It's all in the mindfulness . . .
As lifestyles get more hectic, has the trick to staying calm arrived, asks Chrissie Russell
Put down the phone and turn off the hob, lower the laptop and switch off the radio – multitasking is officially over. Instead say hello to 'Mindfulness', a way of single tasking and living in the moment that could render you more productive and happier into the bargain.
The chances are you've already heard the buzzword. Originating in Eastern spirituality, Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan have long championed the philosophy of focusing on the present as a means of getting the most out of life.
Most recently Irish author Marian Keyes spoke about using mindfulness as one of the approaches adopted in her battle with depression.
The concept is very simple: by living in the moment, and focusing the mind through regular meditation, we can retrain the brain to function better.
Most of us fly through the day in a mental hamster wheel of 'Oh no, I forgot I had a meeting at three, what if it runs over? Who will collect the kids? Did I remember to defrost the lamb for dinner? The freezer has been acting up, I'll have to ring someone . . .' Panicking about not getting things done rather than focusing on the task at hand.
Mindfulness calms the mind, placing attention on the present and accepting that, even if you're stressed in that moment, the experience is transitory.
Sounds simple? Not necessarily. "The feedback that I get most often is that it's not easy," says Josephine Lynch from mindfulness.ie.
Josephine has been teaching mindfulness from her Dublin studio for seven years and has seen a recent boom in interest.
"A lot of people feel anxiety and they're looking for a way to deal with that," she says.
"I've had people in their 20s feeling burned out, business people wanting to make their work more productive, people suffering depression and clinical psychologists and social workers all interested in learning about mindfulness."
The theme that links them is stress. "About 85pc of our thoughts are about 'what's wrong?'" explains Josephine.
"We're constantly comparing ourselves with others or waiting for a time in the future when we'll accept ourselves, mindfulness is about letting go of what's stopping you from accepting yourself right now."
The eight-week course involves meditation, learning to focus on the moment, breathing exercises to deal with stress and challenging how to deal with negative thought processes and difficult emotional experiences.
"It's not just meditation in a room for half an hour a day," says Josephine. "It's hard work, it's learning to think a new way."
But the rewards can be impressive. Solid research has shown the brain can change when meditation is practised regularly, thus mindfulness can prove particularly useful to people hoping to change cyclical patterns of depression.
It can also result in better self-awareness, increased energy, better sleep, improved social relationships and improved physical and psychological health.
"The neuroscience behind it is very interesting, especially for children with ADHD," says Clodagh McCarthy from Brightsparks coaching (brightsparkscoaching.ie).
Clodagh works in developing mindfulness in education and last year saw 26 teachers attend a four-day course geared towards integrating mindfulness into the classroom.
"Children are more mindful by nature but they're also more stressed. There's pressure on kids and it's important they learn tools to deal with stress".
"One of the things to do with children is a three-minute breathing exercise, just getting them to feel the breath in the belly.
"It's simple but effective. We all have habits in our mind, but if we stop to breathe from the belly, it creates a moment of calm, stopping the brain from going into stress autopilot and encouraging a more relaxed response."
In the UK, courses are offered on the NHS to help patients cope with pain and heath services in Ireland, including cancer care at St Vincent's and St James's, are adopting the model.
Increasingly big businesses are also recognising the potential for mindful employees. "It makes sense that if you are dwelling on the last meeting that went badly, you're not going to be able to give as much to the one you have in five minutes," says Josephine.
"Multitasking is over– it's all about one-tasking. If you're at work, you're at work; and if you're at play, you're at play. By living 100pc in that moment, even if it's just washing the dishes, you'll put more into that moment and get more out."
Accountant Frank McDonald (41) from Kildare turned to mindfulness when he was suffering from stress. He says: "My wife had been ill after giving birth to our first child and I was also dealing with the impact of the recession on my business.
"A friend who had been suffering depression recommended the mindfulness course.
"There's a lot of stigma attached to mental health but I believe a psychological problem needs a psychological answer and I was encouraged by the scientific research – it gave the approach legitimacy.
"The course was a lot of work but really helped me deal with stress. I feel I have more time, I'm healthier, and my wife notices that I'm much calmer."
Senior teaching assistant Caroline Grampp (38) from Wicklow introduced her business management students at UCD to the concept. She says: "I don't sell it to them as 'mindfulness' – just something that's part of their module on personal development.
"They find it interesting. I encourage them to stop and reflect rather than just racing through the day and the feedback I've had from them is that they focus more and are more aware of the nice things that happen that day.
"From my own experience of mindfulness I found that focusing on good things, and writing them down, even if it was just noting a fresh fall of snow, made me appreciate them and helped me be more positive."
Dublin chef Michelle Ryan (33) was diagnosed with depression last year but didn't want to be on long-term medication and opted to try a mindfulness course suggested by her psychologist. She says: "At first I wasn't sure if it was for me. I found the two and a half hour sessions very long and it didn't make sense – why was I sitting chewing on a raisin and having to think about it?
"But after a while I started to enjoy it. It focuses you on living in the moment and helped me to cope.
"When I found myself getting worked up, I knew to breathe and remember the tools I'd learned to change the way I think.
See mindfulness.ie for more details
'I just felt tired all the time'
Dublin mum Alberta Congeduti (41) wanted to find a way to help her relax. She says: "Three years ago I had a baby, moved to Ireland with my husband, couldn't find a job, and was worried about my family in Italy who had been through an earthquake.
"I was under a lot of stress and felt tired all the time. I would do very little all day but have no energy. I was always asking myself – how can I feel like this when I've not done anything?
"After just a few weeks on the course, I started to use my mind a different way. If I was playing with my child, I allowed myself to enjoy that rather than worrying that I should be putting a wash on or making the dinner.
"I acknowledged what I had done, instead of what I hadn't and as a result felt calmer and more energetic."
'I've learnt to handle my pain and to focus on something else'
Teacher Roisin Beaver (37), from Kildare, suffers from fibromyalgia. The mum of two went on a mindfulness course to help manage the pain.
She says: "The pain is still here, but how I deal with it has changed. It used to always be in the back of my mind but now I accept it rather than focusing on it. Yes it hurts, but let's focus on something else.
"It's showed me how powerful the mind can be because I'm not as aware of it any more and when my GP asks me 'What is the pain like?' I have to think because it's not at the forefront of my mind.
"I'm more mindful of my movement now and joined a gym to help my muscles.
"I'm more aware of things like not putting pressure on myself and letting go of what I can't control."