What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the idea of learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, aware of your thoughts and feelings without distraction or judgment (Headspace).
Being mindful means to bring the body and the mind together in the now. Practicing mindfulness helps us anchor ourselves by actively directing our thoughts, instead of letting our mind run wild. But that doesn’t mean that we should force ourselves to stop our thoughts. After all, the nature of the mind is to produce them! Mindfulness is more about bringing ourselves back to the present, when we get distracted and overwhelmed by our thoughts and feelings.
The neuroscientific evidence is convincing: practicing mindfulness changes the frequency of our brain waves, and as a result, activates different parts of our brain. It reduces stress and anxiety by decreasing activity of our amygdala, thus actively preventing amygdala hijacks and the release of stress hormones such as cortisol (Hölzel et al.). It improves our ability to concentrate without getting distracted, and our relationships with others. Because we free up mental space when we focus on the present, mindfulness also has the potential to enhance our creativity.
All these changes can be physically traced in different regions of the brain: Goldin and Gross found that when practicing mindfulness, the hippocampus, responsible for memory and regulating our amygdala, is considerably more active. Chiesa and Serretti found similar results in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain associated with impulse control.
So how is this helpful? Working remotely, our workspace invades our homes and our private spaces. Setting boundaries and creating separate spaces is more challenging, when our kitchen table becomes our work desk, or when we can see our workstation from our bed. Recharging becomes more difficult, as work is almost omnipresent. The lines between work and free time blur to the point that we might find it hard to completely switch off. In a world of remote and hybrid working, mindfulness can help us create mental boundaries when we cannot have physical ones.
The great news is that we don’t have to practice elaborate yoga workouts every day or book regular retreats to implement mindfulness as a regular habit. Mindfulness is already effective after only one 10-minute session. When we include it in our daily routine (or at least three times a week), it can even change the physical shape of our brain (neuroplasticity) after only eight weeks (Headspace).
A mindfulness practice usually involves a focus on the body and senses, and more specifically on our breathing. Our VBAK Model provides a good overview:
V = Visual
B = Breath
A = Auditory
K = Kinaesthetic
The following mindfulness practices show how to put the VBAK model into practice, and implement mindful moments in your work life.
Practice 1: Body scan
Breathing deeply and regularly, mentally scan your body from your toes up to the top of your head. Begin by focusing on your toes, and then move your awareness up to your ankles, shins, knees etc., until you reach your scalp. Then direct your attention to your breathing.
Practice 2: Count your breathing
Breathe in such a way that your inhalation and exhalation are the same duration, e.g. count 1, 2, 3, 4 in your mind when inhaling and 1, 2, 3, 4 in your mind when exhaling. Another way to do this is to count your inhales and exhales up to ten, and repeat multiple times. Noticed that your mind wandered off and you forgot to count? Start at 1!
Practice 3: Prolong your exhales
When we are stressed, our breathing quickens, and our heart rate goes up. The physical stress response is our body’s way of preparing to escape a potentially threatening situation: our muscles are saturated with oxygen to be able to run away faster. This automatic reaction helps us to deal with physical threats, but sabotages our day-to-day wellbeing in a work environment by triggering our amygdala, and an amygdala hijack. They key is to reduce the oversaturation of oxygen in your blood, and to slow down our heart rate. In order to do so, we need to prolong our exhales. For example: When being mindful of your breathing, count to 4 when inhaling, and to 8 when exhaling. Seppälä et al. observe that “changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ activities (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of our “fight or flight” responses). Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better. And your ability to think rationally returns.” By prolonging your exhales, you can stay in control, instead of getting caught in a negative stress spiral.
Practice 4: Focus on your environment
Close your eyes and focus on your remaining senses. What can you hear? What can you feel? What can you smell?
Practice 5: Try a mantra
Find a mantra to repeat when you inhale and exhale. This could be a calming mantra (inhale: “body at rest”, exhale: “mind at rest”), or a mantra that helps us practice gratitude (this can be as simple as “I am grateful for…”).
It is easy to implement mindfulness at work and make it a regular habit: take a minute to focus on your breath before or after a meeting to ground yourself. Feeling annoyed by a colleague’s email? Don’t follow your impulses and respond immediately. Instead, focus on your breath and/or your body for a couple of moments, and then reply. Mindful moments like this one can thus ensure better communication and more positive relationships with others. Working on multiple things at the same time? A quick mindful moment between tasks can help your focus, and help your brain to not get lost in multitasking.
Mindfulness is a proven habit that can help us manage and conserve our personal energy more effectively. It empowers us to be more present in the moment, and thus break the cycle of negative and ruminating thoughts. Being aware in this way has invaluable benefits: it reduces stress, improves sleep, and enables more positive interactions with others. Make mindfulness part of your daily routine and experience the positive changes yourself!
Coaches Corner Action Steps:
- What actions will you take to become more mindful?—get started using these questions:
- What actions will you take to develop mindfulness as a habit?
- Why will you take this action?
- How will you implement this action?
- Who can help you, and who can you help?
Reprinted with permission from Jay Chopra, PhD, co-founder and Managing Director of Making Shift Happen and a Herrmann Master Certified Facilitator. Articles written with help from Anne Mahler PhD & David O' Mahony: Read His Full Blog Here.
See prior related blog on Building Positive Relationships
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