Don’t be mad. I was working on my thesis. But I received my Master’s degree in December 2015 so I’m done. Do you wanna hang out now?
My thesis is titled The Use of Facebook by Older Adults. I conducted interviews and observations of a wonderful, generous group of folks over age 65 and analyzed the results. The project was a challenge, one I wasn’t sure I was up to. As it turns out, I made things harder for myself than they needed to be. (Shocker!)
I discuss this in a guest blog post I was invited to write for the Thesis & Dissertation Office at Northern Illinois University. I thought I’d share it here so you’d have an idea what I’ve been up to.
Weekends can be hectic or laid back, productive or contemplative, structured or free-flowing. For me, most weekends are some combination of these. By Sunday night I’m often left feeling as if the time just flew by. I wish I had done something more, but more of what I’m not sure.
I’m always seeking ways to bring serenity to my life. Meditation helps, but it can be hard to fit into my schedule. But recently I’ve discovered ways to incorporate mindfulness practices into daily activities. I’ve benefited a lot from practicing mindfulness while I’m driving.
Before we go any further, a word of caution: Stop the mindfulness exercise if you feel drowsy or unable to focus on your driving.
How to practice mindfulness at the wheel
In my experience, meditation helps me stay both alert and calm while I’m driving. I hope it does the same for you. Before you start, turn off any news or music you have playing, and take some deep breaths. Here are some practices I’ve used:
Observe the feel of your breath on both the inhale and exhale. You can focus your attention on the flow of air at the tips of your nostrils, or on the rise and fall of your chest.
Observe the flow of traffic in both directions, not judging it, not commenting on it, just watching it flow.
Observe the sounds: engine, wind, tires, rain. Let each sound enter your awareness without judgment.
Repeat a mantra, such as the word peace, or love, or lovingkindness, either silently or aloud.
Allow yourself to feel goodwill or lovingkindness toward other drivers.
Bestow a blessing or feeling of lovingkindness on other drivers. You could say, “safe journey,” or “blessings,” or “peace,” either silently or aloud.
These last two may be difficult when you encounter drivers who are rude, thoughtless, or reckless. But that’s all the more reason to try. When I can let go of my anger and irritation at other drivers, I feel calmer and lighter, better able to get on with my day.
When I can, I sit in mediation for longer stretches. Sometimes for 20 minutes twice a day, sometimes for a longer period once a day. It all depends on what else I have to fit into my schedule.
How I’ve benefitted from practicing mindfulness at THE WHEEL
I’ve enjoyed many benefits from practicing mindfulness at the wheel. Here are just a few:
I arrive at my destination feeling calmer
I find the commute less stressful
My reactions to other drivers are less extreme and angry
I feel good about having done something positive for myself
If you want to learn more about mindfulness while driving
I found this book to be very helpful: Meditations for Manic Motorists by David Michie which is offered as an audio book by Bolinda Audio (and which is read aloud by Nicholas Bell in a soothing British accent)
She illuminates the connection between our environment and our moods, productivity, and well-being. I hope you find this as insightful and inspiring as I did. Yesterday I worked on decluttering the garage. In just one hour I managed to go through two whole boxes of stuff. Some of it I donated to Goodwill. Some of it I put away in the house. And some of it I just threw out. More of it than I care to admit, really!
I’ve come to realize that instead of being a once-in-a-blue-moon event, this taking stock and letting go of stuff is a cycle. As autumn gets rolling I feel an urge to go sort through my closet. To every thing there is a season…
Even if you only have a few minutes, you can practice meditation and reap the benefits.
In fact, some experts say it’s more beneficial to practice for only 10 minutes each and every day than to practice for an hour once a week. I’ve found this to be true. Although I would love to sit in quiet contemplation for an hour every day, that isn’t realistic right now. I take whatever serenity I can get!
Meditation provides many benefits and strengthens the mind-body connection. One benefit I’m especially grateful for is that meditation also improves mindfulness.
So how do we find the time? How do we practice? And what the heck do I mean by mindfulness?
What I mean by mindfulness is a state of relaxed awareness in which we relax control of our conscious mind. We let our thoughts drift through our consciousness like fluffy clouds drifting across the sky.
