Mind the Gap; the brilliant technique for being less stressed!

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Stress used to rule my life, expressing itself in many guises. Highly emotional and easily upset, despite the pretence of a hard exterior even the slightest of criticisms pierced my very thin skin. Often the red mist would descend, amid flashes of anger I’d suddenly become a shouty, stompy (occasionally throwing things) version of myself. Back then I might have described myself as passionate and fiery, in denial about how destructive my outbursts were to my relationships with others and with myself. Huge waves of self-loathing and hot tears would usually follow one of these fits. I’d replay the fight or incident, rerunning and reimagining the dialogues, struggling between the need to be right and the potential I might not be. Writing this raises many uncomfortable and embarrassing memories. But it also raises a little smile in me, because I can say, hand-on-heart, things do not push my buttons in the same way anymore. I cultivated a technique I call ‘Mind the Gap’ which worked so effectively for me it changed my behaviour and reduced stress across all areas of my life. I’ve gone on to teach this to many hundreds of my clients since.

It came from recognising that the stress, anger and upset in my life wasn’t coming from outside forces, it was coming from inside me. When we take ownership of our stress we have an opportunity to respond to where we find ourselves rather than be stuck in the cycle of unconscious autopilot reactions.

It was the most minor of mundane events, the alarm clock went off – the sound was enough for me to want to throw the alarm clock out of the window, to wish I could throw myself out of the window. Anger and anxiety shot through me, a precursor to the cycles of worry that I knew would shortly kick in. Then a realisation; the alarm clock was just a machine with sound coming out of it, the stress didn’t come from there. The day, just a day of my life, the stress didn’t come from there either. The stress came from me, how I was reacting to a sound and my thoughts around this. In this split second of awareness I was able to see myself almost like having an out-of-body-experience. I could witness my behaviour, feel my physical reactions and see the thoughts that were feeding this. I was able to step back and see that this pattern that had been appearing in all areas of my life. Usually an event, situation, comment or even thought served as a trigger for my stress reaction, I’d then fly off the handle, disappearing into a series of stories of my head rather than the reality of the situation. I’d got well practiced in living in the worst-case scenario world of my thoughts, constantly acting from defence mode as if at threat from some immediate attack. I’d been reacting not to what was in front of me but to the tale I’d created around that and at the very route of that reaction whether expressed as anger or tears was always fear. I’d been living in hyperarousal, so often it only took the slightest thing to tip me into fight or flight. In becoming aware of this something shifted in me, I’d created a really small space in which I could witness myself and how things really were. From this space I could see that I had some choice about how the next moments played out – I could either continue to react or choose instead to respond. For me, and so many people I’ve worked with, this moment of recognition is transformative. Like switching from autopilot to manual, a claiming back of power.

Here’s how the ‘Mind the Gap’ technique works and how you can implement it into your life. Firstly it’s helpful to recognise that stressors are external pressures and stress is your reaction (or response) to those pressures. Therefore, stress doesn’t come from ‘out there’ it comes from inside you. Usually what feeds our stress is not the situation but our thoughts around it.

When we are operating on autopilot we automatically react to stressors;

Stressor > Reaction.

When we bring our awareness to what is going on for us, we give ourselves the opportunity to notice when we are in a potentially stressful situation, be aware of our thoughts, feelings and what is going on in the body. By switching from autopilot to manual we create space in which we can choose to respond rather than react:

Stressor > Gap > Response

With our mindful awareness we get to ‘Mind the Gap’ between an event and our reaction, hopefully choosing to respond rather than react.

So, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation remember that stressors will be stressors but it’s your stress and notice how awareness of this helps to dissipate your feelings around it. For example, in a traffic jam we have a couple of options:

Option 1: Be incredibly annoyed/upset/angry about the traffic jam, worry about the knock of effect of your lateness, catastrophise about possible outcomes, allow damaging stress hormones to rush around your body.

Option 2: Be in the traffic jam.

Either way the traffic moves no faster. The force of your upset has no impact on the traffic, the only person it has an impact upon is you. Stress in small bursts can be useful but living in a constantly stressed out state we become distressed, our immunity to disease is weakened with both the quality, and possibly quantity, of our lives reduced. The more we practice minding the gap the more we develop a ‘not-minding so much’ attitude to life. After all we are not in the traffic, we are the traffic – whether we choose to be stuck in it is down to us. Wherever I’ve encountered a similar stuck feeling this insight has helped me enormously. I won’t claim to always get this right but I’ve learned to let go more, of the need to be right and of the struggle with what is. Ultimately as we raise our level of consciousness we come to recognise that resisting where we are or fighting with the past is a huge waste of our energy. We can instead channel this energy, the most precious of resources, more wisely. How we respond to where we find ourselves is our greatest power in life, stepping into this our most empowering choice. Mind the gap and witness how this gap grows, becoming space and lightness. This space has allowed for more compassion, humour and creativity than the former stress-head me would ever have dreamed possible.

