Cultivate Mindfulness | Self-care Series #2

Today marks the second installment of the holiday self-care series, and we’ll be exploring self-care for your mind. You can read part 1 here, which covers caring for your body.

What is the mind?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the mind is the element that enables a person “to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.”

Often, we think about our mind residing in our brain. But according to board-certified physician Dr. William B. Salt II,  “the intelligence of your mind permeates every cell of your body, not just brain cells.”

Our conscious mind contains all the thoughts, emotions, decisions, and memories that we are aware of.  You used your conscious mind when you decided to click on this blog post and read it. 🙂

Our unconscious mind, also known as the subconscious, controls the mental and physical internal processes that we are not aware of. When you wanted to scroll down to read more of this blog post, your brain sent a signal to your thumb to swipe down the phone screen. Which neurons did your brain fire and which muscles did it manipulate to activate the scrolling action in your thumb? You don’t know that consciously. But your unconscious mind does.

Our minds are incredibly powerful and constantly working.

Right this second, your mind is translating stimuli from your senses, processing that information, and utilizing this information to make decisions. Some of these decisions you are aware of. Some of them, you are not.

Forest Stairway, Photography by Kim Wheeler

If your body were a ship, the conscious mind would be the captain surveying the seas and shouting out orders to guide the ship. The subconscious mind would be the crew taking orders and physically steering the ship.

Most of the time, our minds do a terrific job at guiding us through life.

But from time to time, we experience terribly counterproductive thoughts; make self-sabotaging decisions; or, replay toxic memories on a loop.

Zombie Leaf, Photography by Kim Wheeler

We use mental energy for virtually everything so it’s no surprise that our minds need a reset and refresh now and again. If your mind were a computer, mental self-care is a successful software update and reboot.

To me, mental self-care means three things:

  • Noticing the thoughts that occupy your mind

  • Giving your mind a break from constant motion, and

  • Cultivating a productive mindset.

Below are 4 simple ways that you can practice mental self-care this holiday season. If you’re a subscriber, you will have received a worksheet to help you plan a mental self-care routine in your inbox. If not, you can sign up for blog updates. Once you confirm your subscription, you’ll receive access to it.

1. Meditate

Berries in foreground, Photography by Kim Wheeler

Meditation is a workout for your mind, just as exercise is a workout for your body. Meditation trains your mind to be responsive not reactive. It alleviates stress, slows down the aging process (!!), teaches you to self-soothe, anchors you into the present, relieves insomnia, promotes emotional health, and reduces anxiety. This isn’t even a comprehensive list – there are a myriad of scientifically researched benefits that meditation provides.

Want to have a healthy mind? Make meditation a regular practice! Start with just two minutes a day. Instead of scrolling through your Instagram or LinkedIn feed when you’re bored, put your phone on airplane mode, set a 2-minute timer, and meditate.

Meditating can be as simple or as extravagant as you’d like. You can do it sitting next to your Christmas tree by the fireplace or in your car in the driveway after your post-work commute.

I usually sit on a comfortable chair or upright on my bed, with my back resting against a pillow. I set my iPhone timer to 2 minutes, and I close my eyes. I breathe in and out deeply, and connect with the present moment. I don’t “empty my mind” of thoughts; instead, I strive to be in the present moment. I listen to my heater blowing hot air, the dry leaves of the tree in my backyard rustling in the wintry wind, my neighbor’s car pulling in the drive, silver bells jingling faintly in the distance. I observe when thoughts arise in my mind, and I let them go. I try not to hold onto these thoughts, or wrestle with them, or judge them. I don’t always succeed, and that’s okay. Meditation is a practice.

This helpful New York Times article gives you an in-depth step-by-step process of how to meditate.

The most important part of meditating is to start. Start today!

2. Practice daily gratitude

Sunny forest, orange glow, Photography by Kim Wheeler

If you celebrated Thanksgiving last week, you probably gathered with family to reflect on your blessings, give thanks, and share a delicious meal.

However, giving thanks doesn’t have to end with Thanksgiving. Gratitude is like magic. When you start to look around at your life and counting blessings, you will always find more and more things to be grateful for!

It’s easy to focus on the things we don’t like about our life. It can become a daily mantra running in the back of our minds – “I’m so fat. The metro is always so crowded in the mornings. I have too many bills to pay. The internet at work is so slow.”

These dark thoughts can become a pessimistic program continually running in the back of our mind, like a sinister virus lurking on a computer. This cyclical gloomy train of thought does not promote mental health.

