Mindfulness is said to make you calmer, happier and healthier
As you read this, chances are you're listening to a song on the radio, shuffling over to let somebody pass you on the bus or train while absent-mindedly scrolling through your Facebook feed, replying to a text and worrying about the due date on that bill.
Multi-tasking has become part of our every waking minute. With so much on our minds, it's no surprise that we can feel overwhelmed and anxious at the end of the day. The practice of mindfulness, or 'living in the moment', is a form of meditation that can reduce anxiety and stress, but you don't have to sit cross-legged for hours to reap the benefits.
Free your mind
Josephine Lynch, who teaches mindfulness at the Irish Institute of Counselling and Psychotherapy Studies and helps run mindfulness.ie, explains that it's all about being physically and emotionally present and "being aware of the moment in a kindly, friendly way".
She stresses that it's simply about recognising and acknowledging your thoughts, not trying to change things. "You're not trying to manipulate anything, but a change in how you view things is created."
This emphasis on awareness is echoed by author, blogger and photographer Susannah Conway, who explains that too often we speed through things, numbing ourselves to the point of not feeling anything. "Rushing through the day not noticing the taste of our lunch, not hearing our loved ones speak to us, not seeing what's around us is the opposite of mindfulness."
Susannah runs online courses to help people reconnect with themselves and her book 'This I Know' features many mindfulness exercises.
The beauty of mindfulness lies in its simplicity; there are no expensive fees or strict class schedules to stick to. "You can mindfully make a sandwich, paying attention to what you're doing as you butter the bread and slice the cheese," says Susannah. "You can tune into your surroundings as you walk through the park. You can sit quietly and pay attention to your breath, even if you're sat on a bench in a busy part of town.
"To me, mindfulness is about bringing my attention fully into the moment," she explains. "Whatever I'm doing, I want to do it with my full awareness. I find this helps me to stop fretting about the future or dwelling on the past – all we have is right now, so I try my best to inhabit that space. I don't know if it's possible to be mindful all the time, but I do know that when I try to slow down and pay attention to what I'm doing my day is a lot more enjoyable than when I don't."
Your body is a brilliant place to start cultivating mindfulness. Throughout the day, stop for a moment or two and see if you can concentrate on feeling your breath move in and out of your body.
Just taking a few seconds to feel the air moving through you can instantly reduce anxiety levels. The more you're able to remove yourself from a stressful moment, the better equipped you'll be to deal with it.
If you tend to wake up with a busy mind full of to-do lists, skip heading straight to your smartphone (which will exacerbate the problem) and try to practise mindfulness as you dress. Notice how your clothes feel against your skin as you pull them on, think about the movement of your body as you dress – all these things work to bring you sharply into the present.
Another trick is a simple form of eating meditation. Josephine recommends starting with an orange. "Bring all your senses and energy into looking, smelling, tasting it. Look at what it is composed of – sunshine, water. Think about how it got here: it's been picked, carried, transported."
Doing this helps you remember that you are a part of a bigger world and, according to Josephine, it can even help take away feelings of isolation and loneliness and of feeling separate.
Despite being the source of a lot of distraction, your phone also has the ability to help make you more mindful. "I use photography as a way to pay attention and am always telling people to take more photos as they go about their day," says Susannah.
"A positive of smartphones is that they are great for this because you always have a camera on you. Even if you only took one photo each day, you're creating a moment to pause, and that's always a good thing."
If somebody isn't used to slowing down or paying attention to the smaller, seemingly less significant parts of their day, it can be quite a revelation. "When I ask participants in my 'Unravelling' e-course to take photographs of their feet wherever they find themselves during the week they often report that this simple act of noticing helped them be much more present for the rest of their day."
Offices are busier than ever, with fewer staff doing more work. Constantly multi-tasking and rushing to meet targets and deadlines can trigger the body's 'flight or fight' mode, increasing brain activity, heightening perception and sending chemicals rushing all over the place.
However, our bodies were designed to take this kind of stress two or three times a month, and are not equipped to deal with it on a daily basis. Over time it wears you down, both mentally and physically, resulting in everything from anxiety to bone-thinning and reduced immunity.
Finding a way to quiet your mind can minimise these effects and help you deal with stress more effectively. Next time a worrying, work-related thought pops into your head, try to change the way you react to it. If you're a worrier, concentrate on shifting your focus to the result you want, instead of the problem you have. Picture yourself hitting the target and feeling content and energised, instead of fretting about all that could go wrong.
If you're prone to trying to ignore and bury it, decide not to. Any attempt to stop your brain from thinking about something will just draw more attention to it and leave you feeling frustrated. Instead, make an effort to acknowledge the worry, reminding yourself that it's just a thought and in itself it can't harm you.
Most workplaces involve a lot of emailing and researching, making online overload rife. "It's too easy to mindlessly consume all this information online and then wonder why we feel off," says Susannah. She recommends thinking about the sites you regularly visit and how they affect your moods. "I regularly clear out my Google Reader and unsubscribe from newsletters and blogs that bring my energy down (read: make me feel bad)."
Finding exercises that complement your work life can reduce stress, too. Long walks, swimming and yoga can all help engage your mind and allow you to focus on your breathing. A competitive gym session, on the other hand, can actually increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so should be avoided on deadline days.
Being mindful is free, but it's something you have to work to cultivate. "The brain responds to experience and can make new pathways," explains Josephine. "But it won't happen out of the blue and does require effort." It's all about creating pockets of time during the day to be mindful and aware of your surroundings. Stopping to smell the flowers – literally – really can reduce stress and increase calmness.