Maintaining Gratitude

 

As we move from Thanksgiving into the Christmas season, it’s easy to lose our focus on gratitude. The practice of being thankful that we held so tightly during Thanksgiving often gives way to the stresses of Christmas and the new year. We tend to move through life without taking the time to stop and be mindful of where we are placing our attention and energy. We need to focus on showing appreciation towards others and within ourselves by observing the good in the world. When we give our energy to gratitude verses things of worry or that we want, we are able to see the greatness in what we already have. When the season of thankfulness extends beyond Thanksgiving, so does our positive energy and attitude.

Everyone has something to be thankful for. Instead of focusing negative energy on comparing our life to someone else’s, we can be grateful for what have versus what we do not have. It’s so easy to get caught up in superficial things. We are constantly wishing we had more materialistic things and convincing ourselves that someone else’s life is so much better than ours.  

We need to focus our energy on gratitude for the things we do have- health, happiness, family, friends, an old (yet reliable) car, a pretty sunset, a nice cup of coffee…it can be anything! The shift of perspective from concentrating on what is lacking to showing gratitude for what we have lifts the burdens we have created for ourselves and allows us to enter a renewed state of mind. 

While pioneering through this world of constant movement, we may not realize that the onslaught of negativity occurs not only from our environment, but also from ourselves.  A constant focus on the things that challenge us (obstacles, or negativity in general) is survival-mode, just doing enough to solve each issue and get through the day.  A gratitude-based focus towards others and ourselves is another key to moving past surviving into successfully thriving.

Gratitude

Gratitude makes a world of difference in our overall perspective.  When we give our energy to gratitude, it grows our perspective in that direction.  Giving energy to the good things takes up the space in our heads and our hearts so that we have less energy to give towards the challenges in our lives.  It may be hard to show gratitude at first, but like with all things- it gets better with practice.

How to:  Practice

Three easy ways to practice gratitude:

  1. Make time to be grateful on the inside.  At some point every day, take a few minutes to give thanks for the things/people/etc. that you are grateful for. It only takes a few minutes to list 3-5 things that you are grateful for daily. You can take it a step further by starting a gratitude journal and writing out the things you are thankful for.
  2. Make time to be grateful on the outside.  A simple “thank you” or maybe even a phone call to someone showing appreciation will not only help you, but it will also perpetuate gratitude through others.  A little effort goes a long way and will make a huge difference in your relationships.
  3. Be thankful for the challenging things.  When we try to find benefit/opportunities for growth in even the hardest parts of our lives, we are able to see that there is good everywhere if we just look hard enough.  We have the opportunity to turn obstacles into challenges in which we can build our strengths and do things that we never thought we could!  Showing gratitude for these opportunities and embracing them improves our perspective while we grow.

 

It’s so easy to be negative towards ourselves, but when we practice gratitude we learn that the positive exponentially outweighs the challenges that come our way.

Mindfulness, Meditation, and Mindful Meditation: What’s the Difference?

 

The words “mindfulness” and “meditation” are tossed around quite frequently these days, and often they are used interchangeably or in combination with one another (e.g. “mindful meditation”). Although these terms are related and generally refer to the same idea of calming the mind, there are some notable differences which are highlighted below.

What is Mindfulness?

According to mindfulness expert, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."  Practicing mindfulness means acknowledging thoughts and feelings in the moment, rather than dwelling on past or future happenings. Simply acknowledging the thoughts without judgment allows you to retain your focus on the present moment and keep a calmer mind.

For example, many people arrive home at the end of their work-day commute without really thinking about how they got there or what happened along the way. Their thoughts were preoccupied with a conversation that happened at the office or all the tasks waiting for them when they arrive at home. Someone who is practicing mindfulness would focus on the drive in a different way. They would concentrate on the sights, smells, and how they were feeling in the present moment. Maybe they would acknowledge their feelings of stress, without judgment. Maybe they would note the smell of fresh cut grass or a stinky cattle truck passing by. When they arrive home, they will be able to recall many details from the trip.

Simply put:  mindfulness is a state of being…. A way of living which focuses on the present moment.

What is Meditation?