In contrast, cultivating a grateful state of mind is strongly linked with greater happiness. According to a Harvard Health Letter, “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

A gratitude mindset decreases stress and improves mental strength. Additionally, being thankful for your body encourages you to exercise more, see your doctor more frequently, and look after your physical wellbeing overall.

Some ways to practice gratitude…

Start a gratitude journal! Every morning, write down 5 things you’re grateful for and why. A journal is a great gift to put on your holiday wishlist. I write in my gratitude journal first thing when I wake up in the morning. If I’m in a rush, I’ll write just one thing that I’m grateful for. Better something than nothing.

Look at photos from your favorite vacation. Recall the positive emotions you had on that trip, and experience those feelings again. Feel grateful for having the opportunity to have that vacation. Resist the urge to follow up this exercise with counterproductive thoughts (e.g., “If only I could be on vacation right now”) – these thoughts will neutralize the positive benefits of your gratitude practice.

Get a large mason jar and a pack of small index cards. Every night, write on the index card one thing you love about yourself. Put it in the mason jar. As time goes by, the mason jar will become filled with positive notecards about yourself. Whenever you pass your jar, you will feel a swell of happy emotions…which in turn will motivate you to write more great things about yourself that you love! 🙂 This practice has the added benefit of helping you to appreciate other people’s achievements posted on social media without feeling the need to compare yourself against them.

3. Feed your mind healthy stimuli 

Yellow tree, Photography by Kim Wheeler

The Internet is a gift, and it can be used to feed your mind junk stimuli or healthy stimuli.

It’s easy to zone out of the real world and immerse ourselves in the online universe. Bored in a meeting? Check out what Christmas gifts your favorite celebrity is buying for her kids on Instagram. Sitting in traffic on the bus? Play a game of Toon Blast. Waiting in the doctor’s office? Time to scroll through Pinterest and look at Chanukah decoration ideas (that you may or may not attempt).

I call it Internet escapism. We can use social media to self-soothe, entertain, pacify us when we’re bored, and hop on an emotional rollercoaster for an addictive jolt of drama (your ex has a new girlfriend?! Time to stalk her Facebook page and inwardly mock all her photos).

It’s vital that we take stock of how we’re using our smart devices and set aside time to stimulate our mind in healthy ways.

That could mean listening to a podcast that briefs the news (my favorite is It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders) or one that explores financial advice (The Wall Street Journal’s Secrets of Wealthy Women is a good one). Maybe it means buying an online course or investing in a Lynda membership to learn a new skill.

Our minds want to be elastic, active, and continue to learn new things. It’s our job to keep them sharp and know when to stop looking at cute cat memes long enough to read an NPR article or two 😉

Also, bonus points for cutting back on the amount of digital stimuli that your mind processes. Our brain needs downtime from digital devices. As a millennial typing this blog post on a laptop and researching the sources using the Internet, I know how difficult that can be. I am constantly connected to either my iPhone or my laptop.

Flower pressing

Taking a break from screens gives our brains a chance to process what has been learned throughout the day, come up with unique ideas, and file away any relevant information that you need for later.

4. Let the professionals handle what they need to handle

Just as with self-care for your body, there are some mental health issues you cannot handle on your own. Everyone has a story. Some of us battle inner demons, while others experience abuse at the hands of people in their lives. It takes courage to seek out a licensed mental health professional. I speak from experience when I tell you that working with a therapist is invaluable.

It is a sign of strength to ask for help.

If you feel like you haven’t fully healed from a certain situation – a loss of a loved one, a divorce, a currently abusive relationship – talking with a psychologist will help you to work through these challenges and make progress towards your goals, whatever they may be. Ignoring your problems will only hold you back.

Here are a few great resources for finding licensed mental health professionals in the United States:

If you don’t vibe with the first therapist you meet with, you aren’t stuck with him or her. You are free to explore other options until you connect with a therapist that you feel comfortable with talking to.

Your therapist will usually give you homework to do outside of your sessions. She may ask you to write a list of your goals; tell you to write a letter to yourself with advice from the point of view of your best friend (or enemy); or, task you with personifying your inner negative voice, giving it a name and a list of hobbies. All of these activities may seem silly, but they’re incredibly useful and get you thinking “outside your head” to see your world from a fresh, untouched perspective. It pulls you out of the overly self-conscious, neurotic mindset and into a new present.

If you leave this blog post learning only one thing, make it this: be kind to your mind.

Next week is the final installment of the holiday self-care series, and we will close with self-care for your spirit. This encompasses your emotional wellbeing.

Take care, everyone.

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