This piece, written by Frances Trussell was first published by Psychologies Magazine 15th August 2018: Link to original article on Lifelabs here.

You can now order a copy of Frances’ new book: You Are Not Your Thoughts: The Secret Magic of Mindfulness 

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Silence Please; The Beauty of Switching Off and Shutting Up

Mindfully Happy on Retreat

By the time you read this I will be switched off, electronically speaking. No phones allowed at the ‘Zen Bootcamp’ I’m headed to. No phones, no TV’s, no music, no reading of books, not even writing, no external stimulation – silence.

I remember my first silent retreat; the prospect filled me with dread, the fear of being bored, of being out-of-contact, of not knowing what was going on, of missing out on something. But once I settled into the silence, under the layers of boredom and frustration, anger and grief I found the ‘something’ I’d been missing all along.

So now I long for silence, I love and cherish it, I nurture it in my day-to-day meditations and I dive deeply into it on retreat as regularly as having a young family can allow for.

On retreat we draw back from the world so that we can see it, and ourselves, more clearly – like standing back in a gallery to witness the full wonder of a masterpiece. Up too close and we only see the marks and strokes, colours are dulled the beauty of contrast is lost; but on retreating back we widen our view and suddenly beautiful new clarity and focus is revealed. The big picture is right here all the while yet only when we are really here ourselves can we experience it with all of our being.

By turning down the volume of outside distractions internal commentary settles down too. Not at first of course whilst the head-monsters and gremlins are shouting out in protest. Some of them are shaken off violently and others gently dissipate as we let go. We let go and let go some more; who knew there was so much we’d been clinging on to? Layers and layers of it peel away with release and relief, tumbling and falling until we are stripped bare and out of a naked knowing emerges the laughter. I laughed so much on one retreat I thought my ribs might crack, it was as though joy was pouring out of me with such force it could have burst me apart. In a way it did.

By switching off the constant chatter of our inside and outside worlds we learn how to listen. When we listen we can hear the truth of ourselves. In disconnecting we create the breathing space to reconnect.

There’s peace in quiet.

 

 

 

 

If this spoke to you do let’s connect on Twitter @francestrussell

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With love, Frances x 

How to Eat Mindfully

Frances Trussell, ITV1’s Sugar Free Farm Mindfulness Coach, gives us her top tips for Mindful Eating and how it can transform your relationship to food.

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Celebrities on Sugar Free Farm were all trained by Frances in Mindful Eating

For many of us food is an obsession. We think about it constantly; what we fancy eating, what we should and shouldn’t be eating; good food, naughty food – it takes us so much space in our already busy heads. Except, that is, when we are eating it. Suddenly we look down and it’s almost gone, that dish we’ve been craving has disappeared, shovelled in while our attention was somewhere else.

Mindfulness is the art of paying attention, having your mind full of what you are doing rather than lost in thought.

When we eat mindfully we focus on the beautiful act of eating and something quite brilliant happens; the autopilot chatter of our wandering mind calms down and we get to really experience the food. Mindfully eating we easily notice when our bodies have had enough and we can choose to stop rather than plough through until we are stuffed. It sounds super simple, and it is, the tricky bit is remembering to do it, but like any habit we can train ourselves and once we do we can make overeating a thing of the past. It is absolutely possible to get so much more from our food while still eating less; it’s win-win so give it a go!

Frances’ Top Tips on Mindful Eating;

  • Check In; before you start eating check how hungry are you? Are you eating through hunger or for another reason such as time of day, feelings of boredom or upset? Do you actually want to eat what you are about to eat or are you eating it out of habit?
  • Use all of your senses; how does it look, smell, taste? What is the temperature & texture?
  • Slow down; really pay attention. Take time to chew and swallow between mouthfuls. Rest your fork or put down food in-between bites.
  • Drink some water; often we think we are hungry when actually we are thirsty. Staying hydrated helps both with digestion and stopping us from eating too much.
  • Listen to your body; notice how it is reacting to the food. Stop when you are satisfied, don’t wait until you’re overfull.
  • Get OK with leaving food on your plate; It may go against what we get trained into believing from an early age but no-one ever saved starving children by overeating.

As with all mindfulness practices your mind will wander, this is fine, just gently keep bringing your attention back to the food. The more familiar we make this it soon embeds as a new habit.

Eating is one of life’s great pleasures – an experience worth showing up for, make the most of it!

For more tips and advice you can follow @francestrussell on Twitter and Facebook or download her free Podcast: Mindfully Happy Meditations with Frances Trussell.

