Mindfulness Blog

How mindfulness can increase intimacy and promote better relationships

Most people use mindfulness as a way of reducing stress and getting in touch with themselves, their bodies and their emotions. However mindfulness has another benefit — it can give us more intimacy with our partners and improve our relationships.

Intimacy and the importance of being in the present

Mindfulness teaches us to be in the present. This, in turn, helps us to create an environment where intimacy can flourish vqdtkc0.

 Let’s say you are eating dinner with your partner. But instead of really tasting your food or engaging with your partner, you are worrying about work, making lists of tasks to be done and thinking about the football. This is not conducive to intimacy — or your waistline for that matter!

Intimacy comes about through sharing your daily life with another person. To be intimate we must feel connected. However, if we are not connected to ourselves — or only patchily so — it is harder to maintain a deep connection to a loved one. If you crowd out your emotions with thoughts and busyness, it becomes impossible to know them, let alone share them. Once you slow down and allow yourself to feel, you become more in tune with your emotions.

Frustrated emotions

Human beings long for emotional connections with others. However, we can be our worst enemy in this regard. Even if we don’t allow ourselves to really experience our emotions, they still influence our behaviour. Negative feelings won’t go away if you repress them.

If we refuse to experience — and accept — our emotions, we cannot communicate them. This means we are thwarted in our desire for intimacy. Negative feelings can fester and cause us to lash out at the one we love.

To bring awareness to the body and to be mindful in the moment teaches us to accept our feelings — both good and bad — without judgement.

Taking emotional risks

Intimacy happens when we stay in the present moment, accept our experience in that moment and share this with a love one. Revealing vulnerable feelings can be frightening. But if you have a trusted partner and you are honest with him or her, this openness can prompt empathy and understanding between you both. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable we encourage others to act in a caring manner because we have shown them trust and asked for their understanding.

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Stressed out at work? We have some ideas to get you through the day

If you make one resolution this year, choose to be more mindful in your everyday life. Sometimes that can seem easier said than done. Especially if you are stressed out and are worried that mindfulness is yet another task that has to be done. However, the great thing about mindfulness is that it can be seamlessly integrated into your day. Here are some handy mindfulness tips you can use no matter how crazy your day is.

3 minute breathing exercise

The three minute breathing exercise is a more deliberate and structured way of taking a break. There are three main steps, or breaths, which are as follows:

  1. The first step is to turn on your awareness, paying particular attention to the present  moment. Be aware of your breathing; do a quick body scan; accept any sensations whether good or bad as some part of your body is carrying your stress or anxiety. Become aware of your thoughts; try to free yourself from them; be aware of your emotions, and accept them whether good or bad.
  2. The next step is to focus your awareness on your breathing and take note of it without trying to adjust it or change it. Now take note of your abdomen, feel your breath as it goes in and out of your body.
  3. The third and final step is to let your awareness pan out from your abdomen. Your breathing will be your guide. Allow your breath to fill your body and be aware of the warm, calming sensation this breath gives you.

Pay attention to transitions

Bring your awareness to the changing aspects of your day. This includes the little things — the moment you walk out your front door or enter your workplace. Breath in and take a moment to bring your awareness to this transition.

Stay in the present

Try and stay engaged with what you are doing. Although work presents distractions, try and carve up block of time when you focus on your task instead of checking emails or social media. This will help you be more productive and finish your work quicker.

Dealing with interruptions

If the phone rings then take a moment and a deep breath before answering it. This will allow you to mentally let go of the work you were doing and be fully present when you pick up the phone.

Mindfulness breaks

Take a few minutes after completing a task before beginning the next one. We are much more effective and our creative when we allow ourselves short breaks.

Dealing with difficult colleagues

If you need to deal with a difficult person or situation, take a moment to mindfully respond. Some people can push our buttons, causing us to react emotionally instead of rationally. You’ll be much calmer if you teach yourself to take a moment before lashing out.

Breathe yourself calm

If you feel stressed out and overwhelmed take a moment to do this breathing exercise. Breath in for six counts, then hold for three. Next breath out for six counts, and hold for three. Repeat until you find your equilibrium.

