As I settle down to write I begin to think about the new skills that I appear to have developed over this locked down year… I have definitely enhanced my ability to engage in banter. So lovely to walk along the tracks down my end of town and natter to the regulars as we wander past each other, socially distanced of course. I have also learned to create smiley eyes and project my voice to an audible level from behind a mask although I have yet to work out how to demistify my specs. But, best of all, I have perfected the COVID dance that involves a wiggle of the hips and some nifty footwork as I step out of the way of oncoming people. And all of this activity involves a fair bit of mindfulness: the basic human ability of being fully present.
Banter benefits me in other ways too. For that moment I feel connected which is particularly important at a time when we have limits on where we can go, who we can see and what we can do. Us human beings are inherently social creatures and our sense of connection is a fundamental need that, as research has shown, impacts significantly on our mental and physical health. For me it’s also good that these social encounters involve a bit of humour and laughter. Laughter is known to relax the whole body and lower the stress hormones as well as triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. It’s also said to burn calories although I’ve not spotted any laughter diet books on offer… yet. But it certainly lightens life’s heavy load and enhances our resilience by turning down the brain’s negativity bias.
With all the stresses of lockdown it’s important to be able to relax. Research has shown that one of the benefits of regular mindfulness is that it quietens down the amygdala – the part of our brain that triggers the fight/flight response and the release of cortisol and adrenaline, those stress hormones. Mindfulness practice also strengthens the pre-frontal cortex which enables us to make good judgements that can reduce feelings of anxiety and panic. All of this helps our brain to get out of the fight/flight ‘red zone’ and into the ‘green zone’ where our soothing system is activated and we feel safer and calmer.
Here’s a rapid relaxation practice that can bring real relief in stressful situations.
First of all, pick a special relaxation cue – something you see regularly through the day. Maybe your watch, a picture on the wall, a plant pot on the windowsill, anything at all. In the early days putting a bit of coloured tape or a sticky note on it will help to remind you to have a little practice. Whenever you look at your cue throughout the day, go through these three simple and quick steps:
- Take two or three deep, even breaths, exhaling slowly through your mouth.
- Think ‘relax’ each time you exhale.
- Scan your body for any tension. Focus on those muscles that need to relax, let go of the tension and have a sense of it emptying away.
The suggestion is that you use your relaxation cue around 15 times a day to relax quickly in natural, non-stressful situations. This will install the habit of checking yourself for tension and moving back into a state of relaxation throughout the day, changing the cue if you want some variety. Once this little practice is embedded then it’s there to use in those particularly stressful moments of the day.
Another simple little exercise to help at times of anxiety or stress is to
- Breathe in for three seconds
- Hold for four seconds
- Breathe out for five seconds
This practice works because, when our outbreath is longer than our inbreath, the slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio signals to our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down, decreasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and skeletal muscle tone. We move from the fight/flight mode to the ‘rest and digest’ state, just as the zebra does when it has outrun the lion. It’s a good place to return to. Doing this little exercise five times only takes about one minute and really makes us feel calmer and less anxious.
By doing this we are showing ourselves some kindness and compassion through using our breath to settle our minds. We come back to our bodies which are always in the present moment, even if our minds are grappling with thoughts about the past or future that are stressing us out. Here’s a quote that I like from Thich Nhat Hann: “Smile, breathe and go slowly”.
Folk who do mindfulness and kindfulness sessions with me are befriended by Smiley Bob. Take a look at his warm and friendly face. He is working hard in a number of places in Bradford, Leeds and around Colne to remind people to pause, take a breath and practice some selfkindness. He has attached himself to notice boards, laptops, kitchen cabinets and who knows what, in a range of locations. He has even found his way to Harrogate. How posh is he?
Smiley Bob is always keen to tell people to:
Put down the bags of the past and the future.
Let them all go for now and come into the present moment.
Pause and take a breath.
Put down the bags for a few moments so that you can rest and refresh.
Enjoy the present moment and take in the good.
Have a taste of kindfulness.