There are many ways to define meditation, but one thing to keep in mind is that meditation is a particular action. According to Mental Health Daily, meditation is a practice that involves focusing attention inwards. The focus of inward attention could be on a variety of things, e.g., a mantra, the breathing process (inhalation and exhalation), a vision, an emotion, an area of the body. Some people use meditation to relax and help with anxiety, others use it to build concentration, and yet others pursue the practice as a means of following a particular religion, likened to contemplative prayer in some circles.

There are many types of mediation, e.g., guided imagery, loving-kindness, and mindfulness. See below for more on mindfulness meditation.

What’s the major difference between mindfulness and mediation?

Mindfulness is the way of being, and meditation is the more focused practice, “on the cushion” practice. Mindfulness is a state that you can be in/attain all day long, as you eat lunch, drive home from work, and/or wait in a line at the grocery store.  Meditation is what helps us to nurture and cultivate mindfulness, that deeper connection to the present.

Simply put: meditation is a practice.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

When practicing mindfulness meditation, while you may use the focus on the breath as a guide, you aren’t focusing your attention on one specific object necessarily. Instead, you are allowing an openness of the mind, an awareness. Allowing your mind to observe and acknowledge whatever thoughts and feelings come to mind, without judgment and without holding on to them. In other words, you are simply observing all perceptions, thoughts, memories, and senses that you experience during your practice and often using basic things, such as the breath to help you keep your focus and your mind from wandering into other thoughts.

For mindfulness meditation, you will set aside time to practice. There are many ways you can practice. Start by choosing a quiet place with little distraction. It can be in your home or outside somewhere. Set aside at least 10 minutes to practice. Find a comfortable, seated position and maintain good posture. Sitting cross-leg on the ground is a great place to start.

Start to focus on your breath. Pay attention to how your chest rises and falls with each breath in and out. As you begin to focus on your breath, it will naturally become deeper. This will also help to naturally lower your heart rate. When your attention begins to wonder to other thoughts, gently bring it back to your breath. Your mind will naturally wonder quite often from the breath, especially in the beginning. Don’t be too hard or judgmental on yourself. This is normal. Simply come back to the breath as many times as you need to.

For more on how to get stared, check out these resources:

Jon Kabat-Zinn Guided Meditation

Sharon Salzberg 28 day free guided meditation practice

Mindful.org guide. Mindfulness meditation, getting started.

 

 

Reshaping Your Environment: Get the most out of your space

It's easy to underestimate the impact of our surroundings on our life. An unsuspecting person may walk into the kitchen and grab a banana out of the fruit bowl without knowing that they would have just as likely grabbed a donut, if it had been there instead of the banana. Think about how much more work you can get done by having your own private office with a door, rather than working in a shared space, such as a cubicle.

Although there are some things that we can’t totally change (such as working in a cubicle), we can almost always make modifications. Whether small or large, reorganizing and setting aside a specific space for your most important tasks, can have a huge impact on your day.

Nutrition

One of the best ways to shape your food and drink environment can be summarized by the old saying “out of sight, out of mind”. Make the healthiest foods, like fruit, the most visible and easily accessible in your kitchen. Conversely, remove all unhealthy, “junk food” from the counter tops (and your house altogether, ideally). If you have a difficult time deciding what is healthy and unhealthy, a good rule of thumb is to not have any food on your counter top except fruit. Also, place pre-made green salads or a bowl of grapes at eye level in the refrigerator to keep them visible. If you spend a lot of time away from home, pack some healthy snacks so that you can create your own healthy food environment anywhere you are. 

The same principles work when it comes to staying hydrated.  Keeping water in a pitcher in the fridge or in convenient water bottles will help keep your family hydrated.  You will naturally tend to gravitate toward the food and drink that is most convenient and visible.

Exercise

What is most important to you when you are exercising? Think of the things in your environment that motivate you the most, and focus on enhancing them. For example, if music is crucial to your workout, then make sure you load up with a good playlist before each workout. If you love being outdoors, then take your workout outside to the park, or your backyard. If you are intimidated by large groups of people, make sure to choose a gym that is smaller in size or offers private workout areas. Regardless of your preferences, make sure that you addressing your needs and removing any barriers from your environment that may be preventing you from exercising.

