Slow down this holiday season with mindfulness
Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center
Child Mind Institute
Yes, it's November! The costumes have been tucked away, the Halloween candy is slowly disappearing, and all of a sudden, you realize that the holidays are coming....FAST. Thoughts of presents, turkeys, cards, relatives, parties, and shopping begin to dizzyingly swirl in our heads. Pages of to-do lists fill our planners and cell phones. And so the holiday rush begins, and we often find ourselves becoming champion multitaskers.
But in the rush to get everything accomplished, we often lose our connection with the present moment—how we feel, what we're thinking. We become so future-focused that we sometimes miss out on the little things that make life beautiful as it is—a compliment from a stranger, a warm smile from a child, a beautiful sunset. And in this season of gratitude, we find ourselves pausing on Thanksgiving Day to remind ourselves of what we are thankful for, when in fact the reminders are there each and every day for the noticing.
Contrary to common belief, one effective way to cope with the holiday madness is to SLOW DOWN and take a little time each day to cultivate and practice mindfulness. Perhaps you've heard about this concept, which is rooted in Zen Buddhism, and has recently become more popular in Western society. Research has demonstrated that practicing mindfulness is associated with improvements in well-being, physical and mental health, relationship satisfaction, and attentional focus. In addition, the practice of mindfulness has been shown to help reduce stress and associated negative emotions such as anxiety and sadness.
So, what is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, internationally known for his work in bringing mindfulness into Western medicine and society, defines the concept as "awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained, particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally". When we practice mindfulness, we are focusing our full attention on the moment as it is, letting go of the past and future-directed thoughts, and allowing all of our senses to experience this moment, right now.
You may be asking, "Ok, so on a practical level, how can I be mindful?" In reality, there are infinite opportunities to practice mindfulness during each day. Here are some suggestions to get started:
- Find a quiet place for just a few minutes (I sometimes recommend the bathroom, as for some people this is the only quiet spot!). Get yourself into a comfortable sitting position with your feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing only. Do this for a few minutes. Listen to the sound of your breath and notice how your body feels during this time. When thoughts of other moments come racing into your mind, acknowledge them and let them go by as if they are on a conveyor belt, and refocus your attention on your breath again. Do this over and over.
- Spend a few minutes each day writing down five things you are thankful for that day.
- When you are walking outside, focus on one of your senses. For example, for vision, notice the colors of objects around you or for hearing, listen to the sounds around you and label them nonjudgmentally (eg "That building is gray", or "I hear a horn honking").
- Get the kids involved! One favorite thing I like to recommend is good old fashioned bubble blowing. Make a game out of it and instruct them (and yourself) to silently watch the bubbles float around the room. Resist the urge to pop the bubbles and see where they go.
By taking a few minutes each day to be mindful, perhaps even more than once a day, we can give ourselves the space to get in touch with ourselves, to fully experience the meaningful moments that often pass us by, and to take time to practice gratitude for what we have in our lives. This way, by the time Thanksgiving arrives, we will not be scrambling to think about what we are thankful for! Instead, we can experience gratitude daily, reduce our stress, and be more in touch with the little things that make all the difference.
Published: November 4, 2013