Editors note: Dana Santas, known as the Mobility Manufactureris a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.
With the holiday season revolving around preparations and subsequent festivities, it can be all too easy to get caught up in ticking off boxes on your to-do list. One of the best gifts you can give your family and friends is to remember to slow down and share your caring presence.
Above and beyond giving material things, by showing up in a way that offers your thoughtful attention, you can foster better relationships by making your loved ones feel seen, heard and appreciated .
As an example, think of the beloved Apple TV+ character Ted Lasso, who approaches every interaction with focused curiosity about the people in his presence. Even if you’ve never watched the show, chances are you’ve encountered friendly people in your own life who have the unique ability to make you feel like you’re glowing. Their presence and the moments you share with them are truly like gifts.
Of course, not everyone has the personality or desire to be Ted Lasso at their next holiday party or family gathering. In fact, being present and helpful is easier said than done for most people.
With countless distractions and rising levels of anxiety tied into many aspects of today’s culture, it seems normal to feel scattered and disconnected. And when your thoughts are constantly shifting between past experiences and future concerns, you miss the richness of moment-to-moment experiences and opportunities for meaningful connection.
Fortunately, according to Dr. Nathan Brown, a clinical psychologist in Bellingham, Washington, who has specialized in brain function and focus issues for nearly 40 years, your ability to pay attention is like a muscle we all have. Although our culture doesn’t give us many opportunities to build that muscle, he said, with practice, you can strengthen it.
Read on to learn research-based techniques you can practice to improve your attention muscle so you can appreciate every moment of the holiday season on a deeper level.
To get a baseline understanding of your current ability to attend to the present moment, you can use the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. Widely used by mental health professionals, this is developed by clinical psychologist Richard Ryan and quantitative psychologist Kirk Brown. Ryan is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rochester, and Brown is a faculty member in the psychology department at Carnegie Mellon University.
The assessment was a simple 15-item questionnaire. You rate each question from one to six, and it measures your frequency of attention and awareness related to the presence of events and experiences. A higher score shows better attention, while a lower score shows room for improvement.
Once you’ve worked on building your attention using the strategies below, you can take the questionnaire again and see how your efforts are reflected in the score.
When practicing any kind of attention training, Brown says the key tool is redirection. When trying to focus, you’ll be distracted and that’s OK, she says. Your mind may wander 50 times but as long as you redirect it 51, you will come out of the experience with slightly stronger muscles.
Try the following four ways to build your attention.
Mindfulness meditation practices have many benefits, research has shown, including improving attention. Even if you don’t know how to meditate or don’t think you have the time, it can still benefit you by practicing it in short, consistent increments.
A February 2020 study with participants who had never meditated before found that just 10 minutes per day of focused attention meditation for eight weeks showed dramatic improvements in attention performance and corresponding brain changes on an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which measures the brain’s electrical activity.
Your breath is always happening in real time so it serves as the perfect anchor to the present moment. As a mind-body coach, I use breathing techniques all the time to help clients restore their connection to the here and now. There are a variety of effective and deep breathing exercises you can use, but you can easily start with a moment of simply following the path of your breath in and out of your body.
Tune into your body
The mind-body modalities of yoga and tai chi allow you to practice focusing your attention on the intentional movements and associated sensations in your body. Another very accessible technique is progressive muscle relaxation, where you focus your attention on one part of your body at a time, contracting and relaxing your muscles.
The seemingly mundane moments of everyday life offer many opportunities to practice presence. Whether you’re standing in the shower, folding laundry or sitting in traffic, try to focus on everything you can observe with your senses about your current circumstances. What do you see, feel, hear, smell and taste in those moments?
Brown says holiday parties and family gatherings add to the challenge of practicing presence because the unstructured nature of these situations can cause anxiety. You may worry about conversations with rarely seen relatives becoming political or negative. Brown advises taking these experiences with a simple approach: Ask others about themselves.
Approach the conversations like an anthropologist trying to see what you can really learn about the people you’re interested in, he said. This way, you create a structure that will make you feel more relaxed because you are more confident that you are setting the direction for the conversation.
To foster deeper connections, Brown suggests using a motivational interviewing technique that focuses on asking people why and how questions that probe the motivation behind their actions and interests. For example, you might ask someone why they chose a particular career, place of residence or hobby. This style of questioning allows you to get less on the surface a little, he said.
He also recommends keeping your phone out of sight when interacting with others to avoid dividing your attention and sending a message to those around you that you’re not fully present.
As Brown mentioned, your mind wanders from time to time. Treat yourself with kindness as you try to redirect and restore your connection to the present and, in turn, restore your sense of calm. Practicing presence is not only a gift to those around you but also a boon for your own mental health, research shows.
In situations where you find it difficult to focus and/or manage your anxiety, proactively step aside and take a moment to breathe. During the holidays, give yourself a chance to savor all the experiences the season has to offer. Allow yourself to savor seasonal foods while using your mindfulness skills to carefully take in all the tastes, smells and textures. Take a moment to listen to holiday music with attentiveness to every word, every instrument and every note.
The level of attention you give to your life in each moment creates your experience and perspective. Being truly present allows you to show full awareness that your attention in that moment is the best gift you can give yourself and others.
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