The Art of Mindfulness

It’s becoming more challenging trying to live a balanced life when there are so many obligations and so little time to get them all done. We plan for the future, while ruminating about the past. It’s easy to allow things to spiral out of control as we get caught up in the business of everyday life. But there is hope.

When thinking about my vision of calm within the storm, I remember the movie “A River Runs Through It,” which shows how the art of fly-fishing demands stillness, creativity, concentration and balance for one to be successful at it. A main character in the movie often struggled to control his emotions, except when he was practicing his skills at fly-fishing. He found solitude on the river, where he learned to regulate and calm himself through what we refer to as “mindfulness practice.” Through the rhythmic, intentional casting of the line, he retained balance while standing on the rocks in the midst of the raging river. The fishing line flew with wild abandon above the water, but the fisherman maintained control as he stood solidly on the ground, keeping his focus.
This is the extent of my fly-fishing knowledge, having never experienced it, but the movie left an impact on me because it mirrors what we experience in daily life. We allow our thoughts and emotions to lead us, like the fishing line whipping wildly above the current – up, down, sideways, back, forth – with nothing to guide them in the right direction. Our thoughts can hijack our ability to think clearly and with purpose. No guide, no focus leads to feeling out of control, and increases stress, anxiety and depression, making it difficult to enjoy life.
It’s easy to get trapped in the chaos – the raging river – which can easily sweep us downstream. I’ve experienced the drifting; it leads me further from my goal, while zapping my energy as I fight to regain control. I’ve also had to tread water while searching, sometimes blindly, for that rock to hang on to in the current. It’s during those times that I force myself to focus: There are ways to catch myself before being swept away.
I learned the power of finding balance while practicing mindfulness. Just as in fly-fishing, it takes skill, practice and patience. When our thoughts leap around aimlessly – media blasts, cell phone calls, to-do lists – just like the fisherman, we must remain still, notice where our thoughts are leading us, then gently guide them back to stable ground. Breathe deeply; then reel them back to center.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the moment, without judgment. It seems so easy until the first wave of emotion hits. This is why it’s called “practice.” When life happens, we react, turmoil ensues – and the cycle continues. Mindfulness is the stabilizing force to help guide us back to stable ground.
Distractions – “I should have …” “If only I had …” or “What if …” – keep us stuck, unable to move, frozen in time, stagnant. They set us up for anxiety and depression, and quickly deplete our energy. So, you ask: How do I stop being hijacked by my thoughts and emotions? The first step is to notice the signs of tension or stress in your body. Whether you feel tightness in your shoulders, body fatigue or headaches, your body stores your emotions before you attach meaning to them or are able to name what you’re feeling. Notice changes in sleep patterns, which are clues to your need for mindfulness. Listening to your body’s needs creates the base necessary for overall well-being. Then, you can work on mental health to maintain balance.
Practice mindfulness every day, until it becomes a habit. Focus on your five senses, breathe deeply, listen to music, play with your pets, guide your mind’s imagery, mindfully eat healthy food – all ways to refocus on the things that matter and the moments you can experience right now. These are things you can control that will help regulate your moods.
Your mind and body are interconnected, so caring for your body is essential for good mental health. During times of low mood, increased stress or anxiety, reflect on how your body is feeling, and listen to what it’s telling you through symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, tension, fatigue. The easiest place to start when you’re struggling is to focus on just breathing; that will ground you while your next steps become clearer. This is practicing mindfulness. Through this practice will come peace, and with this peace comes the ability to handle anything that threatens to knock you off your feet. If you do get knocked down – and you will – return to the practice. Breathe deeply again. Focus again. Stay grounded, and ride out the storm. The storm will pass – again – and in its place will come renewed strength and a sense of mastery over life’s obstacles.
We don’t get stronger by avoiding our obstacles. We learn from our failures and our weaknesses, and we gain strength through our ability to overcome them. It’s only then that we are able to live life to its fullest and enjoy what it has to offer.

Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D
Wellness Alley, LLC

Step Out of Your Box

Has the phrase “you have to step out of your box,” ever sent your cortisol levels skyrocketing into fight or flight mode?  “Expanding your box” sounds more palatable, less intimidating.  Dorie Clark talks about (in her book, Reinventing Yourself) the need to constantly re-evaluate who you are, what you’re doing and how it’s working for you.

The constantly changing world demands resilience in order to keep things flowing. Balance is the prerequisite since all dimensions of life (emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, intellectual, educational, social, and occupational) are interconnected.  Weakness and lack of homeostasis in any dimension creates stress, resulting in the seesaw effect as we strive for equilibrium.  It’s important to identify when the seesaw begins to tip and make corrections before experiencing consequences such as excessive tiredness, irritability, excessive eating, reduced productivity, illness, job dissatisfaction, etc.

Reinventing yourself begins by reviewing your strengths and areas of potential growth.  You can then develop a plan to enhance strengths and shore up your potential growths-expand your box- and open up more exciting opportunities.  Although uncomfortable at first, by taking small steps to build confidence and having a mentor for support, you can override your fear. By becoming aware of obstacles and developing a plan to remove them (or make them less obtrusive), they soon became past hurdles that you’ve successfully conquered.  Growth doesn’t occur by staying in your comfort zone.  Strength is derived from overcoming challenges.  What a self-esteem boost!

It’s sometimes difficult to recognize change, which may lead to relapse into old, familiar patterns of behaviors. As you gain confidence in new abilities (it takes time and repetition to develop and reinforce new habits), this becomes easier.  Act confident and others will begin to reinforce your positive changes. Eventually, new patterns will be formed.  Align yourself with supports who will acknowledge your strengths. They will validate your new path and the momentum will lead to other areas of growth.  How exciting!

Who you are today doesn’t need to be who you are tomorrow!


Willpower, Motivation and the Power to Change

This is the time of year when people ease away from their New Year’s resolutions. The gyms are less crowded. Spring seems far away and we hibernate. Interaction with friends and family often involves food, which offers immediate gratification until you step on the scale the next morning. Understanding the complexities of motivation and choice may help you stay on track with your New Year’s resolutions.

Have you ever mindlessly reached for a cookie or has your car automatically driven into your favorite fast food drive-thru? It’s like your brain becomes hijacked until it’s too late and you’ve succumbed to the temptation. It boils down to your habits and patterns. Unfamiliar behaviors are challenging until they become new routines. Old habits are familiar and provide satisfaction. We’re hungry, have “cravings,” are tempted and seek relief to satisfy our body and mind. It’s a vicious cycle. How satisfied do you feel after eating a high fat, high carb/sugar meal that you know will not produce an overall state of well-being? How satisfying is succumbing to immediate gratification? What do you say to yourself to justify this behavior?

We know that almost anything in moderation is okay, but those temptations do more harm than good for those who really crave certain foods or need to watch their weight. Understanding what impacts craving, motivation, and behavior, will help you break those habits and make positive changes in your life. This requires setting an intention to make small, incremental changes.

There are many experts that discuss this topic and it’s important to find what works for you. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, has many Youtube videos on willpower, motivation and the neuroscience of change. Deepak Chopra, MD’s book, What are you Hungry For, discusses how underlying emotions lead to unhealthy eating. Understanding why we reach for food helps us deal with the underlying issues directly rather than covering them up with “feel good” food. Dr. Anderson (in Discover Your Optimal Health) states that setting primary goals and developing strategies to resist temptation are important. Other research shows how the brain develops different neuropathways as we change behaviors. So,just because you’ve always done something in the past, doesn’t mean you can’t change! It just takes conscious intention, understanding how to support yourself and focus on your primary goal.

