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Resources & Self-Help

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Introduction to Mindfulness & Relaxation

Your college experience should feel challenging and invigorating. It is a time in life to discover your vocation, refine your skills, and make the most of new opportunities. If that sounds like a lot, it is. Being a university student can be stressful--learners must set priorities, maintain schedules, and stay ahead of competing deadlines. However, if constant stress has you feeling drained, and your focus has become a blur of frenzied activity, you may want to reconsider your approach to your work.

Learning how to relax and be mindful of your process can help you to take charge of your schedule. If "relax" seems incompatible with the way you're feeling, you can learn to develop these important skills through the information and resources below. Although learning these skills is not a replacement for talking with a mental health professional when needed, developing your ability to relax and get perspective on your situation can help.

Getting Started

Learning to relax and be mindful starts with stopping. Even 5 minutes can make you feel less rushed and more planned. Relaxing is physical and mental; it engages your body's natural restorative system.

Posture

The general idea is to position your body in a way that feels comfortable, open, supported and awake.

  1. Sit in a comfortable and supportive chair with your feet flat on the floor and your arms uncrossed.
  2. Support your arms on the arms of the chair and let your shoulders relax.
  3. Gently straighten your back and let the chair support you.
  4. Tip your chin up so it is parallel with the floor and imagine that your head is floating lightly, like a balloon.
  5. Feel your body being completely supported by the chair and floor. Allow the chair to hold you. Reposition yourself as necessary to be comfortable.

Breathing

Breathing is central to relaxation, mindful experience, and life. Your breath is at times a rhythm, a release, and a refreshing--like ocean waves, a sigh of relief, or a cool breeze on a hot summer day. When you practice breath awareness, let it develop naturally, comfortably, and with an even pace.

  1. As you are sitting, begin to notice the way you are breathing. This becomes a way to center your attention. Inhale, and exhale. You may notice yourself taking a deeper breath or sighing. Just notice.
  2. It can help to focus on each part of a breath: the inhale, exhale, and pause between each. Inhale for [a few] seconds and then exhaling [for a few more] seconds. Notice each breath.
  3. Begin to draw each breath with your diaphragm. Let your belly expand. Feel the air fill and refresh you.
  4. Notice that you are building a rhythm and a foundation for your body to be relaxed and your mind focused.

Mindfulness

Drawing of a 'mind full' person with jumbled thoughts and a 'mindful' dog who is just processing the present moment

Mindfulness is intentional attending to the present moment, accepting what you feel and experience with warmth and compassion. When your thoughts, emotions, and physical senses attune to the present--aware of the activity and yourself--you can freely engage a task without being consumed in the work. Mindfulness is effective in stress reduction and has been used in treatment of both physical and mental health symptoms.

Mindful

Mindless

Intentional

Automatic

Directly experiencing

Thinking about...

Curious and accepting

Avoiding

Observing and allowing

Judging and fixing

Focusing on the task

Rushing

Clarifying what you feel

Clouding emotion

How can I learn to be more Mindful?

Beginning mindfulness is relatively easy but it takes practice. As you consider each practical step, remember in these first steps that:

You are not criticizing or judging what you experience;
you are simply observing with compassion.
Developing mindful awareness is a gentle and accepting process. Be kind to yourself. Accept your experience. One way to start may be to sit in a comfortable seat, take a deep breath, and pause.... You can cultivate mindfulness in any posture--lying, sitting, standing, or any situation--eating, texting, walking to class....

Here are some tips to get you started:

Sensory Awareness

It can be easy to ignore how our body is feeling, or how our environment may be affecting us. Sensory awareness allows us to be more fully present in what we're experiencing. Then we can make changes, or simply enjoy. Either way, we are present and active instead of distractedly adrift.

