As Head of PR for Contra Vision Jo Bentley understands the demands of the print and graphics business, and as a qualified mindfulness trainer she also knows techniques for combating workplace stress. Here’s her advice.
You may have heard of mindfulness and have a sense it’s something out there, wild and woolly, a bit like yoga or navel gazing or some sort of cultish thing. It is none of those things. Simply put, mindfulness is a way of learning how to work more effectively with the most fantastic piece of kit you could ever own - your own mind.
Here mindfulness coach Jo Bentley suggests techniques that can take the heat out of difficult work challenges and, when used regularly, can be used to deal with anxiety and a host of stress related health conditions. Whatever your role, using some of these simple techniques can make working life more balanced and reduce burnout and absenteeism.
1. Know thyself
According to neuroscientists our minds wander 47% of the time, which can lead us into lovely day-dreams but often the end result is worry and rumination, something we may not be aware of until we notice a low mood or snap. One of the benefits of mindfulness is recognising that the anxious mind can take over, and until we develop the ability to notice where our mind is we are constantly prey to its wanderings.
How familiar is this situation? Waking up in the middle of the night, worrying about a particular project or that fact that a client hasn’t returned a call for three days so does that mean the promised job will not materialise? What starts as one stray, random thought soon becomes a deluge of worry as you lie awake running ever worsening scenarios in your head, perhaps
even catastrophising that this is the beginning of the end, the business will fail, you will lose your job, home and everything will fall apart. Then sleep feels impossible and anger begins to creep in as you wonder how you’ll be able to work in the morning when you haven’t had any sleep. And so begins an exhausting spiral of anxiety and irritation.
2. Do a body scan
Simple mindfulness techniques can give you the breathing space to come out of this catastrophising mode. There is a very simple practice, called the Body Scan, which guides you to place your attention on your body, thus taking the heat out of what is happening in the head. It’s simple and easy to do but can make all the difference between lying awake worrying and being able to function the next day.
3. Feel your feet on the ground
There are many free mindfulness downloads on the Web, and a good place to look is the ‘Frantic World’ website (http://franticworld.com). But here’s a good baseline practice for when you’re faced with one of those scenarios when nothing seems to be going right – you have an irate client, the printer is down, and you’re facing unrealistic deadlines.
First off, connect with the feeling of having your feet on the floor. Think about which parts of your feet are in contact with the ground and which aren’t, investigate the sensations in your feet; the shoe surrounding them, any feelings in the toes or heels. Nothing difficult there, but the exercise shifts you from cognitive processing and into sensing, and literally gives a you a short breathing space to gather yourself before responding.
4. Do the 7/11
If you are feeling under pressure, overwhelmed or angry try the following exercises at home and/or work. You can use them just prior to a meeting or presentation - any situation when a moment of calmness will help.
The first exercise is known as the ‘7/11’. To do this, close your eyes (ideally) or lower your gaze to the floor, breathe in silently counting to seven in your head, then breathe out, silently counting to 11. Do not attempt to change the length of the breath, which will happen or not, on its own. When the mind is focussed on counting and breathing short-term memory is fully engaged and so you cannot be worrying or planning at the same time. This also impacts on the automatic nervous system calming down the breath rate and heart rate.
5. …and breathe
The there’s the ‘three minute breathing space’. Begin by sitting up and ask the question “How am I right now?” Simply accept whatever answer comes and check out what thoughts are present, how your body feels, is there anything calling for your attention? Then consider what moods or emotions are present. Simply accept whatever answer comes. Then gather the attention into the breath, simply focussing for three breaths on ‘this’ in breath, and the next in breath. Then widen your awareness to take in the whole of the body, thoughts, emotions and the space around you. Pause for a moment, take another breath and then open the eyes and move into the next part of your day.
It can be helpful to think of the shape of this exercise as being like an old fashioned hourglass, widening attention out to all of yourself, then narrowing it into the breath, then expanding outwards again to include the space around you.
It’s good practice to do this three times a day - the more we are able to do this the better chance we have of waking up to our lives and being in the present moment.
6. Read and digest
Mindfulness works - there are scores of academic papers published on its benefits for everything from high blood pressure, depression, psoriasis, chronic pain or migraine, to name a few. There are also some excellent books to help you understand mindfulness, such as Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s ‘Mindfulness, Finding Peace in a Frantic World’. It must be said that learning mindfulness from a book is a little like learning to swim or play the guitar from a book, better than nothing but not the best way.
7. Practice, practice, practice
As a technique mindfulness takes practice, but once learned life can seem a lot lighter. We think nothing of training our bodies, why not our minds? The simple truth is that our brains still function much as they did when we were hunter gatherers 10,000 year ago and so we respond to any stressor as if it could kill us, the fight or flight response is turned on, but of course that delayed purchase order or someone taking ‘our’ parking space will not kill us, yet we can get carried away and the toll on the mind and body can be enormous.
The best way to learn mindfulness is to take a course. A good way to access them is via the bemindful website (http://bemindful.co.uk) which lists only qualified teachers.
8. If it’s good enough for them…
If you think it is too aery faery for the likes of you consider this - mindfulness is taught to Olympic athletes, such as those in the US rowing team to enable them to tune out distraction and perform to the best of their ability. Johnny Wilkinson uses it before he makes a conversion or penalty kick. Many police forces are now training their officers to enable them to deal differently with the stresses of their jobs, and 90 peers and MP’s in the House of Lords and Commons have now been trained. US Marines take a course prior to deployment and returning veterans are offered courses to enable them to deal with the after effects of combat.
So, give it a go. They used to say “when the going gets tough the tough get going”, well one way of “getting going” is to take the time to notice where your mind is and deal differently with life’s challenges.