Focus/Attention

  • How Mindfulness Can Help Prevent and Ease Burnout

    Most kind of work brings with it some level of stress, whether we’re in a position that entails a lot of responsibility or whether we have deadlines and standards to meet. We may find ourselves doing more than one person’s job without the extra pay. Or we may simply just not enjoy our work and find that we are feeling stressed and low because we feel unfulfilled.

    Work-related stress may leave us feeling exhausted, disillusioned and all out of compassion or care for our fellow colleagues or clients. Burnout doesn’t just affect us as individuals, but also the people we work with and provide services for. We may find we’re more impatient with customers, or may get overly defensive when a co-worker offers some constructive criticism.

    Fortunately, mindfulness helps us spot the signs of burnout before they become severe, and can also improve existing symptoms. For example, studies have shown that after participating in an eight-week mindfulness course healthcare professionals saw improved scores on the Maslach Burnout Inventory – a test which measures factors such as emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.

    Recognising the Signs

    For some, burnout can creep up unnoticed. How many of us let our job take precedence over our individual well-being? Of course selflessness is admirable in certain circumstances however, when this attitude goes unchecked, we may start to see serious consequences in regards to our mental and physical health. Whilst we may think we’re doing a good job by dedicating ourselves so fully to the role, if our actions lead to burnout we’ll find ourselves no longer able to care about the role at all.

     

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    Although it may sound like a small thing, recognising and acknowledging how we are feeling is of vital importance. We can’t seek support without first noticing that we need to, and it can mean the difference between taking a few days off work to rest and being forced to take a long absence because of severe burnout.

    Through practicing mindfulness we become more aware of subtle changes in our mood and physical health, and can start to notice more quickly when we are struggling. Rather than waiting for a full meltdown before we take action, we can read the signals of our minds and bodies and start to take better care of ourselves.

    Using Creativity to Re-Focus

    It’s hard to pay attention when we’re exhausted or disillusioned. Whether it’s paperwork, or interacting with a client or colleague, tiredness and disinterest can lead to us making mistakes. When those mistakes are to do with someone’s health, finances or important services the consequences could be serious.

    However, staying focused becomes easier when we notice new and different things about a person or situation. Simply changing some of our fixed routines can help us see things in a new light, therefore keeping us engaged. For example, if you’re struggling to feel compassion towards a difficult client, practice mindfulness when you’re talking with them. Notice your beliefs about the person, and imagine that they may not be completely true. Try to see that person with fresh vision, as if you were meeting them for the first time. Or if the problem is repetitive paperwork, make small changes to help you focus. Try sitting in a different place. If you can’t do that, change the layout of your desk. Use a new pen and notice how it feels in your hand, notice how the ink looks on the paper. Although these may at first sound like pointless exercises, studies have shown that making simple changes to our environment or to our relationship with an object or action can greatly improve attention and focus. When we’re engaged with an activity, responding in a mindful way, we’re less likely to make mistakes or feel stressed.

    Self-Compassion and Self-Care

    How often do we show the same level of compassion to ourselves as we do for our loved ones and friends? Preventing or healing from burnout is impossible without taking care of ourselves and practicing some self-kindness.

    Far from being a fluffy or airy-fairy concept, self-compassion allows us to perform better in our jobs in a practical way, by preventing harmful burnout. Self-criticism and compassionately noticing where we can improve are not the same thing. Many of us confuse being hard on ourselves with being driven, yet without kindness we are likely to drive ourselves into a breakdown rather than towards long-term happiness and success.

    Using mindfulness to become aware of the ways in which we give ourselves a hard time, and to step out of habitual unhelpful ways of responding to our own emotional needs, helps us overcome or avoid symptoms of burnout and will also make us better at our jobs.

     

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  • Embracing Impermanence

    Through practicing mindfulness we discover many things about ourselves and life that we may not have given much thought to previously. We may become aware of strengths we didn’t have the confidence to acknowledge before, and we may find a new honesty and acceptance about our weaknesses.

    Practicing mindfulness can also lead to us seeing life in a different way, sometimes bringing a harsh clarity that can be hard to deal with. For example, when we become more mindful of our moment to moment existence, it becomes strikingly clear that nothing is permanent; thoughts, emotions, relationships, and ultimately life itself are all destined to change or end at some point.

    This awareness can be a double-edged sword. It shows us that grief, pain and heartache will all eventually pass, and this gives us hope. Yet it also reminds us that all that we cherish will one day fade; hardly a joyous prospect! We may feel panic or depression; it may throw our whole life into question – the choices we’ve made, the things we have given priority to. But it may also gift us with the ability to appreciate each precious moment, rather than forever projecting our happiness into an imagined future.

