Most of us have heard about mindfulness, the popular method for controlling stress, anxiety and a host of other ills, but how many of us have tried it and found “it doesn’t work”? The thing is, learning mindfulness, really learning it so that it integrates with your life and helps you cope with life’s ups and downs, takes a long time. Lots of practice of formal techniques like sitting meditation is needed before everyday mindfulness becomes part of our lives. And meditation is hard! Those feelings of boredom, frustration and wandering thoughts are real (it’s just that noticing them and bringing the awareness back is part of the practice, hell, it IS the practice!)
So what if there was a way to get some of the benefits of mindfulness without all the hard work and time commitment? Well that’s where mini-mindfulness techniques come in. Read on for some quick tricks that you can learn today and might just make a difference to your stress levels this week.
One of the aims of mindfulness is to focus our attention where we want it, rather than having it wander around all over the place, picking up things we don’t want it to, like an errant toddler. In mindfulness meditation, we often focus on the breath – after all, it’s something we have with us all the time, so no special equipment is needed. The 7-11 is a quick way of focusing on the breath, using counting to hold our attention so we don’t have to! Simply count to 7 as you breathe in and to 11 as you breathe out – that’s it! It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you count… you can even speed up the counting if you run out of breath – no-one’s checking! Try it now for a few breaths…. We’re not trying to do some kind of deep yogic breathing here, but somehow, magically, our breathing seems to slow down, our heart rate decreases, our busy thoughts get quieter and we begin to feel calmer. This is a great technique to use just before going into an exam; my students often say, “I just did a few 7-11s and I felt ok”.
This is something that you can do as an instant, emergency practice (I’ve used it may times with students in meltdown situations) or as a slightly longer, extended practice that is a brilliant way to get focused at the start of an exam.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know that being told to take deep breaths can be really unhelpful and even infuriating! The last thing you want is to focus on breathing when you’re struggling to do it at all and feeling like you might die of suffocation. So in this practice, we focus on the other end of the body: the feet. All you do is put your attention into your feet, without looking at them, just feeling their contact with the floor, how they feel in your shoes etc. Things you might notice are the points of contact with the ground – is there more weight on the heels or toes, or on the inside or outside of the foot? Are there points of pressure from your shoes? Do your feet feel hot or cold? Even noticing pain here can be a useful part of the practice and shows good awareness. If you don’t feel anything at all, don’t worry, just try again another time. Closing your eyes can help too, and remembering to bring the attention back to the feet when (not if!) it starts to wander. The idea of grounding ourselves is to lower that busy, head energy, literally bringing it down to ground level. Like the 7-11, it helps us quieten our busy mind, slow our breathing and begin to feel calm.
Extending the practice
For more grounding, you can try narrowing the focus, like a spotlight, to pay attention to each individual toe (it can be pretty challenging trying to get a feel for the ones in the middle!) then drawing your attention up through the ankles and legs, focusing on a small area at a time. Finally, if you’re sitting down, bringing your attention to the feel of the chair underneath your body: does it feel hard or soft, warm or cold? Which parts of the body are in direct contact with the chair? Try not to judge (comfort levels, for example) just notice the physical attributes and how that feels in your body. Can you then extend your focus (think of widening a beam of light) to become aware of the whole of the lower half of the body, sitting there, breathing? This is what the Mindfulness in Schools Project calls a FOFBOC: Feet On Floor, Bum On Chair.
I love to do this one when I sit down to start work. It is a great way to let go of whatever I’ve been thinking about and get focused on what I need to do next. Imagine how it could work in the exam hall too: that frustrating time when you’re just sitting there, waiting for the exam to start, with that tantalising paper in front of you but you’re not allowed to open it yet, stress levels building by the moment! Doing a grounding exercise or FOFBOC would be a great use of those minutes and would almost certainly help you get started much more productively when the time comes.
I’m in the process of recording some guided mini-meditations, starting with this one, so look out for updates about where you can find them. Many people find it easier to practise with a friendly guiding voice, so that is what I aim to provide! I am an MiSP certified .b (dot-be) teacher, trained to teach mindfulness to 11-18 year olds, so I can offer group and individual sessions across the UK. If you’d like to learn more about how young people can use mindfulness to get focused and manage stress levels, get in touch.
I believe that education should help not harm, but this can only happen if we learn to help ourselves too. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man who brought mindfulness to Western science, says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”.
Lucy Aditi is on a mission to help young people thrive in their education and take control of their future. As The Life Tutor, she brings 20 years’ experience to her coaching and wellbeing strategies, guiding teens and their parents through challenging times and empowering them to grow together.