Cross off lists

Always write down your tasks for the day. When you are done at work, make sure you have crossed off everything you have completed no matter how small. Make a list for the following day and write it down. Lists that you can cross off show you how much you really have accomplished. Use this time to transition out of work mode.

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Holiday Mindfulness

The December and Christmas holiday period can be fun, but it can also be stressful. There are parties and get togethers with family and friends, but there is also shopping, cooking, cleaning and a seemingly endless number of tasks, errands and jobs to prepare for the holidays as well.

Here are 5 easy ways to remember to be mindful over the holidays.

GO OUTSIDE

Take a short walk every day. Not only does walking clear your head, the cold air can sharpen your senses. Remember to pay attention to the world around you — the crunch of the snow under your shoes, or the wind rushing through the trees.

USE YOUR NOSE

Enjoy the smells particularly associated with the December holidays. This could be the scent of the Christmas tree or Chanukah candles, or food and drink such as mulled wine or mince pies. Take a few moments each day to really experience the olfactory bouquet around you.

SLOW DOWN

Slow down before meals. Grab five minutes for yourself and think about one good thing you have enjoyed during the day. Then practice your breathing exercises.

PAY ATTENTION TO THE DECORATIONS

Pay attention to the twinkling lights on Christmas trees and other decorations. Breathe in deeply and let yourself relax as you contemplate the colours and textures of the decorations.

EAT MINDFULLY

We have a tendency to overeat during the holidays, and to skip breakfast or lunch if we are having a large meal in the afternoon or evening. If you are concerned about overeating, skipping is the worst thing you can do. It actually makes it more likely you’ll binge later on.

Remember to taste, really taste, what you are eating instead of just shovelling it in on auto-pilot. That way you’ll avoid overeating and get more enjoyment of your food.

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How can mindfulness meditation make you a better leader?

A leader needs clear thinking, and mindfulness can help you achieve that. It's a tool, and a smart leader doesn't leave a useful tool in the box. Some people have the idea that mindfulness meditation is simply about emptying your mind. And if you are someone who is attached to the image of yourself as a thinker, that may sound unappealing.

Yes, mindfulness meditation does involve quieting the barrage of thoughts, but with the purpose of helping to clarify and focus your mind. Mindfulness meditation also reduces stress, improves decision-making and enhances creative thinking. If you are in a leadership position — or hope to be — that’s a benefit you should not ignore.

It might help to see mindfulness meditation as a form of mental exercise. Like exercising the body, exercising the mind is necessary to keep it in good condition. It also helps to remember that although mindfulness meditation has Buddhist roots, there is a huge body of research which supports mindfulness as beneficial for a variety of mental and physically issues. As mentioned above, this includes stress reduction, more focus and creativity, but mindfulness meditation has been found to be helpful for people suffering from depression, anxiety, insomnia or chronic pain too.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, defines mindfulness as: “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

While taking time out for meditation every day is beneficial, mindfulness can also be incorporated into your daily routine. Mindfulness, or living in the now, simply means shutting off frenetic thinking and paying attention to the here and now.

This could mean appreciating the scenery, or paying attention to the physical sensations your body is experiencing, but doing so without judgement. For example, on your walk to the coffee shop you pay attention to the breeze, the sounds around you, the sun on your skin and so forth. Sitting at your desk, you could simply “check in” with your body — feel the sensation of the chair underneath you, the texture of your desk, or pay attention to your breathing.

These do not necessarily have to be positive sensations. The point is to notice things without judgement. You could note that there is tension in your shoulders, but instead of feeling annoyed or stressed because of it, you simply accept that this is so — and then let it go.

It sounds simple, and it is with practice. As we all know, letting go is not something that comes naturally to leaders. But sometimes, to be a better leader, it is necessary.

That is why many blue chips and multinationals have made mindfulness meditation part of their culture. Google, American Express and Ford have meditation courses for senior executives to enhance their leadership skills.

