For everyone Making the world slow down

Mindful or mind-full? (Image: iStock)

I was queuing outside a bakery recently, idly listening to two women, friends, chatting in front of me. One, who worked in education, spoke in a near monotone. “I’m running on adrenaline,” she said. She was holding onto the thought of the semester break and to just hibernating for a while. “One more week,” her friend said. But she was convinced she’d be sick by then: “A teacher’s body always knows when to shut down.”

Being an educator is one of the most stressful jobs there is, and that stress has flow-on health effects. Anxiety and alcoholism among teachers in Australia, for instance, is up to three times greater than the population’s average.

Who hasn’t experienced the ghastly heart thump, shallow breathing, heightened energy and jitteriness of an adrenaline rush when our fight-or-flight response has been triggered? It could be starting a new role or job, the pressure of overwhelming deadlines, or of facing a notoriously difficult class. For others, me included, it may be public speaking. My throat tightens and my heart races.

As unsettling as the occasional adrenaline rush can be, it’s not bad for you in isolation. The problem is when stress is constant. Stress hormones disrupt most of your body’s processes, and their constant presence in your body can lead to a raft of health issues – anxiety and depression, heart disease and sleep problems among them. In a cruel twist, the very things you need to be working well when you have a lot to do – your concentration and memory – might be affected too.

The idea is to be in the present, so that your worries about past and future recede. If stressful thoughts and feelings appear, that’s OK: try to observe them without judgement and then let them go

Since different things cause us stress (one person’s pile of marking is another person’s public-speaking event) it’s not surprising that different things reduce that stress. Doctors commonly recommend practising mindfulness – an activity (and, more recently, a therapy) that’s been around for at least 2,500 years. That’s because studies show it works, reducing the effects of stress on your mind and body.

One common mindfulness activity is to find a quiet place, sit and calmly focus on your senses or on your breathing, without analysing them. Start with a short session – no more than five or ten minutes. The idea is to be in the present, so that your worries about past and future recede. If stressful thoughts and feelings appear, that’s OK: try to observe them without judgement and then let them go.

These approaches are not for everyone. Indeed, for me, thinking about my breathing is a recipe for hyperventilation. The aim is to find a practice that suits you. Yoga, a regular run, or even a spot of doodling or colouring-in are other ways of practising mindfulness. Or, in winter, there’s nothing like quietly watching an open fire.

It’s easy to feel as if we haven’t got a minute to take on one thing more – but even a five or ten-minute relaxation session can make a big difference

I know that I need a daily walk and time to potter around the garden after work, weeding or deadheading flowers, to stay calm. Somehow, they put life into perspective, and when I return to my desk I work more efficiently.

Recently, in the grounds of a university, I saw a stand with a wooden puzzle on it and the word ‘mindfulness’ posted above. A person striding along stopped suddenly and began moving the pieces around. His shoulders settled. From a distance, I could almost feel his mind calm and his breathing slow down. There, just like that, it happens… past and future recede for a while and there is peace.

Those working in education face a multitude of professional and emotional challenges. Mindfulness can’t solve these, but it can help us tackle them with a calmer body and a clearer mind. It’s easy to feel as if we haven’t got a minute to take on one thing more – but even a five or ten-minute relaxation session can make a big difference to how we cope with the day.

Find a regular practice that works for you; it can be the simplest thing. I keep thinking of the teacher in that bakery queue – the moment when the sun broke through and she held her face up to the light. I did too – and, for that moment, it was all I was thinking about.

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