Do you ever struggle to connect or communicate with your partner? I mean, who doesn’t?
But what a lot of people don’t know is that brain science shows that practicing mindfulness can help you in this area of life.
You see, mindfulness is much more than meditation. It’s more like a fundamental approach to life.
Mindfulness Improves Relationships
It starts with choosing to become more aware of how we show up in life and making conscious choices about what our presence looks and feels like in each moment.
All of this can inform the way we are as individuals in our relationships.
How is that?
Because mindfulness can help you cultivate healthier relationships through stress reduction, enhanced emotion-regulation abilities, and honed communication skills (Among other ways I am sure)!
1. Stress reduction
We’ve all experienced that moment when we are so stressed that the little things start to bother us. Stress increases our irritability levels, and then inconsequential things start to elicit reactivity.
I know you know what I’m talking about…
Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress, and consequently, make each individual in a relationship less likely to argue about the little things that—oftentimes unnecessarily—blow up into big things.
Here’s one quick mindfulness exercise to help you in moments like that. Try this stress-busting breathing with your partner.
2. Enhanced Emotion Regulation
It’s becoming clearer to researchers that practicing mindfulness meditation can help us regulate our emotions, and lash out less at one another!
How does that work?
Studies show that practicing mindfulness meditation decreases the grey-matter volume of the amygdala—the fear center of the brain—and increases the grey-matter volume of our pre-frontal cortex.
That’s the part of the brain responsible for forethought, and what we call “higher order” functions.
But it doesn’t stop there. Mindfulness meditation is also associated with increased connection between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. This leads to greater integration of our emotions and intellect.
How This Can Help Your Relationship
But you might be wondering, how does this help us? Here’s an example.
When our partner says something we don’t like, it’s plausible that instead of thinking it through, we feel threatened. That activates the amygdala that readies us to attack back.
In truth, much of the time when our partner “acts out” it’s from a place of their own insecurity, and their own deep-rooted pain.
So instead of impulsively trying to attack back from one’s own “wounded place,” try responding with compassion for all of the pain both of you are experiencing by truly listening and then responding from a place that is less fear-based.
Slowly, but steadily, we can work together with our partner to decrease our amygdala volume!
3. Honed Communication Skills
Now, imagine that instead of immediately reacting based on fear, we take a moment to pause and reflect on why we feel threatened and then proceed to respond with more kindness.
We can then start to imagine that our significant other also has their own insecurities and hot-button issues. It’s hard, but imagine if each individual in a partnership practiced taking a few breaths before lashing out and attacking in return and instead responded with a calmer and less defensive demeanor.
We’d actually give one another the space to be heard, and the opportunity to communicate without our armor. WOW.
But how do we do this?
Each partner works on becoming more attuned to their own emotional landscape by starting to understand what triggers them most, and why.
For example, someone might immediately be on the attack if her significant other calls to say that they will be late to dinner. It’s important to understand why that call felt so threatening that it resulted in anger and lashing out.
Perhaps, and this is just an example, it taps into someone’s deeper fear of being abandoned by their partner. If possible, cultivate compassion for oneself for experiencing such deep pain, and even needing to be on the defensive.
This takes time, and it’s a process…one that is often worked upon in therapy.
A Mindful Listening Exercise
Then, maybe try THIS:
Mindful listening is a core element of healthy communication.
Really taking the time to listen to how the other feels, without immediately and sometimes impulsively reacting, creates the space for both parties to feel heard and then to show up in kind with a more mindful ear.
I recommend you set a timer for five minutes. Then one partner begins to speak about whatever they would like (this isn’t the time to attack the other, this is just about practicing uninterrupted listening), which can include how they feel about the relationship or about anything at all.
Non-verbal responses are permitted from the listening part, but no verbal response of any kind.
Then, when the timer goes off switch roles so that the speaker now becomes the listener. Each time you practice the exercise, switch off who starts being the initial listener and vice versa.
Here are five digestible bytes of well-regarded facts, opinions, and ideas about mindfulness meditation’s ability to lead to greater well-being!
1. Reframe the Experience of Pain:
Mindfulness meditation’s ability to provide pain relief can be done by cultivating the ability to parse between the objective sensory dimension of pain and the more subjective judgement that we attach to the pain and the way that we interpret it mentally.