     

    Impermanence

     

    Fear of Connection

    Opening our hearts can be challenging at the best of times, but knowing that everything is impermanent may make it feel too hard to bear. If everyone is bound to die, if feelings change, if loves comes and goes unpredictably, then we may feel like, ‘What is the point?’ It’s a difficult question. But mindfulness may help us come to our own answers.

    One of the many benefits of mindfulness is that it can help us focus on what is truly important to us. Cultivating self-awareness helps us put aside what we think society wants from us, what our parents expect of us, what our education has taught us to believe, and allows us to reach our own heart. It gives us the space to ask ourselves, ‘What is really important to me, in this moment?’

    This simple question can help us cut through fears and insecurities, which often distort our true values and wishes. We may have told ourselves over and over that it is too dangerous to open our hearts to other people, to situations, to new experiences, so much so that we live from that story and lose touch with what we want for ourselves deep down. So, what is the point of opening our hearts in the face of impermanence? If we look deeply enough we may find that actually we’re willing to face the possibility of losing something for the opportunity of connection.

    The Art of Gratitude

    Perhaps the most profound discovery we will make through exploring impermanence is a sense of gratitude. In any beautiful moment, no matter how simple or spectacular, we can reign in our attention and think ‘So, this moment is fleeting, but how lucky I am to be here to experience it.’

    Being fully in the moment won’t always necessarily be joyful. At times this presence may feel bitter-sweet. Appreciating a beautiful scene alone may bring with it as much sadness as it does happiness, or saying goodbye to a sick loved one who we may not get the chance to see again is bound to break our heart. But at least we will know that we did not let the moment pass us by without honouring it.

    Knowing that we do not have forever to make the time to enjoy special moments, that appreciation and happiness do not exist in the future but in the here and now, we can start to lead more fulfilling lives. Whilst we may want to capture a moment and live in it forever, knowing that we can never do that makes those moments more meaningful. Because they will pass, they are worth our attention.

    Facing the impermanence of life is not easy. Many of us will battle with the range of emotions that impermanence brings. Yet if we can accept this as a shared battle, something that all human beings have to face and traverse, it can bring great humility, compassion and fierce presence into our lives.

     

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  • A (mindful) party for one!

    People live or spend time alone for all kinds of reasons; some by choice, some by circumstance. Some hate to be alone, while others relish the freedom that solitude brings. The chances are that at some point in our lives we will find ourselves alone for various reasons. Sometimes we’ll find fun in getting to know ourselves better, while other times we might feel rejected, or scared or tired of being by ourselves. So here are some tips on how mindfulness can help us enjoy time spent alone, and also how it can help get us through the tough patches.

    Learning to Like Our Own Company

    In this day and age, few of us truly spend time alone with ourselves. Even when we’re physically alone we may be interacting with friends on social media, or distracting ourselves with TV, food, smoking, alcohol, even daydreaming about a perfect fantasy life takes us away from really engaging with ourselves in the present. This is especially true for those of us who don’t like to be alone. If we’re feeling sad, lonely or isolated, it’s natural to want to turn away from these feelings by filling our time with distractions and comforts. However, while they may work in the short-term, it’s never too long before we need something else. The problem is we don’t like our own company. Or at least we’re not familiar with it.

    Becoming more mindful can help us see when we’re avoiding ourselves, and can help us determine why. Is it because we’re feeling an uncomfortable emotion? Is it because we’re scared of what thoughts or feelings may come up once we stop distracting ourselves? Once we know the answer, we can then give ourselves some compassion and understanding. Next time you feel low, instead of immediately reaching for a distraction, why not try sitting for a few moments with the feeling, and give yourself an internal hug?

    A Party for One

    Once we stop distracting ourselves, we will find that there are many ways we can enjoy being alone. Social media may give the impression that an experience is only worth something if it gets a lot of shares and likes, but there’s something precious about a joyful moment experienced in solitude.

     

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    Imagine you’re having a birthday party or a date. You’d go to a lot of effort to make sure your date or guests are having a nice time. You might cook them a special meal, make sure they’re comfortable, and listen to their jokes and stories. Yet how often do we make the same efforts for ourselves? Making sure we have a nice time when we’re alone is a real gift to ourselves.

    One of the many ways we can do this is by mindfully preparing and eating delicious food. It’s a very different experience than using food as a distraction. Rather than mindlessly eating junk food as a comfort, we can instead take the time to cook a meal that is nurturing. Notice the ingredients, and enjoy how they look, smell, feel and taste. When we’re eating our meal, we can savour every mouthful with gratitude. Even having a glass of wine can be savoured slowly, rather than knocked back as a way to numb our feelings. The same goes for chocolate or desserts. Taking the time to eat and drink mindfully makes the experience less about suppressing emotions, and more about treating ourselves like our own party guest.