The first steps are to identify what needs to change in your life and the obstacles that stand in your way. What do you need to support yourself in making the change? For example, if you know that you eat poorly when you are stressed, rather than taking the usual route past your favorite fast food restaurant, what about taking a different path? What about identifying the stress leading to the craving and deal with that instead? It doesn’t have to be complicated. What’s challenging is we want to feel better immediately. By identifying the underlying trigger (stress) and the familiar behavior (eating fast food for relief), then practicing stress-reduction techniques while supporting yourself (take a different route to avoid temptation), you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment. Once you succeed, you realize you are stronger than your urges, which usually only last momentarily. It’s all about choice in the moment and how you deal with what’s really going on within yourself. Then, if you choose to eat that chocolate sundae and decide it’s not emotional eating, then you can totally enjoy that treat. You then regain control by making conscious choices rather than reacting based on emotion.

This power will then lead to more positive changes in other areas of your life! I challenge you to give it a try!

Access Your Inner Child and Have Fun!

Life’s simplest moments are experienced watching kids play. When young, we played outside until bedtime, with few cares in the world except responding to our parents’ calls.  Wonders of youth were lost between childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. Exercise helped shed pounds accumulated during college, raising families, and our careers.  Health was equated with boring food, endless hours at the gym, and drinking water until we drowned.  I miss the activities from childhood.  So, I decided to relive some of them.  I mean, exercise doesn’t have to be boring, does it?  I pictured myself as a child, active with endless free time.  What will I choose?  Aha…..I’ll buy a bicycle!

Fun, exercise, and surprise benefits……

Buying the bike was an adventure.  At the bike store, I revealed my desire about riding again to a young salesman.  A very “fit” young salesman.  I  admitted my fear of crashing and breaking bones at “my age.” Then, something unexpected happened…..instead of cracking a smile, he praised me for this brave venture to be healthier.  Wow!  Then, he had a game plan.  In preparation for my test rides, I was measured for proper fit and safety.  This was a new experience; similar to buying tennis shoes at New Balance.  I jumped on the test bike, hung on for dear life, and conquered my fear of crashing.   Away I went…..  My childhood memory took over and my fears went along for the ride.  It was like I had last ridden only yesterday.  I smiled after realizing I had overcome my fear.

Choosing the bike and assortment of accessories, invoked the child-like excitement as years before.  I had a helmet this time, strictly for safety – no fashion statement here – and decided Creve Coeur Lake would be the perfect place for my first ride.  The trails were level and the weather was perfect.  My excitement mounted as I started pedaling.  I admit that there was fear, but this quickly disappeared on the trail.  I was surrounded by people having fun.  Their energy was contagious.  I experienced a sense of mindfulness and the power of being  in the “here and now.”  I had no watch; time was suspended like when I was a child.  What a fantastic feeling.

Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment as it is, without judgment or worries about the past or the future.  I was focused on not crashing or falling.  No cellphone, no “to do” list.  Just right now.  I relaxed into the ride, noticing the sailboats, the rowers, families riding together, family reunions, the smell of grilling, ducks swimming, birds and bees buzzing by.  I was in nature, I was relaxed, exhilarated.  I couldn’t get lost here so I focused on myself, the trail, and my surroundings.

Being lost in the moment is something we should add to our lives.  The energizing music in Spinning class gives me a similar feeling.  How often do kids lose track of time, even when they are being called for dinner?  Their activities relax them, reduce their stress, give them peace. What do we do?  We get caught up in spreadsheets,  “to do” lists, time.  Balance is so important.  Our responsibility to ourselves is to find activities that lead us to peace, to healthier lifestyles, to enjoying life, like children.  Keep this mindset  and… surprise…. you won’t know you’re exercising!

What was your favorite childhood activity that you can incorporate into your adult life?

Allison White

My first bike helmet. I look like a Storm Trooper from Star Wars!

My first bike helmet. I look like a Storm Trooper from Star Wars!

Live For The Moment

Hi!  Writing this blog is a whole new experience for me, but one I’m looking forward to sharing with you!  I believe in the importance of living for the moment, practicing mindfulness, expressing gratitude and compassion. I value all aspects of my life including my friendships, family, pets and career. My hobbies include music, writing, spending time in nature, traveling and just hanging out…… I hope to share some thoughts that you can relate to.  If so, please let me know!