Stressed out? Meditation helps, and so does sleep

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water's surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water’s surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

I went on a retreat this weekend with some friends. It was at a lakeside retreat centre a couple of hours away and the weather was beautiful. I set myself one main goal this weekend, and that was to get enough sleep.

The retreat involved organized sessions that included guided meditations. I like guided meditation especially when it’s “live” and I’m doing it with other people. But this weekend, I uncharacteristically fell asleep through each of the guided meditations. I could feel myself nodding off and there was nothing I could do about it. Obviously, I needed sleep.

This morning I was chatting with my mother, who recently completed a course on mindfulness meditation. I told her that despite the retreat, I was feeling stressed out at work. I really can’t stand complaining about workload because I have a great job and I realize that, but I do feel overwhelmed. But I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “are you practicing mindfulness?” (I love that she took that course and now is offering mindfulness as a solution to stress!).

She’s right that meditation always helps. Even if I just take a few moments of silence, it can bring me into the present moment where things seem a lot more manageable than when I am worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

On the retreat we learned a technique that I have encountered before called “anchoring.” If you’re feeling mental discomfort or distress, think instead of a time when you felt peaceful and content or even joyful. Really focus on that feeling and anchor it somehow (e.g. touching your ring, snapping your fingers, even inhaling an essential oil). If you really connect with that feeling and anchor it in this way, you can use your anchor to bring you back to that sense of peace and contentment when you’re feeling a more negative feeling.

Anchoring is not exactly the same as mindfulness, but it is another process that we can use in meditation. For more information about how to use anchoring to alleviate stress, check out this article, “From Chaos to Calm in an Instant: How to Create a Positive Anchor.”

The anchoring meditation was the only guided meditation that I didn’t fall asleep during. To make up for the others, I took a couple of sessions by myself to sit in silence in a beautiful meditation room they have on site, overlooking the lake. It’s called The Oasis, and for some reason no one ever seems to go there. I love it.

So I meditated, I slept, and I anchored. And yet still I came home with an uneasy feeling. I think one reason this happens after a retreat is that, for me, I have a tough time reconciling that sense of peace with the chaotic pace of my day to day life. I got back to town and went straight out to a birthday party, followed by a different celebratory dinner, followed by an event in someone’s honor. Even though these are all good things, the pace of it all reversed the sense of calm because I had to rush around. I fell into bed exhausted, and felt the urgency of the week’s tasks press upon me as soon as I opened my eyes.

The good thing about meditation, sleep, and anchoring is that you don’t need to be at a retreat centre to do them.

What are your go-tos when you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed?

 

 

 

 

More about Mindfulness

mindfulness-StonesMindfulness is a practice people usually associate with meditation.  One of my favourite mindfulness teachers and practioners, Bodhipaksa, has an article in which he defines mindfulness like this: “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”

What’s so reassuring and comforting about this idea, for me, is the “gentle effort.”  It’s not as if we apply no effort at all.  But we don’t go into urgent and tense effort either.  It’s just a gentle, consistent effort to stay aware of what’s happening right now.  Maybe even bringing a sense of acceptance to it, whatever the present moment may bring.

Jon Kabat Zinn, another teacher, adds another element to mindfulness. He says, ““Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The added idea of paying attention “on purpose” takes it beyond simple awareness.  As Bodhipaksa explains in his article,

In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.

Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.

When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.

Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.

It’s not just “on purpose,” it’s also non-judgmental. So if we purposefully (and with gentle effort) focus in a non-judgmental way on our present moment experience, we are practicing mindfulness.

I’ve blogged before about the way activities like swimming and running feel meditative to me. See my post Om…fitness practice as meditation. I’m not unique in this respect. Lots of people talk about their activities in this way.

We can experience lots of benefits by taking mindfulness into our sport practice.  I have three approaches to running. The first way is to try to be as mindless as possible. I play music, daydream, and try to forget what I’m doing in the hope that the time will pass as quickly as possible. The second way is a variation on this same theme — running with people.  As we run and chat, it quite literally takes my mind off of what we’re actually doing.  The third way is mindfully. When I do this, I pay attention to my footfalls, their sound and feel, the position of my foot as a it strikes the ground, my posture and alignment and how that feels, the air on my cheeks, the sound of my breath, the colour of the sky.

In this state I become hyper aware and present.  It’s by far the most profound of the three approaches, but not always easy for me to sustain. It’s not that any of these is necessarily more enjoyable than any other. It really depends on my mood. But sometimes, the mindful run is exactly what I need.

Swimming is another thing that in my world anyway lends itself to this mindfulness. Our coach nudges us in a mindful direction when we do drills that focus on one tiny part of the stroke. She’ll tell us to pay attention for 50m to the roll of our shoulders or our hips, or ask us to count our strokes, or to focus on the natural alignment of our head in the water.

If you think that mindfulness is just a neat practice, think again. It has a positive impact on our attitude and even on our brain structure.  On attitude, this post on running mindfully says:

This “secondary elaborative processing” that psychologists refer to is the negative self-talk and classic downward spiral that I often see in ultramarathon events when pain and/or fatigue and nausea start to take a strong hold, or a runner is falling behind the goals they’d set. We’ve had a lot of social conditioning to “tough it out” and to “steel” ourselves in these settings. The mindfulness approach, however, is counter-intuitive to this conditioning – it encourages acceptance and surrender.

Total Immersion Swimming founder Terry McLaughlin, in his article “Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain,” reports on a study at Mass General Hospital. It

documents  that 8 weeks practice of mindfulness meditation produces lasting changes in brain structure.

Participants spent about 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and had their brains studied before-and after by MRI.

Researchers found increased ‘grey-matter’ density in the hippocampus, a center of learning and memory, and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participants reported reductions in anxiety and stress.

The significance of this study is that — like others before — it documents that changes produced by meditation are deep and lasting, not transitory. I.E. Mindfulness practice changes brain traits, not just brain states.

Lessons for swimmers:

1) Focal Points, Stroke Counts and Tempo Trainer beeps are, in fact, mantras — the essential tools of meditation.

2) Moving Meditation, by merging thought and action, is even more powerful at effecting lasting change in brain structure. This is because (i) aerobic activity increases the supply of oxygen and glycogen, which fuels muscle and brain cells; (ii) physical activity increases secretion of a protein that is the building block of ‘grey matter’; and (iii) as I posted on Dec 3 while passive meditation creates  Theta state brainwaves(4-7 cycles/second), moving meditation puts the brain in the “superlearning” Alpha state (8-12 cycles/second).

3) Every time you push off a wall, do so with a targeted thought or intention — a task that will require your full attention. (Once more, the reason I plan every practice and set to produce Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty.)

Simple exertion — no matter how long or hard — may be good for physical fitness but neglects brain fitness.

Mindful Swimming optimizes both brain and body.

Mindfulness in our fitness activities doesn’t need to be an all or nothing thing. It can be something that we practice sometimes, as a way of switching things up.  For some, it can really have a positive impact on their approach to sport and even to life.

To read more about mindfulness, fitness, and health, here are some suggestions:

Running Mindfully

Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain

Mindful Swimming

Mental Skill of Mindful Training

Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness: “Trends” that could change everything

The Principles of Mindful Eating