To train directly with Frances see: www.francestrussell.com

You can see the episode of Sugar Free Farm featuring Frances teaching Mindful Eating on Tuesday 31st January at 9pm on ITV1.

Celebrities trained were, Ann Widecombe, Gemma Collins, Peter Davidson, Joe Pasquale, Alison Hammond, Lagi and Demi Demetriou of Stavros Flatley.

How to be grateful for depression

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I can look back on my episode in the depths of despair with gratitude. Without that period of madness, my mindfulness practice would have remained in the ‘should’ pile alongside many other I’ll-get-round-to-it-when-I-have-the-time projects. Broken into a million pieces, you tend to only pick up the bits that are truly important to take with you into the next phase of the journey.

I feel quite sorry for the mildly miserable, they might never be down enough to be forced to look for another way; sleepwalking through a life of grumpy discontent. No, I am glad to have been painfully depressed, stabbed and prodded into wakefulness. I had no other choice to commit to a practice, I could no longer be ruled by my thoughts. And, oh, the joy of contrast; in the moment of becoming the observer and recognising your own power to sit back, to watch, to choose, to bask in separation. How quickly our relationship with our thoughts can shift, and how remarkable this shift can be. Suddenly the world, once dark, appears in full beautiful colour.  It is like when you misplace your keys in your living room, you know they are in there somewhere so you really open your eyes and look. And with this new way of looking, really looking, something happens. Familiar items within the room suddenly appear to you with a vibrancy and clarity as if they are being seen for the very first time.

For me, meditation is like brushing my teeth; I just wouldn’t want to go out and breathe my un-meditated breath on anyone. An un-meditated me feels a bit gross, sloppy, unfocused, easily carried away by the rivers of thought. For those people that manage to feel sane without meditating I salute you, I am not sure how you do it. Meditation isn’t the only way of being mindful, but it is the best way to start cultivating it. I love to learn and during my first flushes of falling for mindfulness my appetite for knowing all there was to know on the ‘subject’ was ferocious. I devoured book after book at breakneck speed, it seems funny to reflect back on all that striving. What meditation teaches us when we sit and look is that we already know everything we need to know. Whilst we have a very human need to learn, it is in unlearning we find the being bit of ourselves. Like all things we try to attain, we can get lost in doing mindfulness, but quietly as we practice, we realise mindfulness instead. And with each realisation another layer of ourselves falls away, we see things a little more clearly and the subtle hum of happiness begins to beam through into every part of our being.

Being terribly depressed was one of the best things that could have happened to me. All pain is a messenger, and the message I had ignored for too long was that I was on the wrong path in my life. I see this time and time again with clients who come to me looking to overcome depression. So strong the pull of how we think we want our lives to look, we begin to override our internal sat nav until we can no longer hear the voice of truth within us, we become lost to ourselves. So the messenger of emotion ups the anti, louder and louder pain shouts, our heart beats faster and anxiety rings in our ears. When we really hit rock bottom there is no choice but to finally ‘get the message’ and from down there we get a chance to truly begin again.

How beautiful this principle of beginners’ mind, we really can give ourselves permission to start over, with each new moment comes a new beginning and each mediation a place to get familiar with beginning again and again. When in meditation we forget to begin again; frustration, anger and boredom arises as holding up a mirror to us until we see what we are doing to ourselves. To see that reflection is such a teaching, I am chuckling to myself as I write this because an old earworm has returned to sing the Radiohead lyrics to me; ‘you do it to yourself you do and that’s what really hurts’. This full human experience really does hurt sometimes, it can be so painful and yet so exquisitely beautiful all at the same time. It is so hard for the mind to accept these two opposing truths and that’s ok too – because not all things can be figured out on the level of the mind. If you are in pain you know you are alive, and being alive is certainly something to feel grateful for. So feel pain, but know that you don’t have to feed it with your thoughts. Instead of mindlessly scattering seeds for the crows to peck, we can consciously plant seeds that we gently cultivate.

Depression is a pushing downwards, low thoughts take us on their repetitive downward spiral into lower and lower mood, the body joins this journey like grabbing onto the back of a conga line – with each kick a release of stress hormones, a slumping of posture, a reducing of immunity, forwards and downwards we dance. We lose ourselves in the dance, we become the dance and the dance becomes us, smothering and suffocating in its embrace. In meditation we sit in separation, thought comes and goes and when we don’t engage we see this separation for ourselves. Thought only becomes thinking when we choose to get involved with it. In stillness, free will is placed right under the spotlight of our attention. As thought forms float through we begin to see them for what they are, they are just thoughts and they are not us. And so the grip lessens, our relationship with our thoughts changes and release arrives.