Studies have found that as little as 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation results in more rational thinking when making business decisions. Think about that for a moment. As a leader, someone in charge of people — and possibly large sums of company money — the decisions you make come with significant responsibilities. The wrong decision can affect project delivery, team morale and profitability. Any tool that aids successful decision-making is certainly worth your while.

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Neuromagic: Why we are fooled by our own minds

We all know the mind can play tricks on us. But how? Australian magician Nicholas J. Johnson’s new show Deceptology explores what’s known as neuromagic — a field of study that explores why our brains are fooled by magic tricks.

Johnson’s interest in neuroscience dates back to 2009 when he was hospitalised with a chronic tic disorder. He lost control of his expressions and movements, unable to prevent himself from grimacing, screwing up his face and clicking his mouth uncontrollably. His doctors took some time to find the problem, testing Johnson for a brain tumour, epilepsy and several other potential problems.

“I spent a fortnight being subjected to CT, MRI and electroencephalogram scans”, Johnson explained in an interview with Australia’s Daily Review. “I met with psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and neuropsychiatrists before finally I was diagnosed with what turned out to be a minor form of Tourette’s syndrome.”

“Throughout the entire ordeal, I never lost my ability to perform sleight of hand. I could barely form a sentence but I could still roll a coin across my knuckles and perfectly palm a playing card. It was as if by providing my brain with something familiar to do, something it knew how to do almost instinctively after years of practice, I was able to distract the part of my brain responsible for the tics.”

To research his show Nicholas spoke with two high regarded American neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, who founded the discipline of neuromagic. In their book, Sleight of Mind, Macknik and Martinez-Conde convinced some of the world’s greatest magicians to allow scientists to study their techniques for tricking the brain. They were able to offer Johnson insight into why our brains can be tricked.

“Their research is extraordinary. We magicians tend to be a little hyperbolic in our explanations of our skills. We’re performers and we don’t mind stretching the truth in pursuit of entertainment. You’ll often see TED talks with magicians rabbiting on about pseudo-psychology without any real evidence.”

“Susana and Stephen, meanwhile, have focussed on everything that magicians took for granted and provided a solid scientific explanation for why it works. Their research explains how the human brain is hardwired in such a way as to make it hackable by magicians.”

During what is known as cross modal perception, the human brain takes information from one sense and uses it to provide information to another. “This is the reason why we are so completely fooled by ventriloquists”, says Johnson.

“Our ears can only hear that a voice is coming from somewhere in front of us. However, since our eyes can see the puppet’s mouth moving while the ventriloquist’s is not, our thalamus combines the information and tells our cerebral cortex the puppet is speaking.”

Something similar happens at the cinema. Although the speakers are rarely beside the screen, we “hear” the performers’ voices coming from there.

Since researching neuromagic Johnson says he has become more aware of its prevalence in our daily lives.

“After a while, you begin to see neuromagic everywhere. Every time I can’t find my car keys even though they were right in front of me the whole time I think to myself, ah, that’s inattentional blindness, which is often caused by excessive cognitive workload.”

“Everything has to have a neurological explanation. After a while I don’t even notice I’m doing it – which is another type of inattentional blindness.”

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The neuroscience of habits

We all have habits — some good, some bad and some we don’t notice at all. Whether you are a grandparent or a teenager, many of daily actions are habits. Showering every day is a habit… but so is chewing your nails. However, research suggests that those of us who can’t switch from acting habitually to acting in a deliberately may be at greater risk of addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders.

A new study by an international team of researchers was led by Christina Gremel of the University of California San Diego. According to Gremel, habits can act as a brake on goal-directed action, essentially hijacking behaviour — and all of this can be seen in the brain.

All humans — and mammals — naturally produce endocannabinoids. These are neurochemicals, and we have receptors for these throughout the body and brain. Endocannabinoids reduce the activity of neurons. The team wanted to see whether or not endocannabinoids reduces activity in the orbitofrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex, or OFC, is the decision-making area of the brain.

The team used mice trained to press a lever to get food. However they deleted a articular endocannabinoid receptor, called cannabinoid type 1, or CB1, in some of the mice. These mice did not develop habits. This means that neurochemicals are crucial in the formation of habits.

