Ask Paul: Mindfulness exercises help with positive mental health
September 20, 2017
RENO, Nev. — Client: "I can't focus. My mind is always racing. I have lots of random thoughts, especially before I try to sleep."
Me: "Are they negative thoughts?"
Me: "Do you hear voices or see things?"
Me: "How do you think I can I help you?"
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Client: "I just want my mind to calm down. Can you help me get control of my brain?"
Me: "OK, let's experiment with some mindfulness exercises and see if they work. If not, we can try some other options."
I like mindfulness exercises because they give a person the chance to be present (stop and smell the roses). You can do these exercises any time, they can be very effective, they're free and can even be fun.
The idea is to slow down your thought process or, more accurately, to focus on being present. Your brain is an incredible and fascinating creation. Your elders recognize the impact that your brain and emotions have over how your body feels.
For example, think about how your body feels when you can't focus or you have monkey brain (random and fast thoughts), especially before going to bed. Now think about how you feel when you are celebrating with your family, at a sweat or a Pow Wow. See the difference? So, let's try to think about our thoughts and slow them down.
Try this; think about your tongue for a moment. Think about all the stuff that your tongue does — it tastes, helps swallow, and allows us to talk. When was the last time you thought this muscle in your head was tired?
Now relax your tongue. I know it sounds weird, but try it. Notice, by relaxing your tongue you just relaxed your ears, neck, throat, jaw and everything that is connected to your tongue. Maybe your tongue was tired.
Either way, by relaxing your tongue, you just told your body that you are ready to relax. This is a trained response because people usually only relax their tongues when they are about to sleep.
Now, breathe in through your nose deeply for a count of 4, and breathe out through your mouth for a count of 4. Imagine you are breathing in the color blue — think cool — and say to yourself, "breathing in blue — cool."
Now breathe out through your mouth. Imagine breathing out the color red — hot. Say to yourself, "breathing out red — hot." Imagine these colors being breathed in and out of your whole body, and the feelings that they represent.
Now, sit down with your feet flat on the floor and continue the breathing exercise. Imagine you are just a sitting skeleton with lungs. No skin, internal organs, etc. — just a skeleton and lungs.
Imagine all of your bones in your skeleton and scan your body from your feet to your head. Start by imagining all of the bones in your feet. Notice your ankle bones, go up your legs to your knee caps, then thighs, then hips, and then imagine your spine.
Are you slouching? Sit up straight. Your spine is balancing your head (an adult head weighs an averaging of 10 pounds). Your spine is strongest when its vertebrae are stacked on top of one another and not curved over to support that 10-pound head.
Now take a deep breath and see how good that feels to get a full breath when you are sitting up straight! Now you are filling up those pink, healthy lungs and breathing like your body wants and needs you to breathe to receive its oxygen and fill up your lung capacity.
While you are doing this exercise, notice that you have been distracted by concentrating on how your body feels and not other issues or problems (monkey brain). This is a healthy distraction. Your mind allowed your body to feel healthy and not stressed with all of the day's activities.
This healthy distraction is the basis of mindfulness. You are training your body how to relax. Once your body becomes accustomed to feeling good and relaxed it will actually start to request these mindfulness exercises to return to feeling good.
It's your job to recognize these messages from your body and slow down, breathe and become present for the moment when you get all stressed out. Like everything, this takes practice. So, practice, practice, practice!
In researching this topic, I asked our Behavioral Health Department Manager, Veronica Domingues-Gephart, what her favorite mindfulness tools were.
Here’s her response: "What I like to recommend to clients is to try to visualize what they would like to see themselves do (visualize saying no to drugs or alcohol, visualize grabbing a soda/water instead, visualize hugging someone or saying something nice, etc.) rather than what they don't want to do (using alcohol or substances, yelling, fighting, sitting on the couch, playing videos). Also, picturing themselves next to a lake, creek, woods, and using their senses of smell, touch, sound, sight, taste … listening to the drum, voice/song, crackle of a fire, etc."
Just the tone of Veronica's message makes me want to relax. Also, this leads us into another type of exercise, called visualization. When people use visualization, they are using their creativity to visualize a scenario or outcome that would be optimal in their life, and in doing so, enthusiastically project a great experience.
This makes the body and mind feel really good. Also, it helps the person focus on one particular thought and keeps monkey brain at bay.
Here's something to consider. Your brain has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. WOW! The idea is to not have a bunch of emotional random thoughts take over and leave you feeling like you have no control. Visualization can help this mental state, by bringing back your control over your thoughts.
Try this visualization technique: Imagine you are 5 years older. Imagine how you look. Imagine where you are working and where you live and all your accomplishments. Imagine what your family and friends look like.
Imagine your whole world in 5 years. Because your thoughts make you feel and act a certain way, and these behaviors make you who you are, and you have control over your thoughts and behaviors, you can change your thoughts and behaviors to get the life you want. So, you start with your imagination and think about what your life will look like after time has passed.
In 5 years, are you stronger, healthier, more loved and helping your family and community like a true warrior? If this is your goal, give yourself advice. Does the older you approve of the life you are leading now? What does the older you say to you? Follow the older you's advice and move towards the life you deserve!
Here's another one. Imagine you are the star of your life movie and you are also watching yourself as part of the audience. How do you look, how are you behaving? Are your actions consistent with your core beliefs and values? Do you like what you see? If not, do you want to change? You're the Star in this movie following your own script — so rewrite your script!
If you would like to explore life changing strategies but don't know where to start, just contact me on my confidential phone line any time at 775-329- 5162, ext. 1962, and we can set up an appointment to get you going where you want to go!
"Ask Paul" is a health column by Paul Snyder, MA, LADC-S, a Substance Use Counselor at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center. It publishes each month in The Camp News, the monthly newsletter for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony community. Have a question for Paul? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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