We don’t hold on to them. We don’t try to change them. We just let them go. In this way, we still both our bodies and our minds. Not perfectly, of course, but enough that some of our tension, anxiety, and distractedness drift away, at least for a while. Over time we can learn to apply mindfulness to situations that occur outside of our meditation. When I do this I feel more centered and less prone to distractions.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. But first we need to find the time.
Finding the time to meditate
I was surprised by how easily I found openings in my day, once I decided to do so. It turns out there were many moments waiting to be filled with a little bit of serenity and calm:
in line at the grocery store;
at my desk between tasks;
washing the dishes.
I find longer stretches in these kinds of moments:
on walks in the park;
in the early morning when everything is still quiet;
when I turn off the TV and computer.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. I’m going to describe how I do it, but if this doesn’t work for you there are many other methods and a wealth of information online. I provide links to some free online resources below.
7 steps to practicing mindfulness
Start by taking several deep breaths. If you’re feeling tense, roll your shoulders or clench and unclench your fists a few times.
Decide how long you’re going to meditate, whether it’s 2 minutes, 10 minutes, or longer. (Some people set a timer. I just peek at my watch from time to time.)
If you’re comfortable doing so, close your eyes. If not, find something to look at and soften your gaze so you’re not staring. Some people like to gaze at a candle flame.
Focus on the physical sensation of breathing. Follow each breath in and out, from the very beginning all the way to the end.
Scan your body for tension, and where you find it, relax your muscles.
When thoughts pop into your head (and they will!), just let them go (you might visualize those big fluffy clouds drifting by), and gently bring your attention back to the breath.
When the time is up, slowly bring your mind back to the present, and take several deep breaths.
That’s it. That doesn’t seem too hard, does it? You could even try it out right now.
When I can, I sit in mediation for longer stretches. Sometimes for 20 minutes twice a day, sometimes for a longer period once a day. It all depends on what else I have to fit into my schedule. With all the other things I have to worry about, finding time to meditate doesn’t have to stress me out. Remember, even small doses of meditation are helpful.
I’d love to hear from you. Do you meditate? How do you find time? How do you practice?
The answer is yes, stress can be good for us. It all depends on how we respond to it. In fact, we can learn to respond in a way that’s actually good for our hearts (and our souls).
First we need to learn to look at our body’s response to stress as helpful. Second, we need to learn to reach out to others instead of keeping our stress all bottled up. In other words, we need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies.
Stress can be helpful
When I’m stressed, my heart races, my breath get shallow and fast, and my palms sweat. In my mind, I look like the person depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
I always assumed this physical reaction was a bad thing. Turns out I was wrong. This response can actually be heart healthy, depending on how we look at it. If we can regard our body’s physical response to stress as positive, it can actually be good for us.
In addition to the physical symptoms of stress, we also feel a need for support and connection. Following that impulse is key. When we tell someone else how we feel, our body starts to respond differently to the stress.
I learned this in an excellent TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. It’s only 15 minutes long, but if you’re pressed for time, scroll down for a summary.
You can watch the 15-minute talk here:
Summary of TED Talk on stress
Ms. McGonigal describes a study done at Harvard in which participants were given tests under stressful situations. Before the test, they were taught that the physical sensations of stress were helpful, that their bodies were preparing them to perform well on the tests.
Because they now viewed the stress response as helpful, participants felt less stress and more confidence. And rather than constricting, their blood vessels relaxed, which is much healthier for the heart. In fact, this cardiovascular profile is similar to that of moments of bravery and joy.
(6:51) “And when you view stress in that way,your body believes you,and your stress response becomes healthier.”
The second way to make stress work for us is to follow our social impulse. The stress hormone oxytocin makes us feel a need for connection. It also protects our hearts. When we talk over our problems and stressors with our friends and family, our body releases more oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone,” which helps the heart heal and recover from stress.
(9:32) “I find this amazing,that your stress response has a built-in mechanismfor stress resilience,and that mechanism is human connection.”