A recent and groundbreaking review looked at 20 randomized control trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. In reviewing the research, the authors found that mindfulness meditation “Reduced markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease.”
Mindfulness meditation also increased the number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells involved in destroying infections. There was also increased telomerase activity which helps promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).
Deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD. In addition, an over-activity in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, can be found in those suffering from Trauma-related disorders. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.
In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the Pre-frontal Cortex.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” Mindfulness meditation cultivates the ability to be more discerning. Subsequently, we can use the opportunity to take action on the problem solving, and to see the worry without judgment and more compassion.
In every situation, we can choose to REACT from a place of fear and perhaps anger, or RESPOND more mindfully.
Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension. In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach to any given situation. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to STOP:
Take a breath.
Proceed (more mindfully).
Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.
Finally, after a fulfilling but very long and arduous day of work, and perhaps for some, a foray into getting the kids fed and bathed and to bed, you finally have time for yourself, to unwind, and then eventually, grab some slumber. Sounds dreamy – pun intended. Then imagine the bliss of whatever rest you were able to grab being pulled out from under you by the shrieking of an alarm at the crack of dawn, catapulting your mind and body and brain back to the reality of a new day.
Yes, a new day is theoretically full of potential; a new opportunity to move toward personal and professional goals, a chance to show up for oneself and one’s loved ones with even more compassion and love. Yet, all the newness falls by the wayside as you press the snooze button again, and then are faced with this same jolting shriek-snooze cycle until you finally acquiesce to the call to action to get out of bed and begin the day’s journey.
Not hard to imagine, because this sounds like many of our realities. This daily routine often primes us for anxiety, right upon waking in the morning. Here are some reasons why this time of day is a particularly vulnerable one.
Causes of Early Morning Anxiety
1. Sometimes, the blatant contrast between the sleeping and waking states, often heralded in by the shrieking of an alarm, can be jarring to our senses. In fact, sometimes we are so blindsided by the transition, that we immediately go into fight or flight mode.
2. Fight or flight mode can actually be elicited by the mere fact that our blood sugar has dropped through the night and our brains need more fuel. The symptoms of a low blood sugar response can mimic the feeling of a panic attack, characterized by lightheadedness, dizziness, and increased heart rate.
3. Cognitively, the morning is often the time when we are more apt to engage in unhelpful thinking, given the level of anticipatory anxiety as we envision our to-do lists, and wonder how we are going to get through the day. These kinds of thoughts, though unhelpful, flood our minds in the morning, as we grasp toward trying to leverage control over the rest of the day.
One way to offset this potential morning anxiety is by establishing clear morning rituals to follow as we start to transition into the daylight hours. Aside from just symptom reduction, they also serve as a way to take the time to frame the day in a way that elicits increased overall wellness.
I, therefore, want to share my personal morning routine here with you as an example of how to leverage the rooster within and thrive throughout the day!
Five Ways to Leverage the Rooster Within
Upon waking and feeling any stress or discomfort, my immediate go-to is to find my breath. Engaging the breath provides me with an opportunity to help lower my heart rate that is sometimes elevated in the morning if I’m hyper-aroused out of slumber by a “rude” awakening.
My breath also reminds me that I am alive and that I am able to choose to focus on controlling the sensation of the inhale and the exhale. I like to imagine my breath feeding and rejuvenating my cells with each inhale. It is a great way for me to then literally gain a sense of control to get motivated to start moving in the morning.
Stretching is a great way to relieve the tension or stiffness that’s often entrenched in our body in the morning.
I want to make particular note of how much relief can be felt in stretching the psoas muscles. According to Dr. Christian Northrup, a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness, the psoas muscles (pronounced SO-as) may be the most important group of muscles in our body.
They are the only muscles that connect the spine to the legs, attaching from the 12th thoracic vertebra to the 5th lumbar vertebra through the pelvis and down to the femurs. Needless to say, the psoas muscles, therefore, play a crucial role in one’s core structural wellness, especially the psoas major, the biggest muscle of the group.
The absolutely mind-blowing understanding regarding the psoas muscles though, is that they have been actually touted as instrumental to one’s mental well-being as well!