  1. Begin with a breath, and settle yourself for a moment.
  2. What do you feel as you are breathing?
  3. How does your body feel? Do you notice muscle tension (neck, shoulders, stomach, hands, etc.)?
  4. What do you smell?
  5. How is the temperature? Do you feel a breeze?
  6. What do you hear? How is the sound affecting you?
  7. Become fully attuned to the sensations that you feel.

You can access recorded sounds to help you with this (see Resources).

Thought Awareness

What we think about has an effect on us--physically and emotionally. Even so, you are not your thoughts; your thoughts are not you. An important skill is to be able to let thoughts come and go. You can observe them without feeling compelled to act upon them (see diagram below). Thought awareness helps to develop metacognitive skills to step back and evaluate what's going on. Tips to try:

  1. As you are becoming quiet and observant, see that it is OK to be interrupted by your thoughts.
  2. What thought(s) occurs?
  3. What is the attitude of the thought? Is it negative, worried, peaceful, critical, etc?
  4. Let it drift away as you focus on your experience. Planning, worrying...can wait.
  5. Later you might label and rephrase what you learned.

Self as obervant: observing feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and approach to tasks

Nonjudgmental Stance

Attitude shapes emotion and behavior. Intentionally bring compassion and warmth to your experience. Step back and listen uncritically. As you breathe deeply, try:

  1. Imagine curiosity, kindness, and a welcoming view to your experience.
  2. Allow a sense of peace and acceptance; let go of the need to judge.
  3. For now, simply seek the experience of warmth and peace.
  4. See others compassionately; find self-compassion as well.
  5. Let your mind rest.

Related Articles:
Cultivating Mindfulness (mindfulnesscds.com)
Suggestions For Daily Practice (mindfulnesscds.com)
The Mindful Self-Express (Psychology Today)
15 Common Cognitive Distortions (PsychCentral)


Relaxation

People sometimes conflate relaxation with laziness, but relaxation is active. For example, participating in an enjoyable activity can have a more relaxing and lasting effect than sitting around bored. However, it is important to see that rest and relaxation refreshes and restores your creativity and energy when you've been working hard. Learning to relax effectively will support your productivity, physical health, and positive emotions.

Relaxation training teaches you the posture, breathing, thinking, and muscle release to support emotions of safety and rest over those related to life stressors. Relaxation is a learned skill. As you practice, you will be able to recall a more relaxed feeling whenever you need it.

With practice you can relax yourself at any moment. Here are some basic tips to get you started:

Visualization

Relaxation through the use of visualization is about shifting your mental imagery. What you imagine affects how you are feeling. Our bodies respond to take action or rest. You can picture yourself in places and ways of being that help you to reduce stress.

  1. Think of a relaxing place that you can picture in detail--a day at the beach, a walk in the woods--real or imagined.
  2. Take a deep breath as you settle into the peaceful scene.
  3. What do you see? Hear? Smell?
  4. Is there a breeze? A warm sun?
  5. Let your body relax and explore with your mind.

Muscle Relaxation

Muscles can't be relaxed and tense at the same time. That may sound obvious, but many people try to “relax” without realizing that their body is tense. Muscle relaxation is about training yourself to feel the difference, and being able to intentionally release tension when needed. Gentle stretching, along with intentional tensing and releasing of energy will prove relaxing. Note that you can use any part of this and still feel the positive effects. For example, in class you can briefly roll your shoulders, tighten up your hands and release, etc.

  1. First, take time to think about all the muscles in your body--your feet, legs, abdomen, back, shoulders, arms, hands, neck, and face.
  2. Start at one end of the body and work your way through these groups. With each muscle group, tense the muscle as firmly as you can for a few seconds, then release the tension and let the muscle relax.
  3. Raise your eyebrows and frown, purse your lips and smile, open your mouth wide and relax your jaw. Feel the muscles rest.
  4. Gently tip your head slowly backwards, feel the tension in the muscles build as they are stretched, tip your head back to upright and breathe. Repeat for each side, and forward.
  5. Raise your shoulders--pinch them up around your ears. Hold for a second or two and notice the tension. Release. Keep releasing. Roll your shoulders. Let them relax and feel the tension drain out.
  6. Tighten your hands and arms--squeeze hard and notice the tension. Release. Shake out your fingers. Repeat. Release. Breathe.
  7. Continue with other areas of your body. As you go through each, really notice the tense feeling and take a few seconds to see how muscles may continue to release tension as you let them remain relaxed.
  8. Imagine each feeling, envision yourself deeply relaxing (this helps with proper posture). As you recognize and practice tension release, through muscle memory you will be able to recall this relaxed feeling at another time.

