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

Mind the Gap Image

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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The Meaning of Life…

Winking Universe Lady

What is your take on the meaning of life? When Excellence Reporter first asked to interview me on the meaning of life I felt incredibly honoured, but also, I don’t mind admitting, slightly overwhelmed. Rather hilariously ‘write the meaning of life’ has been sitting at the top of my to-do lists over the last couple of months. The question floated into my practice, conversations and dreams and then after one meditation as I wrote in my journal the following just flowed onto the page…

What a wonder it is just to be alive, more remarkable still to be aware of this and to wonder what might be the meaning of life?

As endless reflections of consciousness becoming conscious of itself there are as many meanings as there are makers of meaning. Perceived by the perceiver, these ever-changing ripples of reality and perception shift instant by instant, uniquely filtered and distilled.

Even if you know what I mean, you’ll never really know my meaning, for no two of us live the same life. Many may have had a moment of ‘no-one understands me’ and on one level we are right, yet this is only a tiny fraction of the picture. The little surface me, the flesh-bound layer of self-consciousness. The part of us that is easily wounded, critical, anxious and needs to be right. This is the layer where life happens to us, our actions and reactions driven by fear. It is easy to be held here on the surface, so compelling our storylines, so persistent our thoughts.

For me, the meaning of life is to wake up to the wonder of life beyond meaning and experience the wonder it is just to be alive. With this human equipment it is so easy to forget ourselves, lost in the maze of the mind, so we are here to remember why we are here. This can be seen with the naked eye when the eye is truly naked. Grasped only when we stop grasping. In our search for meaning we can get in our own way, for searching is doing and defining is confining.

When we awaken to the brilliance of our being, so much vaster and greater than the smallness of any thought, we wake up to the true meaning of all meaning. The solid reveals itself as spacious and fear gives way to love. We experience the energy of life flowing through us and in this eternal moment we join the dance. No longer the spectator or commentator we step into our true nature. The emptiness that propelled our search for meaning, that hungered all of our wanting, once realised becomes wholeness. The need for meaning satiated by knowing who we really are. Laughing and crying at the same time, just because, feeling the full contradicted contrast of things. Two opposing truths, both true at the same time; wholeness and emptiness, darkness and light experienced together as one, no beginning, no end, just now.

While we are here, we are here to be here fully, to have a direct experience of life. Indirectly experienced meaning holds no meaning. Even the most vivid of imaginations cannot summon up a taste without lips and a mouth and taste buds. If no taste had ever been tasted before, the sensation of dripping juice, the essence from ripened fruit, is just meaningless. Yet to you and I, to us who know, we know, without words as signposts or pale imitations of the truth. Sweetness only sweet through direct experience and contrast of the sour. Together we can sip on the full flavour of life, whilst catching fleeting glances of ourselves in the mirror of awareness along the way.

How would it be if I had never had feet that touched the earth, that walked and ran and leaped in exploration? If I never had this body to feel and to touch, to move and express, to hear the beauty of birdsong and look up towards the sky? If I had never had the chance to live and love and be loved and lost? To be here, to create, to play, to learn, to grow. Then to unlearn, unfold and to let go, surely this is what gives meaning to everything and to every nothing?

In life we eat the sun, turning our many faces towards it to feel the light. Until breath, the thin layer of separation between inside and out, between living and dying, here and there, falls away. And the ripples of an endless echo find no surface on which to bounce. The roar of the wave of all things crashes without crashing and we become the light once more.

The above is from an interview first published by Excellence Reporter in July 2018: Frances Trussell on The Meaning of Life

What is your take on the Meaning of Life?! Please share your take or comments below.

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You can also pre-order ‘You Are Not Your Thoughts: The Secret Magic of Mindfulness’ on Amazon Now.

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 

This is the summer of your life

mindfulness, summer

On childhood summer evenings I would sit by the breeze of my open bedroom window listening to the symphony of the season. The laughter of those children still allowed to play out, the kicking of balls in the park and shouting to friends. Birdsong soared high amongst the barbecue smoke whilst the clinking of glasses accompanied grown-ups chatter below.

How bittersweet those balmy nights, a loveliness and still a longing. A longing for a time when the days would be mine, the laughter my own in a no-bedtime, no-rules, me-time-all-the-time kind of way.

So now, I have arrived. And you have too. Here we are, exactly where we wanted to be back then. This day is ours, this night is ours and it’s us who makes those rules. We made a promise to ourselves that when we got here we would embrace those evenings with all our being, feel the warmth of the sun on our face, that now would be that time.

And yet, how easy it is to shift those jumper goal posts, lost in the mourning mind of summers gone or the longing mind of summers to come. But it is not going to get any better than this, now is the only place we get to experience anything because it is always now. There will, of course, inevitably be the perfect-house-bigger-garden summer that lives in our heads. The one where a slightly thinner and more attractive version of ourselves has our hair windswept whilst driving our top-down Aston Martin. The next holiday, the next job, the next relationship, next month or next summer, that elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The wanderings of the mind can trick us into believing that the next lick of the ice cream will taste better than this one. So remember to savour the flavour of this moment. There is little point saving happiness for best like Grandmas crockery.

Feel this summer, own it, squeeze the juice out of it. You have arrived at your destination; this is the summer of your life.

It is always the summer of your life should you choose it to be.

Building Sandcastles

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I love a new pair of shoes as much as the next girl but today I was shoeless, sand between toes and surrounded by the sounds of the sea and children playing. None of us can take ourselves too seriously on a trip to the British seaside. There is no glamorous way of hobbling over the pebbles to paddle in the freezing English Channel, or of eating sandy sandwiches huddled behind a wind-break. I will never forget jumping waves as a kid with my Nan, she let out such a yelp of excitement with one leap she lost her false-teeth to the sea. They might still be out there somewhere chattering away on the cold sea bed.

It is the things we do, not the things we have that make this life. So well trained we are in our principle occupation as consumers, like little ants we work away eyes down and focused on those prizes. It is easy to forget the ‘being’ bit of human-being until we allow ourselves the opportunity to be and to feel human again. Our culture places so much emphasis on the accumulation of ‘stuff’, yet what is the stuff that really matters when we look back over our lives?

Some things cannot be bottled or bought, the re-discovered pleasure of digging in the sand, the triumph of creating our moated island decorated in shells. The satisfied sadness when it’s time to say goodbye as the sea arrives to claim our spoils and the night to take our day.

All of our castles are made of sand and the tide of life will come to wash them away. When we are not so weighed down by stuff it may be easier to ride the waves.

Life is short

Bus

So there you are, body walking along the road but mind somewhere else altogether. Wandering in thought, worries, projections of the future; predictions for how things might or might not work out, catastrophising. All of these ruminations are just bad guesses, terrible guesses in this case because BOOM there you are gone. You didn’t even see it coming – the bus that hit you. And so it is with life, and death, however we might try to map it out, we can’t ever know for certain what’s just around the corner. What a waste of life worry is. If only we’d been present for the walk, if only we’d showed up and paid attention to what was actually going on around us rather than being lost in the ‘if only’ of the mind.

A family friend died this week, too young to die by the expectations we set for such things, but death has no regard for expectations. My news feed swells with photographs and memories shared, the pain and beauty of how precious life is. We are remembered when we die not for our inner world of thought but for our outer world, for the moments in which we touched people. The laughter we shared, a look, a smile, the way that we held them, for the moments that we were alive for them.

Life is short, be alive while you are alive, make the moments count.