Of course, we all need habits. If you had to spend a huge amount of mental energy figuring out how to do everyday tasks, such as brushing your teeth or catching a train, it would be an inefficient use of your time and brainpower. We need habits — but we also need to be able to switch them off.

"We need a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose," explains Gremel. "However, we also encounter changing circumstances, and need the capacity to 'break habits' and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information. When we can't, there can be devastating consequences.”

Gremel and the team of researchers believe that although further research is needed, their work may suggest new ways of treating people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or addictions. It may be possible to help people stop relying on habits and shift to deliberate behaviour by treating brain's endocannabinoid system.

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Can stress cause psychosis?

Sometimes a stressful day can make you feel like you are going crazy. Maybe you’re not wrong to feel that way…

The hormone cortisol is released in response to stress, and researchers at James Cook University in Australia have found a link between levels of cortisol and psychosis.

Zoltan Sarnyai, an associate professor at JCU, explained that this was the first meta-analysis study comparing levels of cortisol with schizophrenia. The team reviewed a total of 11 studies. Levels of cortisol were measured when patients were awake.

Sarnyai explained that they hoped that these findings will help identify people who have the greatest risk of developing full-blown psychosis.

"Only some 20 to 30 per cent of individuals who are at high-risk of developing psychosis due to their clinical presentation or family history actually do so. Identifying those people early is where the cortisol measurement comes in. Biomarkers are very few and far between in psychiatry, so even though a huge amount of work is still needed, this could become a valuable technique," said Dr Sarnyai.

Scientists have long suspected that cortisol plays a role in psychotic disorders, but until now the results were inconclusive.The JCU team found that patients have different levels of the stress hormone after awakening (Cortisol Awakening Response, CAR) relative to healthy people. The team also found evidence that people with a high risk of developing psychosis have changes in cortisol before they become ill.

"We were able to show that patients with psychosis fail to produce cortisol after they wake up in the morning. We found this even in patients with recent onset of the illness," said JCU’s Dr Maximus Berger, who co-authored the study.

In case you were wondering… no, stress itself doesn’t cause psychosis. It is the inability to produce cortisol in response to stress after waking that may make some people more susceptible schizophrenia. Whether or not you are at risk, it is always wise to use healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress.

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Mindfulness can help prevent depression

depression mindfulness treatment

Mindfulness has its critics. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT was first developed by  Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. MBCT has been embraced by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, but some people are unconvinced. However, a new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that MBCT can help people manage depression and prevent relapses. The team, led by the University of Oxford, conducted the largest meta-analysis on the impact of mindfulness on depression.

MBCT is used to help people suffering from depression repel the thoughts and feelings they associate with the illness. This treatment generally includes guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and cognitive behavioural exercises.

Using anonymous data from nine trials involving 1,258 participants, researchers found that 38 percent of those who received MBCT experienced a depressive relapse. However, nearly half — 49 percent — of patients who didn’t receive MBCT relapsed. Age, sex and level of education had no significant influence on the therapy's performance.

Mindfulness can work alongside medication

The researchers also looked at how MBCT worked in conjunction with anti-depressants. They wanted to know if using mindfulness alongside medication was more successful than medication alone. They found that patients who received MBCT along with anti-depressants were less likely to experience a depressive relapse than those who were only receiving medication.

Lead author of the study, Willem Kuyken, a professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, commented: “While MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term. It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and maintenance antidepressants. We need to do more research, however, to get recovery rates closer to 100 per cent and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life. These are programmes of work we are pursuing at the University of Oxford and with our collaborators around the world."

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“I’ll do it later…” Why we procrastinate

If you have a tendency to put things off, you’re not alone. It has been estimated that around 20 percent of adults procrastinate, and around half of all students do. Unfortunately procrastination has negative effects. These include poorer performance and increased stress, as well as mental and physical health impacts.

People procrastinate for different reasons. Here we look at the most common ones, and what you can do to correct your behaviour.