Setting Priorities

Setting priorities in one's life is a process. There is not a simple singular activity that can sum up your values, aspirations, and important commitments in life. However, if you want to achieve anything you will need to see your priorities. Here are a few suggestions as they relate to managing your stress levels:

  1. Use a calendar. Set times for work and play. You need both. Make sure the time set for working is reasonable for what you want to achieve. Keep in mind that we all can't achieve the same things with the same effort; be reasonable in your assessment.
  2. First things first. Do the most important task first.
  3. Find ways to get the most from your time. This might be studying with a friend, or it might not. Be mindful about what you are doing.
  4. Assess your organization. Sometimes, getting and staying organized is half of the task. At the outset of a semester, a class, or an assignment, get everything you need and plan steps to finish well.
  5. Get some career counseling if you feel unclear about your choice of major. Rather than criticize yourself for constantly playing catch-up in a set of classes you never seem to enjoy, you might step back and reevaluate if the track you've chosen is even right for you.

Related Articles:
Blissing Out: 10 Relaxation Techniques To Reduce Stress On-the-Spot (WebMD)
Relaxation Exercises (University of Mississippi)
Relaxation techniques (Mayo Clinic)


Benefits

Developing your ability to relax and to be mindful can help you to feel more in control during moments of stress. Studies have shown that practicing these techniques can have a wide range of benefits.

  • Health benefits have been found when using mindfulness and relaxation for high blood pressure, pain management, irritable bowel syndrome, and other problems. Health benefits come because the body's “fight or flight” system is modulated. Physically relaxed postures are incompatible with tense, adrenaline fueled and hyper-alert state of mind. By breathing deeply, relaxing your muscles, and envisioning positive imagery you are telling your body's system to “chill out.”
  • Emotional benefits include reducing anxiety, boosting confidence, and relaxing. Through relaxation, you have a tool to manage feelings that come up--even if distressing for a moment--and you have some practical ways to engage calmer emotions.
  • Mental benefits can include improved focus and attention, prioritizing of tasks, and awareness of thoughts. You can reframe toward more helpful thinking, as well as develop a more intentional approach to your work. Resting hurried thoughts and envisioning what you are doing can help to focus your efforts.
  • Social benefits may come when you are able to relax yourself, take a time out to listen to others (instead of impulsively complain!), and be mindful of valuing time together.

In our hurried society, we may learn to ignore how we feel, emotionally and physically, and go on “autopilot” through our days. Mindfulness is about paying attention. Relaxation is about routinely engaging in restorative activities. As you develop awareness, you may discover simple ways to make changes that work for you.

If you have employed relaxation skills and still find yourself tense and feeling overwhelmed, you may need more in depth assistance. You may consider seeing a counselor and/or your doctor to help you to understand what might help you to feel more healthy, balanced, and able to manage your life.


Practice Example: Preparing for a Test

Many people find testing to be a momentarily stressful experience. When you want to perform well, a little anxiety can encourage you to make your best effort. However, too much pressure and anxiety may lead to distraction or forgetfulness. Here are a few tips that may help:

  • Use visualization to imagine performing at your best.
  • Mentally prepare yourself for the testing situation by picturing each step.
  • Use breathing and muscle relaxation to get situated.
  • Maintain a non-judgmental attitude and approach to the test.