According to Liz Koch, who wrote, The Psoas Book, anatomically speaking, the psoas muscles flank the diaphragm and the many connections between the psoas muscles and the diaphragm literally link these muscles to our breath, which is sensitive to fear. When we are in a state of fear, the breath is shallow and constricted, and the diaphragm isn’t being used to take deeper, calming breaths. The psoas feels this, and holds the fear.
This means that if we are in a constant fight or flight mode, due to chronic stress, then our psoas muscles are also chronically stressed and constricted. This would also mean that an over-constricted psoas, caused by poor posture for example, could actually elicit fear. So, after hours and hours of sitting in a position that constricts our psoas muscles, it’s no wonder we have a visceral feeling of tension that seems to envelop our minds, bodies, and brains.
Many suggest that having The Attitude of Gratitude is the key to a better life. And the research concurs: cultivating gratitude has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, and both decreased anxiety and depression.
In fact, gratitude has become a self-help buzzword. Turns out though that the benefits of saying “thank you” aren’t just grand delusions or a bunch of fluff. According to Robert Emmons, a renowned gratitude expert, gratitude has two parts. He says that first, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Then, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”
This definition allows gratitude to become a way for us to appreciate what we have, instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes that it will make us happier. We can definitely feel satisfied EVEN IF our every physical and material need is not met. It also allows us to trust in something greater than us, which can allow us to let go of needing to always control every little detail of our lives, which can be anxiety provoking.
At the very least, I like to just simply say “thank you” to whatever out there is greater than I am, for this gift of a new day.
DRINK ESPRESSO – WITH A DASH OF TURMERIC
As you might know if you follow my social media posts and photos, I love my morning espresso routine.
Espresso itself has some touted benefits, but what I really like is the routine. In fact, for the last year or so, I have incorporated espresso into my morning mindfulness meditation practice by really becoming present to every aspect of the process, from the way I fill the water in the machine to the sound the machine makes as the stream of brown sultry liquid emanating from portafilter flows into the shot glass, as the rich crema forms on top, to the aroma, to the first sip.
Aside from this, espresso is rich in antioxidants and boosts the body’s immunity. Yes, there is caffeine, and too much caffeine can mimic the feeling of anxiety, but that is why moderation is important. Just one or two shots of espresso invigorate me to the core, energizing me, and even elicit a sense of cognitive acumen and focus without adding to any morning anxiety. In fact, the ritual relieves me of anxiety, through the mindfulness practice and the promise of the experience each morning (see gratitude!)
I talk often about taking pause. Taking just ONE extra moment in the morning to STOP can make a difference in how we live our lives each day.
When you wake up in the morning, before you jump into your to-do list, remember to STOP (Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed). This routine gears us up for the day and our lives in general.
There are going to be many moments throughout the day that call upon us to choose how to show up for ourselves and others, and practicing taking this pause can help us with making more conscious choices.
This is true regardless of where or with whom that moment occurs—at home with our children, alone in our cars, at work among colleagues, and so on. In every situation, we can choose to React or Respond. Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension.
In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach and can include active listening and a gentler tone of speech. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to first STOP. Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.
Let’s START each day with thriving by calling upon these techniques and our unique morning rituals to look forward to, in order to best leverage our inner roosters and greet every new day with joy and gratitude.
It is officially the holiday season! During this time of year there can be so much pressure that unfortunately the joy, magic, and meaning of the season is lost, often replaced by stress. Especially now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it is hard to ignore the almost instantaneous rush of frenetic energy that ensues as we near the close of the calendar year.
It is more than possible though to not only survive the holiday season, but to even thrive and connect to your particular observance in a deeper and more profound way. Here are some common stressors that pop up this time this year, and mindful antidotes to help you through the discomfort.
1) Demands on Time
In December, our schedules often fill up quickly with work and personal holiday parties. These back-to-back parties start to feel overwhelming as we try to juggle them with all of our other commitments.
Also, creating the holiday experience we desire for our loved ones and ourselves takes planning. It often starts to feel like we are chickens running around with no heads collecting recipes, buying and wrapping gifts, inviting guests, hosting, traveling, cooking, cleaning, buying trees (or menorahs!), and decorating.