Lack of self-compassion

People who lack self-compassion tend to be more stressed when they are performing tasks. If this is you, try being kinder to yourself. Accept that you are human, with regular human flaws. Try to be optimistic about your success instead of pessimistic that you’ll fail.

Bad influence

If your parents, siblings or role models tended to procrastinate, chances are you’ll do so too. You can ameliorate this by reminding yourself of the negative consequences of putting things off. Try and find a new role model — ideally someone who is a go-getter type.

Fear of failure

If you think you don’t know how to do something, or worry you’ll do it badly, you’ll put it off. If help is available, you should ask for it. If not, remind yourself that you can learn as you go and that it is better to try and see what happens; you defeat yourself by not trying at all.

Bias

Certain things you just don’t like doing. Maybe you think you’re bad at a certain task, or you’ve seen other people struggling to perform it. Remind yourself that this is bias and that doing the task is an opportunity to challenge yourself and overcome you bias.

Time management

If you tend to underestimate how long something will take you to do, it can knock your feelings of competency. Make a habit of starting tasks early and giving yourself more time than you think you need. This will compensate for time management issues — and if you finish early, reward yourself!

Short term thinking

If you are focused on immediate gains, instead of long-term ones, you may display what’s known as “short range hedonism.” Focusing on short term rewards means you are less likely to persevere when things get tough. Try reminding yourself of future goals and gains, and tell yourself not to place so much emphasis on the frustrations of the present. Don’t forget to use the three-minute breathing technique to calm and centre yourself.

Perfectionism

Sometimes you let perfection be the enemy of the good. A perfectionist attitude may keep you from getting started because in your mind, if you haven’t done something yet, you haven’t messed it up either. Try to emphasis the importance of completing tasks in a timely fashion. Task completion is almost always going to be more helpful to you than perfectionism.

Depression or anxiety

Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions can cause you to delay getting started. If you have mental health problems, or suspect that you do, see a therapist for proper treatment.

Discomfort

Most of us try and avoid discomfort, so if you don’t feel comfortable doing something, you’ll put it off. Like doing your taxes, let’s say. Try challenging your beliefs about tolerating discomfort. Focus on the long-term rewards instead. Remind yourself that getting out of your comfort zone is an opportunity for growth, and reward yourself for completing each uncomfortable task.

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WHY BUSINESSES USE MINDFULNESS

Over the last few years, more and more businesses have taught mindfulness to their employees, or encouraged their workers to learn mindful meditation.

You might think that any business that uses mindfulness is probably some kind of hippy-dippy fly-by-night selling knitted yoghurt and handwoven cheese! You’d be wrong. Some of the largest and most famous companies in the world use mindfulness. Apple, Google, Goldman Sachs and Sony have all incorporated aspects of mindfulness into their thinking and routines.

The reason is simple — mindfulness has many different benefits for business. Mindfulness promotes flexible thinking, greater awareness and better decision-making, all of which contribute to better job performance. Aetna, the health care company, embarked on a 12-week pilot mindfulness programme for over 200 employees. They found that the workers who had learnt mindfulness gained 62 minutes per week of extra productivity. Translated into figures, that added an estimated $3,000 per employee each year to the bottom line. Not a figure to be sniffed at.

This makes some people suspicious that companies use mindfulness to ameliorate job stress while demanding more and more of employees. Certainly that is a possibility, but mindfulness has penetrated the upper echelons of the business community too. Intel has used mindfulness as a leadership practice and claims to have seen improvements in productivity and job satisfaction.

A number of studies examining the effects of mindfulness found that employees using mindfulness meditation report a significant reduction in stress, as well as improved communication skills and more innovative thinking. Stress, however, is one of the most pragmatic reasons for companies to encourage mindfulness. Stress is not only a silent killer, it is costly to businesses as well — the World Health Organization says stress costs American businesses a whopping $300 billion per year.

Whether companies are using mindfulness because they want to promote employee welfare, or because they are concerned with profits doesn’t really make a huge difference — either way, they end up with happier and more productive employees. It is a win for everyone.

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