Before the Test

  • Visualization: Imagine yourself feeling confident as you walk into the room. See yourself getting out your pencil, taking the test paper, writing your name. Imagine yourself taking two or three deep breaths then scanning for length so you know how to track your time. Imagine you take a big stretch, a deep breath and begin the test. Imagine your feelings of confidence as you read and answer the test questions.

On the Day of the Test

  • Be Mindful: On test day, be mindful about your routine. Get enough sleep the night before. Eat a light breakfast. Dress for success--it will sharpen the way you feel. Arrive a few minutes early. Check your attitude, be kind to yourself. Practice muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises

During the Test:

  • Be Mindful: Pay attention to your thoughts. During the test it is OK if you feel anxiety. There may be distractions. Refocus your attention for a few seconds with deep breathing. You may pause, refresh, start again.
  • Think of yourself as learning: Do not expect yourself to instantly know every answer. Think about learning and mastering new ideas, rather than passing or failing--“I am learning,” “I do know something about this,” If you have studied, questions on the test will help to jog your memory . If today is not your best performance, what will it teach you for next time?
  • Remember that learning takes effort. If you're not getting the results you want, reflect on what can be improved. JMU has great supports to help students learn how to learn. Check with a counselor if anxiety still seems to be getting in the way.

Related Articles:
General Test Taking Tips (JMU College of Education)
JMU Learning Centers (Resource)
Learning Toolbox (JMU College of Education)


Resources

Computerized Training

Relaxing Rhythms Guided Training Program®

This is a practical and engaging program that helps to train you to relax by connecting you to images on the computer screen through electronic sensors on your fingers. As you develop your ability to relax, objects on the computer screen change to show you how you're doing. In effect, you control the images on the screen by your breathing and relaxing ability! Available for use at the Counseling Center.

Mindfulness, Stress Management, or Anxiety workshops

JMU Counseling Center Workshops
Madison Meditates: Tuesdays and Thursdays 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm - Taylor 405

Recommendations from the Counseling Center staff:

Beginning Mindfulness

http://www.mindfulnesscds.com/meditate_cultivate.pdf
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201202/nine-essential-qualities-mindfulness

Change

http://zenhabits.net/archives/

Gratitude

http://www.ted.com/talks/louie_schwartzberg_nature_beauty_gratitude.html

iTunes Freebies for Mindful Practice

http://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/mindful-meditations/id434136047#ls=1

Living in the Moment

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200810/the-art-now-six-steps-living-in-the-moment

Mindfulness Suggestions for Daily Practice

http://www.mindfulnesscds.com/meditate_daily.pdf

Mindfulness for your Mood

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/10/27/using-mindfulness-to-alter-your-mood/

Relaxation & Mindfulness Practice

http://www.public.iastate.edu/~stdtcouns/Relaxation.html
http://olemiss.edu/depts/stu_counseling/relaxation.html

Sounds

Ocean Waves: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJ4R6qnNUWk
Rainstorm: www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnuUS6gLeZg
Rain: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vQ1K0U1F0U
Rain with tin roof: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JAXRSOUC-w

Workbook titles

The relaxation and stress reduction workbook (6th ed). Davis, M. D. , Eshelman, E. R. , &
McKay, M. (2008). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
The mindfulness & acceptance workbook for anxiety. Forsyth, J. P. , & Eifert, G. H. (2007).
Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. Stahl, B. , & Goldstein, E. (2010). Oakland: 
CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Hayes, S.C. , & Smith, S. (2005). Oakland, CA: New
Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Book titles

Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Coming to Our Senses, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness for Beginners, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, by Ronald D. Siegel
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, by Thich Nhat Hanh


Empirical Evidence

http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/stress/index.aspx
http://www.studentaffairs.stonybrook.edu/caps/med_empirical.shtml
Holzel, B. K. , Carmody, J. , Vangel, M. , Congleton, C. , Yerramsetti, S. M. , Gard,
T. , & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191, 36-43.