We have the power to choose to act in ways which lift us in an upward direction, to embrace more of those things which make us feel alive and move away from those that deplete us. I used to be very busy trying to control the universe, it was exhausting. These days I choose more carefully the parts I play and try to be playful in the playing of them. I particularly enjoy being DJ when it comes to choosing what song to play in my head, if you don’t like your thoughts you can always change the record.

That’s not to say that the cloud of depression never floats into my life to obscure the view, but nowadays I see it for what it is – just a cloud. Mindfulness has made me recognise my own innate strength, I feel content in the knowledge that whatever the storm it will pass and that I have the power to weather it. The sun is always shining behind the clouds.

This article by Frances Trussell was originally published on ‘everyday mindfulness’

You can now also follow Frances on Twitter @francestrussell and Facebook 

HOW TO BE MINDFUL IN EVERYDAY LIFE

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Life is in the little stuff; by showing up for the small we wake up to the big picture. As we let go of story and focus our attention we transform the everyday. Folding the washing becomes a sacred ritual, taking a shower a sensory delight, each step on a walk down the street a meditation of arrival.

Listen to the birds. Flying messengers of mindfulness, those birds, singing for your attention ‘notice me’ they call ‘be awake to the aliveness of this moment’. No App required, no text alerts necessary – just ears. It is always now as the birds are singing, we can use them to help guide us home.

Find your feet. Where our attention goes our energy follows, as we get lost in our heads we can feel a little ‘top heavy’ and out of balance. Sink the anchor of your awareness into your feet, feel your soles against the floor, relaxing the weight of your body into each foot. Breathe into your contact with the ground. As we dive into sensing we release thought, we release tension, we move from clinging on to letting go.

Meditate; if, as, and when you can. But know that mindfulness is much more than meditation alone. Be where you are. Meditation is at the heart of my life, I find myself there, lose myself and find myself again but it wasn’t always this way. We can only ever be where we are and meditation reminds me that there’s nowhere to get to.

Keep it simple; all of life is an opportunity to be mindful, the obstacle is overthinking it.

10 Top tips for establishing a daily meditation practice

Meditation has been shown to make us happier, healthier and less stressed, the only problem is that to feel those benefits we actually need to do it!  Here are my top tips…

  1. Prioritise it. Take responsibility for your own happiness.
  2. Schedule an appointment with yourself (and stick to it).
  3. Ask for help. You being the best, less stressed version of yourself benefits everyone around you. Ask those close to you to help you make time to meditate.
  4. Do it first. We are very good at doing deals with our self like ‘when the house or my desk is tidy, then I will meditate’. We are far more likely to get the tidying done quicker, be less distracted and enjoy it more if we’ve meditated first. Meditate first, it doesn’t matter if there is mess because when you meditate you have your eyes closed!
  5. Bring the right attitude. If you approach meditation as ‘just another thing to tick off the list’ you make it into a chore, not a pleasure.
  6. Make it work for you. Most people find that meditating first thing in the morning sets them up for the day, however there are no hard and fast rules, making an appointment you can keep is the most important thing.
  7. Be flexible. It would be wonderful if we all had a little candle-lit meditation room in our house where knew we wouldn’t be disturbed. Realistically you might need to meditate on your train commute or in your bathroom with the loo seat down and the door locked. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions, there are no perfect conditions – dogs will bark, planes will fly overhead, the world will go on turning and this is all part of the practice.
  8. Start small. It is better to follow your breath for a minute than to not meditate at all. If all you can manage is a minute today then start there. Perhaps tomorrow you will manage five minutes, next week ten. If you honestly cannot find a single minute in which to follow your breath you probably really need to reassess your life.
  9. Just do it. Even if we are feeling ill or have had the manic day from hell (especially then) we can still lie down, close our eyes and breathe.
  10. Take it one day at a time. If anyone told us we’d have to do anything every day for the rest of our lives that would be too overwhelming to cope with. Life isn’t like that; we only ever have to deal with life one moment at a time, one day at a time. You cannot change what happened yesterday but how you choose to respond to where you find yourself today will shape your life.

Finding the time is usually the main concern of those first setting out on their voyage of meditation. For me, really taking a look at what else I was spending my time doing was a revealing exercise – how much time do we spend checking Facebook, watching TV or procrastinating about life? We have to decide whether we are prepared to use some of that time for meditating instead.

Meditating every day is not always easy, you might not always want to do it, but once you have made it a habit and felt the enormous benefits you won’t want to go without it either.

Ultimately the thing which is usually standing in your way of your practice is you. Meditation is the process of recognising resistance and letting go – this takes place not only in the bit where we sit there and close our eyes but on the way there too, and throughout our lives.

The hardest journey is often the one to our seat.