Antidote: Treat yourself!
You do not need to say yes to everything. Giving and giving without stopping is not an altruistic notion. It is important to be mindful of when we might need refueling and to allow that to happen. Self-care can mean many things, but it can be as simple as a night to ourselves that includes a bath and a good meal—cooked by someone else!
2) Loneliness During the Holidays
There is an immense amount of pressure to please the people we love with the gifts that we think they will love. Instead of a joyful endeavor, gift giving becomes a chore, and we often become resentful and unloved if we do not receive something equally meaningful in return.
Pressure can also manifest by way of the longing to spend the holidays with those we love, and those we desire to love. For many, this may create feelings of loneliness.
Antidote: Donate your time to help those less fortunate.
The holidays are a particularly poignant time to practice the art of compassion, to think of others needs before our own. There is great opportunity to give to, and establish meaningful connections with, those who don’t have as many resources as we do. Giving doesn’t have to be monetary or a physical gift. Giving comes in many forms, including smiles, time, and emotional support.
3) Expectations of Perfection
This time of year is ripe with the expectations we put upon ourselves to get it just “right.” Things have to look, taste, feel, and be a certain way. We start to get into this mind space where things have to be perfect, which of course, is not possible. It’s how we deal with this realization that determines our well-being.
While it is nice to take the time to create a mindful, aesthetically, and gustatorily pleasing experience, we often get caught up in the trap of perfection. Not only does this make the holiday journey feel less joyful, but we also set ourselves up to experience a lot of disappointment.
Antidote: Reflect on the meaning of the holidays.
It is hard to stop and smell the roses at any time of year, and it is especially easy to get caught up in the commercial version of what the holiday season means today. But taking the time to mindfully reflect on what matters, whether it be our religion or tradition, or even the healing power of love, helps us to keep our perspective as the year draws to a close.
4) The Indulge/Guilt Cycle
We often seem to let all notions of wellness and health fall by the wayside during this time of year. The problem is not only are we not staying healthy, but we are also setting ourselves up for feelings of guilt and self-deprecation.
A thriving life depends on moderation, and this concept particularly applies when we are inundated with mass amounts of food and drink. By eating mindfully, we can keep our minds, bodies, and brains healthy without the self-defeating thoughts of “we are so bad” “we are so fat,” etc.
Antidote:Take time to enjoy all the flavors of the holiday season.
There are five (A,B,C,D,E) basic ways to begin a mindful eating practice:
Why am I eating now?
What am I eating now?
What else am I doing now that may be distracting?
2. Be grateful
3. Chew, and then chew again
4. Dine (don’t just eat)
5. Engage your attention
5) Stress: Family Anxiety
Family stress shows up in many ways. This has taken on a new tone this year, given that many families made different political choices.
While there might actually be very real difficulties surrounding the interpersonal dynamics of our family, we sometimes get caught up in fuelling the fire, rather than abating it.
However, most of the stress and anxiety around family is often anticipatory. Based on not-so-pleasant past experiences, combined with the upcoming impending mix of different personalities, we start to worry about family dysfunction rearing its ugly head. While there might actually be very real difficulties surrounding the interpersonal dynamics of our family, we sometimes get caught up in fuelling the fire, rather than abating it.
Antidote: Engage in gratitude.
Take the time to step back and bear witness to all that you have, to count your blessings, as they say. Gratitude goes a long way when it comes to overall wellness. During this time of year, a sense of gratitude can easily fall by the wayside as indulgence and the idea of “more” and “merrier” are front and center.
So, while in the midst of the tumult of the holiday season, try to re-center by consciously being grateful for the multiple aspects of this season, and our loved ones, that we are blessed to engage with.
When you watch the Olympics, you can’t help but imagine the countless hours of training all of the athletes have devoted themselves to in order to accomplish the unfathomable feats of stamina, incomprehensible shows of endurance, and extraordinary acts of skill.
And that kind of rigorous training, steeped in competition, often can’t be fully actualized without training the mind as well.
Some of the athletes have been vocal about their penchant for mindfulness meditation as an integral part of their quest for gold. For example, Tom Daley, a diver from Great Britain, told the Telegraph: “You can only do so much in the gym or in the pool.” He continued, “Every morning I do 10 minutes of mindfulness where I do meditation and I use that in competition and every day life… It’s helped me massively and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why this year I’ve been the most consistent that I’ve been in competition.”