Sleep

Creating a bedroom that is conducive for sleep is one of the easiest ways to modify your environment. The bedroom should be used for sleep (or intimate time) only. No watching TV and no exercising in there either. Your bedroom should be cool, dark, and quiet. Use blackout curtains and a white noise machine, if necessary. If kids or pets often keep you awake, try to create a specific space for them that is off your bed, preferably in another room.

Mind/Body

As discussed previously, the benefits of practicing mindfulness range from improved sleep, to lower stress levels. Creating a space to practice mindfulness is sometimes as easy as finding an empty, quiet room to sit for a while. Other times, you will want to create a more permanent space that is calm, peaceful, and relaxing. This can be your go-to place when meditating or practicing mindfulness. You will want to make sure this space has a comfortable place to sit, and is not too cluttered with unused items. Instead, have one or two items that inspire you.  These items will help you find your center and practice. Setting aside this space solely for the purpose of relaxation will provide peace of mind, knowing that you have a peaceful place dedicated for this one purpose. 

 

The Mindful Soldier

When you think of the fitness level of our military troops, most likely you are thinking of physical fitness. But, what about the other type of fitness? So called “mental fitness” has become a hot topic in recent years, and for good reason.

Mental health-related difficulties amongst troops, such as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sleeping disorders, have been on the rise in recent years. Consequentially, the military has a vested interest in techniques that can help prevent and treat such mental health related diagnoses by strengthening “mental fitness”. Cue mindfulness. 

 

 

What’s Mindfulness?

Mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat Zinn says that mindfulness is “The awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily do on auto pilot. It is a systematic approach to our own inner capacities for relaxation, paying attention, awareness, and insight. These capacities not only help us change our behavior and habits, but can significantly enhance our quality of life and our ability to process difficult situations.

According to the National Center for PTSD,

“Awareness and acceptance of trauma-related thoughts and feelings may serve as an indirect mechanism of cognitive-affective exposure. This may be especially useful for individuals with PTSD, as it may help decrease experiential avoidance, reduce arousal, and foster emotion regulation. For instance, among trauma-exposed individuals evaluated at a single time point, greater levels of acting with awareness and accepting without judgment were associated with lower levels of posttraumatic stress symptoms.”

Mindfulness and the Military

There have been many studies that have examined the effects of using mindfulness-based training techniques in a variety of ways that can benefit troops. One study, conducted by the University of Miami, found that 8 hours of mindfulness training completed over an 8 week period of time, helped prevent mind-wandering and attentional lapses in pre-deployment training groups. The focus of the mindfulness training was to help Soldiers learn how to stay focused on the present moment. Focusing on “awareness”, it is theorized, would help Soldiers prepare for combat and improve personal performance and cognitive resilience. The results indicated that pre-deployment mindfulness training could be beneficial in helping strengthen cognitive resilience before deployment, and in turn, help reduce the number of Soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, during and post-deployment.

Another study, also involving Marines, looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness-based fitness training (MMFT) on resilience mechanisms in Marines preparing for deployment.  Two groups of Marines were assigned either the MMFT program or the usual training program (control group). The MMFT program consisted of 20 hours of classroom instruction and homework, delivered over the span of 8 weeks. The MMFT program emphasized introspective awareness, attentional control, and tolerance of present-moment experiences. Several metrics, such as heart rate, breathing rate, score on the Response to Stressful Experiences Scale, and brain activation as measured by functional MRI, were measured pre and post training. These metrics were also measured after a traumatic event happened. The results indicated that Marines who completed the MMFT program had greater reactivity and enhanced recovery (as demonstrated by heart rate), improved breathing rate after stressful training, and improved blood-oxygen-levels. These results indicate that stress recovery can be improved for individuals who undergo the MMFT program.

A third study, conducted at the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System, examined the effects of mindfulness training on self-reported sleep quality and PTSD among veterans. The results of the study indicated that just 2 mindfulness based sessions, called “mind-body bridging” or “MBB”, were effective in helping reduce the number of sleep disturbances as well as improve PTSD symptoms. Since the symptoms were self-reported, more research is needed in clinical and empirical settings.  However, the results are promising.  

Taking it one step further, a fourth study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, examined the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on treating symptoms of PTSD and depression among veterans. The results showed that 47% of Veterans that underwent MSBR training for 6 months showed improvement in PTSD symptoms, including depression.

