10 Weeks to Wellbeing: Week 3 – Health
[First published in my Irish Sunday Mirror wellbeing column, 28th Sep ’14.]
“Your health is your wealth”, as the saying goes. As with financial wealth, we all have differing amounts, and differing habits and strategies that help or hinder our wealth production. Whatever your starting place, whatever abilities or disabilities, medical conditions and challenging situations you manage in your life, the strategies below should help you improve your mental and physical health.
One of the most effective ways to boost mental and physical health is to build a practice of mindfulness meditation. Requiring no incense, chanting or ‘hippie inclinations’, mindfulness is as simple as paying attention – being mindful – of the present moment: focusing on the breath, or on the task you are presently engaged in, such as walking, eating, or even washing dishes. With mindfulness, you don’t judge or try to change your thoughts; you simply observe them and then return your attention to your breath or the task in hand. You can also try a ‘body scan’; sitting quietly and directing your attention through different parts of your body, noticing any feeling there, accepting it, and moving on. It’s as simple – and powerful – as that. If you’d like to hear more from a master of mindfulness, you can watch a recording of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s masterclass for Google employees on this Soul Ambition YouTube channel playlist.
Commit yourself to your practice, keep an open mind and accept the present moment, returning to the present moment when the mind wanders. A growing body of neuroscientific research has shown the benefits of mindfulness in reducing stress, pain and illness, using brain-imaging techniques to show how different areas of the brain are activated during mindfulness mediation and even how the brain changes over time with practice – in as little as eight weeks¹. (See recommending reading below.)
Optimism v Pessimism
Whilst both optimism and pessimism are useful, optimism has been proved to improve physical health. Optimists believe that causes of setbacks in their lives are temporary, changeable and local, pessimists believe they are permanent, unchangeable and global. You can learn to be more optimistic first by noticing your pessimistic stories – ‘This always happens to me’ (permanent), ‘It’s never going to change’ (unchangeable), ‘Everything’s ruined’ (universal) – and then challenging those stories. Ask yourself: am I certain that’s true? Is it only partly true? Is it only temporarily true? Is it even true at all?
Vision, Goals & Strategies
When trying to improve your health, you need to start with a clear vision of both where you are now, and where you’re trying to get to. Start by noting and accepting where you are right now. Feeling angry, critical or depressed about your current state of health will limit your ability to take inspired action. Take an objective look at your current health and fitness (perhaps with professional input) and create a positive vision of yourself thriving physically and mentally. See yourself in your mind’s eye enjoying more energy; better sleep; weight loss or gain. What goals do you need to get there? How are you going to achieve them?
- Start a health diary, recording exercise, food/drink intake, moods, quality of sleep and anything that feels relevant. Humans have a great capacity for self-deception; keeping an honest diary helps us stay objective and focused. It also helps us spot important links and patterns
- Educate yourself about the areas you want to improve. Seek professional advice if necessary, and set inspired goals, thinking about what you’re trying to achieve, how you’ll do it, when and with whom
- Begin mindfulness meditation. I use an app called Mindfulness; you can also find videos via soulambition.com/tv/ and I highly recommend Full Catastrophe Living* by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Pay attention to your language and stories; make them more optimistic using the guidance above
- Observe and change your language and body language to focus on health, strength and vitality
- Keep a gratitude diary: list three things every day that you’re grateful for
Next week: Hobbies & Learning.
¹Massachusetts General Hospital. (2011, January 21). Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in eight weeks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110121144007.htm
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