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A time to be mindful

Practising "presence" can help get you through the holiday season

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Wave, November / December 2012

The holiday season is quickly approaching.

For many people, the holidays are a busy time filled with shopping, cooking, entertaining, and special events. Do you look forward to the holidays and then feel as though they just fly by in a blur and it's suddenly all over?

Maybe you dread the holidays because of all the extra demands and strain. Even if you don't officially "celebrate" any upcoming holiday, the world becomes a very busy place at this time of year. Around this time, we often plan special treats and enjoy shared traditions with our family and friends. But with our already busy lives, it doesn't take much before we are "over the top," which can lead to harried, stressful times rather than the cherished moments that we'd hoped for.

One way to stay balanced over the holiday season is to practise being mindful.

Mindfulness means paying attention, in the present moment, and accepting whatever is happening. Practising mindfulness helps us to experience the present moment rather than focusing on past events or getting caught up in the future. It also helps us to stay calm, even when things are not going our way. It is common for our attention to bounce from one thing to another. We are constantly thinking about things that have happened to us, such as nasty traffic on our way to work, a disagreement during a meeting or the conversation we had with our child before school.

On the flip side, we also spend a great deal of time thinking about the future: making plans or trying to make a decision on how to deal with a situation, from handling a co-worker to what we will cook for supper. While we do need to think about these things, always focusing on the past or the future can rob us of experiencing and enjoying the present moment.

Why is it so important to pay attention in the present moment? Being mindful helps us to become more aware of our mind and body, and how they are connected - and to make use of that connection for our own well-being.

For example, let's say you are at work and you feel a pain on the side of your head. You start to worry about this pain, and think about how this pain could turn out to be something very serious. You wish for it to go away and you feel frustrated. Your thoughts jump to the future and you begin to see yourself getting bad news from the doctor and undergoing treatment for a serious condition.

In a very short time you become highly stressed about this pain and now the pain in your head is more intense. This approach isn't helpful. In all likelihood the pain was something minor and could have disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

Mindfulness offers a different approach to this same scenario. You still notice the pain but instead of catastrophizing about the pain and potentially making it worse, you acknowledge the sensation in your head, accept that it bothers you, and keep your thoughts on the present moment. You might choose to stop what you are doing just for a brief period to let both your body and mind pay attention to what is happening. You take a few deep breaths and relax your shoulders to help relieve the pain and stay calm. If worrisome thoughts start creeping into your consciousness, you notice them and watch them float on by. You refocus your thoughts on the here and now instead of worrying about what the pain might mean in the future. You may start to feel a bit of relief from the pain. By breathing, and staying calm and present you are able to manage this situation in a way that is good for both your body and mind, and you are in a better position to go about your day.

One technique for being mindful is to imagine yourself sitting on the bank of a river or stream and picture your thoughts as leaves, floating by. You can imagine yourself sitting quietly on the shore, watching your thoughts come and go without latching on to them and having them take you down the river.

In today's busy world, there is very little time set aside to enjoy a quiet moment like this. It is in these quiet moments we gain perspective on our lives, see the solution to a problem or re-evaluate our priorities. We also benefit from quiet times for the sake of simply enjoying a peaceful moment. Experiencing these kinds of moments can help us to feel rejuvenated, or as some people like to think of it, as "re-charging" our batteries. However you choose to spend your time, consider the potential benefits of a few quiet moments in your day, every day.

You may be thinking, "How can I possibly find the time to be mindful over the holidays when I am already so busy?" The good news is that you can be mindful while you are doing your regular activities. When you are celebrating the holidays, keep your thoughts on the present moment and take note of the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that surround you. Being mindful can help you notice when you are feeling overwhelmed, and when you need to slow down and be kind to yourself.

Over the holidays, this might mean sharing some of the workload by suggesting a potluck rather than organizing a meal for a large group all by yourself. You might remind yourself to keep your focus on sharing good times with family and friends and not on finding the perfect gift or baking the perfect cake. Notice if you can keep a sense of humour and stay well by getting enough sleep. Plan ahead and mark your calendar with "home time" or "relax time" so that every night doesn't get booked up with commitments.

While this has been a very brief introduction to mindfulness, there are classes and workshops that offer a deeper understanding and practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center where they have studied the effect of using the program for coping with stress, anxiety, pain and various illnesses for nearly 30 years. There are books and CDs (available at your local library) and other web-based resources to guide people in the practice of mindfulness. Put aside your to-do list and take time for yourself this holiday season. Allow yourself to enjoy the simple pleasure of just being in the moment - it may be the highlight of your day!

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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