‘Burn Out’ – When life gets in the way
My own personal experience of ‘burn out’ led me to deeply reflect on self-care and I’d like to share it with you.
We all know how hard it can be to focus on ourselves when work, family, commitments and responsibilities demand our attention.
With so many competing demands for our time and energy, there’s little left over for us. Our needs are sidelined; our wants maybe ignored while we’re often too busy looking after others.
When our wellbeing becomes an afterthought, it impacts on our health, we feel weary physically and mentally and eventually we burn out.
When this happened to me I faced my inner demons, my inner child and my irrational and cognitive distortions. I recognised that I needed to change my life style and literally come to my senses. So I learnt about mindfulness and created my own personal form of brief mindfulness I call ‘senseful moments’.
Mindfulness and Senseful Moments
Mindfulness is most effective when it’s woven into the fabric of our lives.
Mindfulness is about being aware of our thoughts without judging, acknowledging our surroundings, our emotions and how we feel physically.
It’s a powerful perceptual skill that can help us get through stressful situations and let go of daily anxiety.
Planting the seeds of mindfulness was the greatest gift I could give my ‘self’ and for that matter others too. I knew that I couldn’t look after others if I’m not first looking after myself.
However, what I really needed was mindfulness practice that I could carry around with me, anywhere and anytime that I had a moment to pause, using it as a grounding tool whenever I needed it.
I found that rather than having a 20-30-minute mindfulness session, just taking a few moments to pause, and liberally sprinkling those senseful moments throughout my day was the perfect solution.
“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little” – by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic & the Center for Mindfulness, in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, USA.
Pausing for a Senseful Moment
Pausing for a senseful moment is like stepping off a moving train for a few moments and then jumping right back on again.
The path to developing this type of momentary and refined ‘listening’ or ‘intuitive sensing’ is to first develop your ability to attend closely to the everyday information coming in through your everyday senses.
There are many ways to have a senseful moment through sensory activities and sensory experiences.
The Benefits of Sensory Activities
The benefits of sensory experience are well documented.
Our emotions and senses are tightly intertwined. Our different senses relate to our emotions, psychologically and neurologically. If something looks or sounds or smells or tastes or feels nice, then we feel calm or happy.
Thomson et. al (2010) defines this as a “conceptual association.” In other words, what we sense triggers a feeling. Research using functional brain imaging in human subjects has begun to reveal neural substrates by which sensory processing and attention can be modulated by the affective significance of stimuli.
Our 5 Senses: An Anchor to Reconnect to the Present
Self-care and me-time is important even when we don’t feel so stressed or close to exhaustion and this can be achieved through getting in touch with our five senses.
We use our senses to explore the world around us, but these senses do more than just identify the world we live in, they play an integral role in our emotional processing, learning and interpretation.
Sensory activities can be anything that involves the sense of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch.
If you are new to creating your own senseful moments, you could begin with just one sense. Choose a sense and spend a few minutes meditating on it and see how you feel.
You can try adding more senses one at a time. You can also pick your own sequence of the 5 senses, depending on what you feel like trying.
Sensory Activities for Senseful Moments
This exercise involves isolating one sense at a time and paying attention to whatever comes into your awareness through that sense. Throughout this exercise, remember that the idea is not to be able to detect or label but rather, to be present to whatever sensation there is in the present moment. Certain senses would be more obvious, others might be more neutral, depending on what your present circumstances are, and that’s okay.
Here are some examples of what that might look like during activities involving some of the different senses.
Senseful Exercises and Activities
This exercise will help you get in touch with your senses. You can spend as much or as little time in each sense as you wish.
If you only have 5 minutes, you can simply focus on one sense.
If you’re working through your senses, it is important that you don’t move too quickly to the next sense.
Spending 3-4 minutes with each sense is a good way to begin.
Don’t worry about the timing being exact. When you get an internal sense that a few minutes have passed, you can move on to the next sense.
You could begin your own exercise by taking a few deep, slow breaths. We can work on one sense only or work through the senses as shown below.
