Would you feel better? Stay calm when things don’t go according to plan? Be more effective at work? Would your relationships be different? Would you be kinder to yourself?
It’s easy to see stress as a normal part of life. But it does not have to be that way. I used to feel tired and stressed most of the time. My life felt like a never-ending race to do more, do better and tick the boxes on my to-do list, only to then add new things to it. Negative chatter and worries crowded my thoughts and I needed to achieve more and more to feel good about myself. All of this made it hard to be present and enjoy life.
I am grateful that those days are gone, and I have mindfulness practice to thank for it.
Mindfulness is very effective in reducing stress, and it doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming; you don’t have to go away on a retreat or sit still for 20 minutes a day to calm your busy mind. Mindfulness can be simple and practical. In this book I will show how you can practice mindfulness on the run by fitting it into your everyday activities so you can enjoy a busy life without a busy mind.
Today I am a clinical psychologist. But I first discovered mindfulness practice years ago, when I was a student, and it became a very effective stress-reduction tool through my university days. Years later, however, I found myself highly stressed, trying to juggle my roles as a partner, a parent and a principal in a busy psychology practice. I just couldn’t find the time to keep up my mindfulness practice, which led to a dilemma:
You need mindfulness practice the most when you are busy and stressed, but during those times you cannot go on a retreat or set aside 20 minutes a day to meditate — you are simply too busy!
My life was not going to change any time soon, so I had two options: either give up practising mindfulness, or create a way of practising mindfulness that would fit in with my busy lifestyle. This led me to develop the ‘Renew Your Mind’ method: mindfulness techniques that are practical and highly effective, yet do not require you to sit still and meditate but instead can be done ‘on the run’.
Let me share a real-life example of how I use mindfulness on the run to combat stress. Just recently I was packing my things in the morning, and I had exactly 20 minutes before I had to leave the house. I was going to drop off my two-year-old son at his nanny’s house and then calmly and mindfully make my way to the university where I was invited to teach mindfulness to a group of 32 students.
You can’t escape stressful situations, but you can deal with them better
At the time our house was being renovated, so we were staying with friends. As I was preparing for the day my son was watching a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD in my friend’s beautiful home office. When all my things were packed, I went to get him — and found him drawing on her expensive, white office chair with a black marker. He could see the horror on my face and in an attempt to make me feel better he pointed at the drawing and said, ‘Mama, Thomas the train!’ I took a deep breath and suppressed the urge to scream ‘NO!!!!!!’ I calmly took the pen away from him and said, ‘Drawings on paper not on chairs, please.’
I tried to clean the chair with soap and water but the thick black stripes wouldn’t come off. Then I remembered I had read that milk can help remove pen from fabrics, so I poured a tiny bit of milk on a cloth and tried to clean the chair, but with no result. So, I went to the kitchen again to try the soap one more time. At this point I was already five minutes late.
When I ran back into the office, I discovered that my son had emptied the entire bottle of milk on the white, fabric chair! Half of the milk was on the chair and the other half had ended up on the beige, woollen carpet. Before I knew it a loud ‘No!’ came from my mouth, which resulted in him crying as I rushed to the kitchen to get towels.
At this point I was 10 minutes late, had a crying child and a bottle of milk spilled on an expensive chair and carpet in my friend’s home office. And there it was — the adrenaline and cortisol were kicking my stress response into gear. I could feel my breathing changing, my heart rate increasing and tunnel vision kicking in. Realizing that going into stress mode was not going to help me, I used mindfulness to calm myself down. I focused on my breathing and calmed myself so I could make a plan. I called the nanny and asked her to come over and pick up my son. Then I comforted my son while trying to clean up the mess. When the nanny arrived I was 20 minutes late but I’d done the best I could to clean the mess. I jumped in the car and put the university address into my GPS system.
Then the thoughts came . . . What have I done? The milk is going to smell so bad. It will leave a big stain. My friend is going to be so upset! Knowing that there is absolutely no point, or benefit, to stressing out, I calmed my brain down with mindfulness of the senses: looking at the views, listening to the sounds and feeling the steering wheel, the pedals, the seat.
Feeling relatively calm again — knowing that I could still make it to the lecture on time — I noticed that the GPS had directed me somewhere unfamiliar. I stopped the car to check the address. Yes, I had put in the right address . . .
Ten minutes later I found myself in a part of town that was definitely not right. With just five minutes until the lecture was due to start I called the college to confirm the location and discovered I was 20 minutes away from it! Despair, frustration and pointless anger towards my phone kicked in. Again, I realised that this would not help me, it would only make me drive around like a mad woman, which isn’t good for anyone. So, I used the beginner’s mind technique to calm myself down again. I focused on the facts: I am in the car, driving to the college. The GPS brought me to the wrong place, but I know where I am going now and the students will be informed I am on my way. This worked for a little while, until different thoughts started to creep in: They are all going to think I am useless and that I don’t care about being on time. They will never ever invite me back. No one will listen to my lecture. How can they take me seriously when I can’t even manage to show up on time? And by the way, I have ruined my friend’s carpet!
My inner critic always picks excellent moments to show up! But I knew I could tackle it with the self-inquiry technique. After working through each of my negative thoughts, asking myself if I actually knew each was 100 per cent true, I came to realise that none of them was. While my situation was not ideal, it was not the disaster my inner critic had tried to convince me it was.
When I finally arrived, I was calm again; to keep calm I was mindful of my posture, facial expressions and my breathing. The class was happy to see me, and I started my lecture with a story of stress.
‘Just image that you are getting ready to deliver a lecture for a group of 32 students and your son is watching a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD while you are getting ready . . .’
This example shows that no matter how much mindfulness practice you do, you cannot eradicate stressful and challenging situations from your life; there is no escaping them. Mindfulness is a way to train your brain to become better able to cope with these situations. It gives you a buffer that prevents your stressful thoughts or negative emotions from hijacking your brain and taking control.
This is mindfulness on the run.
This is an edited extract from Mindfulness on The Run (Exisle 2016) by Dr Chantal Hofstee.
Chantal Hofstee is a clinical psychologist, who has worked in both the private and corporate sectors. She uses the techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and mindfulness to provide her clients with easy-to-use skills that can be quickly and effectively implemented to change their lives. Through her company, Renew Your Mind, she provides mindfulness courses and business training to enable people to take control of stress, improve focus, solve problems and become more creative. Her first book Mindfulness On The Run is available from www.exislepublishing.com.au and wherever good books are sold.