I am busy. You are busy. Let’s be honest, we’re all busy. And I don’t think I am alone when I say tackling one task after another without much thought or emotion sometimes feels critical to surviving the day. Striving to achieve each and every day is an admirable goal. But the problem arises when the multiplicity of tasks assigned to each day results in continued stress. Years of unacknowledged or unaddressed stress, arguably, leads to premature aging and age-related disease. The million-dollar question is: how can we balance a life with a never-ending “to-do” list, and negate stress and its long-term harmful effects? There are a multitude of potential solutions, but let’s look at a simple one: nurturing mindfulness.
There are hundreds of definitions of the word mindfulness, and countless interpretations of this concept. I like to keep it simple. Mindfulness is nonjudgmentally paying attention in the present moment. Mindfulness may seem the same as awareness but, in fact, mindfulness is the conscious direction of our awareness. To distinguish between the two, consider the difference between eating and eating mindfully. The typical eating experience may involve table conversation, reading, or television. These external stimuli often take over as the primary focus. In this scenario, eating is solely a physical act. Eating mindfully involves tuning in to your food; bringing your five senses—sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste—to the forefront of the eating experience.
It may seem easy or natural to stay in the present, but it’s not! The combination of technological overstimulation, a tendency to multi-task, and our very biological nature make it difficult. We need to consciously direct our mind to stay focused on the present. Without conscious direction, the mind wanders freely.
The freedom to move from past memories to future possibilities, actively and directly affects the physical body. The result of positive thoughts is the release of “happy hormones” like serotonin, while thoughts associated with negative or upsetting emotions and feelings release cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. Recent research reveals that positive emotions are fleeting, and it takes approximately three positive thoughts to counteract the effect of one negative thought. When left without direction, the mind is more likely to get “stuck” on the negative, and as a result, the body continuously releases cortisol. Consistent elevated levels of cortisol can lead to a suppressed immune system, increased blood pressure and sugar, decreased libido and the production of acne.
Making the shift to mindfulness in daily tasks promises incredible advantages, both mentally and physically. Eating mindfully improves digestion, reduces stress, and can spur weight loss. With these kinds of benefits, imagine how employing mindfulness in all your daily activities could affect your health. Think of it like this: You are already doing these activities. Why not make them good for your health?
- Experience the physical body. Identify a daily task or chore that you do on “auto pilot.” Today, when you perform that activity, stay present by identifying what is required of your body; specifically, how your body moves to accomplish the task. If you are making the bed, for example, you may notice the arm muscles needed to secure the fitted sheet to the mattress, or how your knees bend to fluff your pillows. Make the activity more than a routine by merging with it physically. A physical focus on a daily task keeps the mind and the body in the present, and also highlights tendencies and movement patterns that make you further aware of your body.
- Play the sense game. Identify a daily task or chore that you do on “auto pilot.” Today, while performing the activity, individually focus on each of your senses—si, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Using the same example of making your bed, you may notice the color of your sheets and how they meld with the colors of the rest of the room, or the sound of birds singing outside, or the softness or crispness of the sheets and smell of cleaning detergent. By identifying how your senses are engaged, your focus expands from the singular act of making your bed to a broader and more complete experience of the activity. You may even start to enjoy the activity. And, with enjoyment comes more happy hormones!
- Add breath. Focused breath is proven to calm the mind and body. Rather than sanctioning time daily to practice conscious breathing (a great practice in itself), notice your breath during a chosen activity. To help further focus your attention, you may count your breaths, or intentionally regulate your breath by coordinating movement with inhales and exhales, or focus on matching the timing of your exhale with that of your inhale. If you are feeling a sense of anxiety or tightness in your body, this mindfulness technique can have a very effective impact.