I am so excited about the Winter Olympic Games. While I’m not an avid sports fan, I feel we owe it to these dedicated, passionate and very gifted athletes to pay attention to what they’re doing. Beyond the sheer physical strength and stamina that’s necessary for these athletes to arrive at the Olympic Games, I’m also impressed by their psychological capacity to handle the stress of it all.
This is why so many elite athletes are turning to mindfulness practice to get on top of their psychological game, and reaping the rewards.
While any of us would be hard pressed to know the intense pressure Olympians must experience as they train and compete, we all definitely experience our own pressures and anxieties that challenge us day in and day out. If mindfulness practice is helping top athletes handle the enormous psychological strain they endure, it’s likely it will help you, too.
For instance, I work with a client at Citron Hennessey Private Therapy who has recently shifted into what she calls having “a bird’s-eye view” of her inner and outer experiences. After months of practicing defusing from her judgmental and unhelpful thoughts and taking a curious and open stance to her beliefs and emotions, she has gained the capacity to “witness” herself without getting negatively triggered the way she used to. She has moved from being inside the drama of her thoughts and emotions and can now see she is having thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them. She still has unhelpful, automatic thoughts and difficult feelings, but she no longer identifies with them. This shift in her capacity to be more self-aware and self-reflective has reduced her anxiety, improved her relationships, and increased her productivity.
Without actually meditating, my client has been practicing informal mindfulness and is reaping the rewards.
Another client has also taken to mindfulness and self-compassion as adaptive coping mechanisms designed to help him handle the panic he feels when he has to give presentations at work. He has found the practice to be so helpful, he recently wondered in a session why more of us don’t use these skills to navigate the high-stress environment in which we live and work.
“But I don’t have time to sit and meditate!” is a common rebuttal I hear from clients when I suggest they try incorporating mindfulness into their lives. And I get it! That to-do list is a mile long and you never feel like you have enough time to accomplish all those tasks even on a good day, let alone take time aside to sit still! The beauty of developing the skill of mindfulness practice is that it doesn’t require that you become a Buddhist or even sit in uncomfortable, cross-legged positions for long periods of time.
Informal mindfulness, or “everyday mindfulness” can be a very effective way to reduce the internal experience of stress and anxiety, without the added pressure of having to formally sit down to meditate. So what does “informal practice” look like and what does it entail?
Informal mindfulness practice means practicing mindfulness in the midst of your daily life. Like while eating breakfast, or brushing your teeth, or in a traffic jam, or waiting for the subway to arrive, or while riding the subway, or walking down the street, or running on the treadmill, or taking a shower, or… honestly, this list is endless, but I think you get the point.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention on purpose to the present moment as it is, with curiosity and non-judgment. And seriously, you can learn to do this throughout your busy day for maximum benefits.
1. Notice you’re thinking.
This is harder than it sounds, but an important first step. For instance, while getting ready in the morning, you’re automatically going through the motions, while your mind is incessantly replaying the pitch you have to deliver later today over and over ad nauseam. Just make a point to notice that you’re thinking, and suddenly you’ll find yourself standing in your bathroom brushing your teeth, instead of in the boardroom pitching your idea. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t fret. Just notice: thinking.
2. Notice your body.
Our bodies are always in the present moment; it is our minds that are always racing to the past or future. But now that you’ve done step one and you’ve noticed the nonstop chatter of your mind, let go of the thoughts and come to your senses. See what’s right in front of you, whether it’s your own reflection in the bathroom mirror, or a stranger’s face sitting across from you on the train. Pay attention to what you hear. Open your ears and listen, even if just to the sound of your own breathing. Notice your skin; what do you feel? If you’re in the shower, feel the water on your body. What smells are you aware of? Is someone cooking nearby? Can you make out what dish they’re preparing? Notice if you’re feeling hot or cold, anxious, angry or calm. Just take a few seconds and pay attention to what you’re aware of in your body. Do this for 3 slow breaths. If your mind pulls you away immediately back to your thoughts, just notice thinking again and bring your attention back to your body.
3. Get on with your day, and repeat steps 1 and 2 as often as you can remember.
If you’re interested in reaping the benefits of mindfulness and improving your state of mind, your mood, your relationships, or – like Olympians – your performance, and you’re concerned about finding time, try practicing mindfulness. And just like top athletes, the more often you practice, the more likely you are to succeed.