    Finding Joy in the Moment

    Being mindful of our senses is a great way to bring us back to ourselves when we’re alone. Our minds may wander to reasons why it’s bad to be alone, but by deliberately looking for joy in the moment we may discover small, new pleasures.

    When we wake up in the morning, instead of focusing on being alone, we can enjoy the delicious warmth of our bed, the softness of our sheets or pyjama’s on our skin. When we’re out walking, we can take the time to appreciate the sights and sounds around us. We can even appreciate our own humour; you may think of something funny when you’re on your own, so smile or laugh at your own joke!

    Sometimes we are so focussed on ensuring other people like us, that we don’t take the time to enjoy ourselves. Appreciating the good things about our lives is actually good for our brains. Of course we can’t always enjoy being alone. There will always be difficult times. But by being more mindful we can give ourselves compassion in our low moments, and find joy in moments we didn’t even notice before.

     

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  • Why We Procrastinate And How Mindfulness Can Help

    You’re sitting at your desk, you have a task you should be getting on with, but you tell yourself you’ll start it right after you’ve checked Facebook. Or maybe you’re deciding what to eat for dinner, you consider eating something healthy, but then you tell yourself no, you’ll have pizza today and start eating healthier tomorrow. Part of you may know exactly what will happen: that you’ll get stuck on Facebook for the next half an hour, or that you’ve been deciding to “eat healthier tomorrow” for the past two months. Yet, you can’t seem to stop putting things off, even when it’s something you’d quite like to get done. Why is that?

    What Makes Us Procrastinate?

    We may sometimes feel like we know why we’re procrastinating. If we’re in a job we hate, we’d naturally not want to complete our tasks each day. Or if the house needs cleaning but it’s sunny outside, it makes sense that we’d rather go to the beach. However, the fact that some of us procrastinate even when it comes to things we’d like to do, such as joining a dance class, learning a new language or decorating our home, suggests that it’s not so straight-forward. Even when we think we know why we’re avoiding tasks, the real reason may be a little more complex.

    Timothy A. Pychyl, author of ‘Solving the Procrastination Puzzle’ explains that procrastination is in fact a self-regulation failure. When we’re faced with tasks that prompt any kind of negative emotional response, even very subtle feelings of frustration or boredom, and we have low self-regulation, we go into task avoidance mode, i.e. “I’ll do it later” or “I’ll just do this other thing first”. We feel unable to simply sit with our feelings of wanting to do something else, and instead feel that we must constantly act on them.

    Poor self-regulation isn’t just a problem when it comes to getting things done. Procrastinators are also more likely to lie to themselves about how they really feel (for example, “I won’t do this until next week because I work better under pressure”), and are more likely to develop addictions or compulsive behaviours.

    Procrastination is a learned behaviour, not something we’re born with, which means that we can take steps to unlearn this way of coping with unpleasant emotions. Pychyl points out that “effective self-regulation relies on emotion regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness.”

    Mindfulness Helps Us Regulate Emotions

    Ruby Wax describes mindfulness as an “internal weathervane”. This internal weathervane is crucial when it comes to regulating emotions. Without it, we have no hope of even knowing what we are feeling, let alone regulating it.

    Although becoming mindful of this moment right now will bring some instant benefits, it’s only with regular practice that we can fine tune that internal weathervane, helping it become more and more sensitive to the subtle emotions which come and go throughout our day.

    Michael Inzlicht from the University of Toronto sums this up: “Mindfulness as a practice cultivates the ability to maintain focus on the present moment. This present-moment awareness provides sensitivity to sensory cues—like that negative emotional “pang” we might feel when facing an aversive task.”

    In other words, mindfulness gives us the ability to notice when we start feeling uncomfortable, bored, frustrated or even scared by a task. Then, rather than acting on unconscious drives to check emails, have a cigarette or take a trip to the vending machine to distract ourselves, we can kindly acknowledge and accept the feeling, but also make a conscious effort to stay in control. We may not always succeed; lifelong habits are hard to change overnight. But with awareness comes choice; without which we’d have no hope of doing things differently.

    Remember, mindfulness isn’t just about being aware. Compassion and acceptance are equally important. In fact, in a study by Inzlicht and Rimma Teper they concluded that people who were better at controlling their behaviour were probably able to do so because they were “more accepting of their errors and associated conflict.”

    Being a procrastinator might make it difficult to get into a mindfulness meditation practice at first. But that’s okay. If you find that you keep putting it off, for now just try and be aware of your resistance, accept it, and try to notice what feelings arise when you think of sitting down for a few minutes to meditate.

     

    Find out more about our mindfulness courses and workshops.

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