Making stress work for us
A friend of mine who knew I was stressed suggested I watch this talk. I was skeptical, but also desperate. I tried out the first strategy of changing my view of stress. I was working on a presentation for grad school and feeling panicky and overwhelmed. Every time I sat at the computer to work on it my heart raced and I felt jittery. I kept telling myself that this was a good thing, that I could channel this nervous energy into my work. It took some persistence, but finally I started feeling different. Energized, but not stressed out. Focused, but not obsessive. I got the presentation done on time and received positive feedback on it. Now I find it much easier to trust that my body knows what it’s doing.
I employed the second strategy just yesterday, and not for the first time. I was facing a difficult conversation, one I felt was necessary but might permanently alter a relationship. So I called my friend Sue. We’ve know each other since junior high, and I know I can count on her to listen and to respond with compassion and honesty. And sure enough, during our talk I began to feel lighter, more relaxed, less freaked out.
Eastern medicine has long understood the power and importance of the mind-body connection. I’m glad that researchers in the West are finally honoring this connection and exploring it in depth.
I would love to know your reaction to Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk.
What about you? What are your strategies for dealing with stress?
Stress messes with my sleep, and the last few years I’ve had a lot of stress. (But then, who hasn’t?) So after months of broken, restless sleep, followed by stupor-filled days, I finally consulted a sleep specialist. It was money well spent. Within a week I was getting more rest. This was a big step in learning to take better care of myself.
The doctor quickly ruled out sleep apnea and the need for a C-Pap machine. Blood tests revealed that I had low levels of vitamin D, so I got a prescription for mega-doses of it which I took for a couple months. He suggested using a light therapy box during the day because they help regulate sleep cycles (as well as combating seasonal affective disorder). I found mine online for about $70.
Improving my sleep habits
The doctor told me that in order to improve my sleep, I needed to improve my sleep habits. During the day, he suggested I make these changes:
Avoid caffeine after noon.
Get regular exercise, but not too late in the day, because it can cause a boost of energy just when it’s time to wind down.
Avoid naps, no matter how sleepy I am, because they upset sleep patterns.
In the evening he suggested the following:
Put away or turn off all electronics at least one hour before bedtime (TV, cell phone, tablet, computer, all of them!) because they emit blue light, which revs up our brains.
Use a neti pot or other type of sinus irrigation to ease breathing (but not right before bedtime because it causes the sinuses to drain).
Take 3 mg of melatonin right before bed to induce drowsiness.
In my quest for for restful slumber I’ve picked up a few more tips. I use earplugs, especially when I’m traveling, to block out noise. A sleep mask prevents me from peeking at the clock and is also helpful when traveling. The scent of lavender calms me down, so I keep a sachet under my pillow when I’ve had an especially tense day. And I’ve found that listening to ambient sounds like ocean waves or summer crickets helps me unwind. You can find audio files or CDs of these sounds online or at your library.
Resources on improving sleep
The doctor also referred me to the website for the National Sleep Foundation, which offers lots of information and resources for improving your sleep without pushing for prescription medications.
So how easy was it to improve my sleep habits? Well…Let’s just say that some changes were easier than others. Renouncing all electronics an hour before bedtime was hard. As I’m getting ready for bed I’m always thinking of something I want to do online, like checking tomorrow’s weather or looking at Facebook “just one last time.” And once I’m in front of that screen, I lose track of time (and common sense) and before I know it I’m too wired to sleep.
Giving up napping on the weekends was hard, especially on days that were rainy or especially cold. Cutting back on coffee in the afternoons was hard, because I was often sleepy before my new routine got established. Nowadays I’ll indulge in an afternoon mocha, but I try to be mindful about it. If I’m anxious about something, or if I’ve already had a lot of coffee, I’ll have something decaffeinated instead.
I’ve learned that meditating earlier in the day improves my sleep. It took me a while to get used to the change in my dreams, which became much more vivid. At first their intensity kind of freaked me out, but now I’m able to view them as little movies in my head. And sometimes I find that they offer me insights and solutions to problems that hadn’t occurred to me when I was awake.
I still have the occasional bad night, as everyone does. But I’ve made real progress in making sure I get a good night’s sleep. How about you? Do you have any tips to share on getting a good night’s sleep?