Implications

Mindfulness based training has shown positive results for helping prevent and treat many mental health-related diagnoses, such as PTSD and sleep disorders. However, more clinical and empirical research is needed in order to fully understand the amount and type of mindfulness based training that is most beneficial to veterans.

Many non-profit organizations offer free or reduced mindfulness training or mindfulness based exercise, such as yoga, for veterans. Pop-up yoga practices are also starting to show up for Soldiers that are deployed in the Middle East.

What’s in it for me?

There are many benefits to practicing mindfulness, including many features that impact quality of life.  Mindfulness based stress reduction techniques have been shown to help reduce depression, anxiety, and overall psychological distress.  Practicing mindfulness has also been linked with increased happiness and resilience.  The more that mindfulness is practiced, the stronger the benefits. This is because practicing mindfulness helps refine and strengthen innate internal resources and emotions, such as gratitude, compassion, and acceptance. 

 

 

In addition to the mental health benefits, some physical health benefits of practicing mindfulness include better sleep and maintaining a healthy weight. As mentioned previously, mindfulness has been linked with improved sleep for Veteran’s with Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD).  According to a study from the University of Utah, mindfulness can also help civilians sleep better at night.  Mindful eating, the practice of a slower, more thoughtful way of eating may help support weight loss goals by decreasing inattentive eating and instead focusing on the more sensual experience of eating (color, taste, flavor, etc.). 

Try it. Tips to help get you started  

Mindfulness meditation practice is one way to get started.  Take a good seat, pay attention to your breath, and when your attention wanders, return. Mindful.org offers some great tips when starting to practice mindfulness. If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, check out the May edition of Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Arsenal, which is focused on mindfulness and offers more mindfulness resources. 

Tips to help non-morning people get out of bed

Waking up in the morning is hard. It’s even harder if you’re not a self-proclaimed “morning person”. Often times, people associate the morning time with rushing around, being sleepy, and wishing they could go back to bed. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you want to squeeze in a morning workout or simply make your morning routine less chaotic, there are many reasons to work on improving your morning routine. No promises that you will become a “morning person”, but you may find yourself with a renewed sense of energy which enables you to take on the day!

Start the night before

Plan out as much as possible the night before. Preset the coffee, lay out work clothes (and gym clothes), and pack a lunch. Doing as much as possible the night before will not only help alleviate stress and make getting out of bed a less hectic event, it will afford more of that precious sleeping time.

Don’t snooze

As tempting as it can be, snoozing is actually disruptive to natural sleeping patterns. Research has shown hitting the snooze button can interfere with brain hormones, which throw off the body’s circadian (sleep) cycle.  Disrupting the circadian cycle can impair the ability to feel awake during the day and sleepy at night. It’s better to simply sleep a little longer and get up the first time the alarm goes off. Sleeping longer will also allow the body to stay in the deeper stage of sleep (REM sleep) that allows the body to perform many tasks that are essential to mental and physical health.

Get outside

Exposure to natural sunlight, especially in the morning, can help the body regulate its natural circadian cycle. Exposure to sunlight (and some bright sources of artificial light) inhibits the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the body that plays a crucial role in the body’s ability to regulate sleep, and feel sleepy. Therefore, exposure to sunlight in the morning and exposure to a dark (without bright lights, cell phones, laptops, etc.) environment before bed is recommended to create the ideal sleep-wake cycle.

Eat breakfast

Many people who do not consider themselves a “morning person” will skip breakfast in order to save time and stay in bed a little longer. The problem is that without food (no, coffee doesn’t count), the body doesn’t have enough energy to be fueled for the rest of the day. Consequently, the day starts off by feeling sluggish and slow. Not to mention that research shows that by the time lunch and dinner roll around, the likelihood of over eating, particularly high sugar and high calorie foods, is increased.

Stay consistent

One of the best ways to combat morning sleepiness is to go to bed earlier. Sounds simple enough, but many people find going to bed earlier a difficult task. The best thing to do is to set a firm bed time and stick with it. Start preparing for bed before the actual bedtime, so that when the set time rolls around, things are calm and relaxed. Try creating a relaxing bedtime ritual such as a bath, reading a book, practicing relaxation techniques, or practicing mindfulness, if needed.