But what’s clear is that the very mindful way these athletes approach their craft can be seen in their actions. Here are 4 lessons in mindfulness we can learn from the Olympians:
Focused Attention is a Skill
A main component of mindfulness is that it helps cultivate awareness by paying attention, on purpose, and in the present moment.
If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing).These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for an athlete who can’t stop thinking about their last failed performance, or one who can’t stop obsessing over what this performance will mean going forward.Have you ever heard a sports announcer say that an athlete must have “been in his head” too much – which caused them to make a simple mistake, but one that cost them the game or race? When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
This year, Wilhem Belocian of France, bolted a split second before competitors. The false-start alarm rang out, and the 21-year-old’s hopes of winning a medal in Brazil were over. It was heartbreaking to watch as he collapsed to the ground and punched the pavement before laying on his back with his hands over his face, clearly in agony.
Present moment awareness, honed, is true gift. Equally important is allowing ourselves to grieve, and then forgive ourselves, and move on
Compassion is Essential
Mindfulness is more than sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, back aligned, thumbs grazing forefingers, hands resting on thighs. No doubt, this is a feasible and efficient way to cultivate mindfulness, but it’s not the only way.The essence of mindfulness practice is learning to live with more integrity, by nurturing the power to choose our response in any given situation. We begin to live mindfully when we start to cultivate a way of being that embodies mindfulness-based principles like gratitude, loving-kindness, and compassion.
When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
For an Olympic athlete, this kind of mindfulness practice is perhaps most reflected in the ability to engage in “good sportsmanship.”A prime example of this is reflected in the actions of Abbey D’Agostino, a Team USA 5,000-meter runner, and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. They both collided during a run, fell, and subsequently chose to spend the rest of the race encouraging one another, despite the fact that this had the potential to snuff out either’s chance to qualify for the next run. If someone who has trained and competed for years for this spot can forgive and help out their competition, surely we can see the bigger picture in our own lives as well.
But an appropriate amount of stress is actually adaptive. For athletes especially, the stress-response (also knows as “fight or flight”) elicits an acute surge of adrenaline, and stimulates an increase of blood pumping to the limbs, which helps them as they race towards the finish line. While this mental pressure to beat out the competition is often crucial to success, sometimes the physiological stress response never turns off, and for many of us, stress begins to take the form of negative and unhelpful thinking styles that are often paralyzing.That’s where mindfulness comes in.
A foundational element of mindfulness entails focusing on the sensation of the breath. Engaging the breath provides an opportunity to help lower your heart rate. Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” utilizes the diaphragm, and allows for a fuller, slower, and more rhythmical breath. This is a technique used to reduce stress by breaking shallow patterns of breathing that use the abdomen and the chest. It works, because the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind
Autopilot is Detrimental to Your Health
The practice of cultivating our attention to the present moment also prevents us from living on autopilot. When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.For an athlete, who is constantly putting their body through high-intensity training, it can be easy to let minor sensations slide, as the adrenaline itself drowns out some experience of acute pain. Mindfulness particularly allows an athlete to cultivate an acute awareness of their body, to know when and how to take care of it; when it needs a break, when it’s okay to push harder, when it needs to refuel, and when it needs a longer respite to heal.
When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.
To use Abbey D’Agostino as an amazing example again, after tearing ligaments in her knee, she understood that her season was over. But her message that it is more important to honor where her body is at, than to put it through activity that might exacerbate her injury beyond repair, prevailed nonetheless, and to many, she is still an Olympic winner—the true embodiment of what it means to be an athlete on the world stage.
Sometimes life takes us out of the race that we are in, out of the path we saw ourselves on, but at the same time, this change allows us instead to succeed in things we never imagined.
Go For the Gold
We all have our own golden pursuits. And we all have our own hurdles in life to jump, targets to aim for, and sand traps to avoid. But the real gold medal is a life of thriving, cultivated by paying attention to fully living and enjoying every moment. It really isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey that we take to get there.
How will you take these Olympic gold messages with you as you reach for your life goals?