1) Vision 2) Sound 3) Taste 4) Smell 5) Touch
Start with any one sense; for example, you could bring your awareness to your sense of vision.
Focus on any one object or view that you see around you. Try to simply look at it without describing or labeling it.
Try to keep your mind silent. Gently hush it if you notice it describing or wandering into thoughts. Your only goal is to use your eyes.
Notice the way you feel and how you bring attention inward and away from distracting thoughts of other situations and objects.
By focusing our attention on something so particular, we are able to calm our body to a slow steady speed.
Notice whatever catches your visual attention. It could be sensations of color, brightness, shape, form, etc.
You could even try this with your eyes closed. With your eyes closed you may probably sense some light. Be aware of it.
There might be sensations of colour, or light or dark shades. There might even be sensations of shapes or contours. Try not to get caught up in any commentary or analysis of what you see. Instead, simply rest your awareness upon your experience of vision for a few minutes.
After a few minutes, gently shift your attention from your vision to your hearing.
Listen to a particular sound you enjoy listening to, a calming or exciting sound.
We rarely pay attention to everything we hear. Instead of using selective hearing and only focusing on one sound, close your eyes.
Slow your breathing to a rested pace and listen. soften your ears and allow yourself to absorb all of the sounds around you.
Acknowledge the existence of sound, no descriptions and no judgments or wandering into thought, simply hear.
Perhaps you will be aware of more sounds than usual.
You might notice the unique quality of different sounds. Bring attention to sounds from within your body.
Bathe yourself in all of the sounds that surround you, even the sound of silence!
Once you have spent a few minutes with your hearing, gently move your attention to your sense of taste.
Food, drink and flavours can be linked to powerful memories and emotions due to the chemical receptors in our mouth and can transport us through time.
If you are eating or drinking, really focus on the taste. Is it bitter or sweet, salty or spicy?
Being senseful when tasting is so important and will help you to slow down and will also aid your digestion.
It could even be a neutral taste. It doesn’t matter what the sensation is.
Simply rest your awareness of whatever it is that you sense, even if it is a neutral one.
If you notice after some time that you begin to describe and analyse the taste, or that you are thinking about the taste, gently come back to simply sensing it, for whatever it is. Stay in that mindful moment!
When it is time to experience your fourth sense, isolate your sense of smell, and bring your awareness to it.
Smell is one of the most primitive senses we have and such a gift. The olofactory bulbs have a unique position relative to our brain and the other sensory nerves and deeply connected to our midbrains.
Our noses are packed full of odour receptors – each with an uncanny ability to precisely detect many different combinations of smells.
Inhale deeply and become aware of any smells, but smell them in isolation.
Once again, notice the way something smells and perhaps how the smell changes, if at all.
You might smell something specific, or something more neutral.
It doesn’t matter what you smell, as long as you stay open to, and aware of your experience. If no smell comes into awareness, you can even be with your breath.
Once again, do not get caught up in a mental labelling game, simply inhale, smell the smells, allow them to be what they are, chemical signals reaching your olfactory system.
Lastly, let your attention shift to your sense of touch.
Pay attention to whatever sense of contact or touch comes into your awareness and stay with those sensations.
You can close your eyes, flex your fingers and notice the sensations. Feel what is beneath your fingers. Rub, touch and feel, and if you have your eyes closed, resist the urge to describe, or look, simply touch.
Holding and playing with something can be relaxing.
You might be aware of the different surfaces that you are in contact with, the shape and texture, its roughness or smoothness, its hardness or softness.
Self-Care through Senseful Moments
Grounding yourself to these sensual, earthly experiences will allow you to relish in the present. The residual effects on your mind and your body are highly beneficial. You don’t always need a meditation pillow and a mantra to practice mindfulness. Simply allow your body to receive and delight in all the wonderful gifts that surround you in each moment, by tuning into your senses.
Learning to be more finely tuned to your five senses may not only make you more self aware, it may develop your intuitive insights too!
This blog is a reminder to all of us to take time out for self-care.
Thomson et al (2010). Linking sensory characteristics to emotions: An example using dark chocolate. Food Quality and Preference, (21), pp. 1117-1125.