There is a misconception that a calm mind means an empty mind, a kind of Zen flatline. In fact, it’s the opposite; a calm mind is a productive mind, one where ideas and thoughts linger and percolate long enough to become productive, where creative thinking is favoured and decisions are taken out of an instinctual understanding of what you need.
A calm mind is a pleasant place to dwell, and is resilient when faced with life’s inevitable shocks.
So how to achieve this desirable state of being? Here are some strategies for slowing down, for changing the pace at which you live – perhaps not permanently, but often enough to remind yourself why calming the mind is something to aim for.
These are aimed at the many of us who understand that by being busy all the time we have lost something valuable, are risking our fundamental health and happiness, and who wish to arrive at a state of greater serenity.
Some are short-term strategies, to deploy in a moment of agitation (breathing, for example), others are medium and long-term – physical and psychological changes to incorporate into our daily lives that will bring good results.
Consultant psychologist Dr Jane Louise Clarke, owner and director of The Consulting Clinic (www.theconsultingclinic.ie), recommends as a first step that we “stop, pause and check in with yourself. In the rush of life we often feel we don’t have time to stop and gather our thoughts, but doing so can calm the mind and reduce reactivity.”
So take a moment, and ask yourself the following questions: “What am I feeling right now? Am I reacting rather than responding? Am I getting things out of proportion? Am I predicting the worst? Am I jumping to conclusions? What advice would I give to a friend in this situation?”
All these questions “help us to stand back and get a wide perspective, which then helps to calm the mind”.
After that, breathe. “Take a few moments to stop and connect with your breath. The breath helps to increase focus, regulate emotions and anchor back into the present moment,” says Dr Clarke.
There are various formulae for breathing yourself calm, but one of the simplest and most effective is the 7-11 breath: Breathe in for seven counts, breathe out for 11. Repeat.
3. Take stock
Dr Clarke also suggests we take stock of our “areas of nourishment and depletion. When we feel stressed we tend to neglect the nourishing activities and get lost within the depleting activities that exhaust us. Nourishing activities lift mood, increase energy and help you feel calm.”
Such activities might be exercise, healthy eating, meditation and connecting with your values. Areas of depletion are too much screen time, working long hours, avoiding socialising and exercise. Make your own personal list of nourishing and depleting activities, with the aim to reduce the depletion activities and increase your nourishing list.”
Linda Hamilton, cognitive behavioural therapist at Kinsale CBT (www.kinsalecbt.com), says: “Exercise is hugely important for mental as well as physical health, and one of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety or depression (around five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects, while as little as one hour of exercise a week reduces the risk of future depression).
“It releases endorphins, which can significantly boost mood and is one of the quickest ways of reducing stress. It reduces fatigue and tension, improves alertness and concentration, and the ability to sleep. Joining a gym or going hill-walking is great, but more modest steps – just getting out and moving when you can – will also help.”
5. Get outdoors
If that exercise can take place in nature, the proven benefits are increased: “A growing body of research confirms nature has the power to rejuvenate,” Hamilton says. “Recent research has found that people who spent at least two hours in contact with nature over the previous week were much more likely to report a greater sense of well-being than people who spent no time outdoors. It didn’t matter how the 120 minutes was achieved (for example, one long visit versus several shorter ones).
“Spending more than five hours was not associated with additional benefits.
“Correlation is not causation, but it’s fair to assume that most of us feel the benefits from accessing green space, whether it be in a leafy park or a walk by the sea. People at risk of anxiety or depression are especially likely to benefit – being near water and trees and birds and animals is a positive distraction that takes you out of your head, calming the mind and bringing you back to the moment.”
6. Do new things
Hamilton also advocates spending time doing whatever it is that your enjoy – “whether it be reading, baking, listening to music” – but equally, highlights the power of the new: “The more novelty in your life, the longer it seems. It’s easy to fall into familiar routines as we get older; as a result, one day can blur into the next.
“That’s why a week holidaying in an unfamiliar location seems longer than a normal week. In novel situations, we pay more attention, taking in the different smells and sights. We can’t be on holidays all the time, but we can shake things up by varying where we walk, drive, cycle, what we eat, and so on. Small injections of newness keep life fresh.”
7. Work out your NATs and tackle them “Life can be stressful,” Hamilton says, “but stress can also be self-generated, with unhelpful thinking patterns making a difficult situation seem like an intolerable one. We often forget that our thoughts are not facts.”This is especially the case when we are stressed or anxious. It’s a good idea to jot down the NATs – Negative Automatic Thoughts – that pop into your head in times of stress and take a look at them later on, when things are calmer. You’ll see that these thoughts can be harsh and self-limiting and characterised by the various cognitive distortions […]