid attacks on women in India. Lovely. Still, the Indian Parliament was going to make it illegal (‘Shouldn’t it have been illegal already!’ I shouted at the radio).

I realised that it was time to take a break from the news. Trouble is, I’m a news journalist. You see the problem.

Nevertheless, I decided to bite the bullet and abstain from broadcast news for one month (I still read newspapers and websites). Although that was only a week ago, I’ve already seen the benefits. I’m far happier. My bubbling anger has run into the sand. Life seems less bleak. The world doesn’t seem beset by intractable problems. Political wrangles no longer dominate my day. In short, I made the correct diagnosis and the cure seems to be working.

In a few weeks I’ll return to Radio 4’s Today programme. It’s essential that we know what is going on in the world and try to uncover the truth. Equally, we must remember that news is biased towards the negative. That is, negative news is always far more ‘newsworthy’ than good news. This isn’t just a bias in the media. Journalists aren’t seeking to depress us. They are simply reflecting our own natural negativity bias. We naturally seek out negative news because our mind is hardwired to spot danger (negative news) so that we can try and avoid it. So the media is simply a reflection of our own mind.