Footstep 7

Moments for relaxation and mindfulness

There is plenty of evidence showing that relaxation and mindfulness are good for us. We know they can reduce stress, improve mood and concentration, lessen pain and help with difficult situations and times.

So how can busy carers learn to relax – and what exactly is mindfulness?

What is relaxation?

Relaxation happens when you or someone else guides you to unwind the tension and tightness within your body and mind.

It often involves using breathing skills and focusing on relaxing images, colours or experiences.

Learning relaxation can be easier than you expect, although it does take practice.

Discovering relaxation: Jacky and Dave’s story

Jacky was in a mega struggle with stress, bill payment problems and competing commitments.

Her friend Dave lent her a CD with some relaxation tracks, saying “Give it a go. It really helps; don’t do all the tracks at once though! Choose one track and explore it.”

That night, to help her sleep, she followed the muscle / breathing track from the CD. She was drifting off when her relative called for help to get to the toilet.

Jacky felt irritated as she was feeling quite soothed and comfortable. She listened again to the same track and fell asleep. She had a sense she was more rested in the morning.

Dave rang that day to find out how she had got on.

He was glad to hear that Jacky had a better night.

He suggested that she explore more of the CD and: “Find your two or three best tracks and work with them for a few weeks. I use the breathing one at work. No one notices and it is gets me through the busy times on the job.”

Practising relaxation –

how to develop your relaxation skills

Quick moments for relaxation

A good way to start introducing relaxation into your life, is to find “moments” to use relaxation in everyday situations. Some examples include:

  • Using the 20 seconds while washing your hands to do some gentle breathing relaxation.
  • Take a slow soothing breath in and breathe out any tension in your muscles while cooking supper
  • Listen to a favourite piece of music. Take a photograph of a beautiful scene.
  • Sit in a garden or park for a few minutes and focus on what you can see, hear and smell.
  • Spend five minutes knitting or crocheting

Relaxation if you have a little more time

When sitting down for a few minutes you could try the Body Scan technique. This means checking your body to notice tension in your feet, legs, knees, hips, abdomen, chest, shoulders, neck, head, face and jaw. As you notice any tension let it go, release it from you. Start from your toes and work upwards, ‘letting go’ of the tension on the out-breath.

  • You can also observe your breathing, and remember to breathe calmly and comfortably. As you breathe in, your tummy should rise a little; then rest back as you breathe out. Don’t force things, as this may make you feel a little ‘light-headed’.
  • A warm bath using scented oils might be a special treat for a day when you have a little more time.

Some longer relaxation strategies

Making time to practise and focus on relaxing will help you learn how to relax fully and deeply. For a ‘time-out’ relaxation session, set aside about twenty to thirty minutes.

When you first learn a relaxation technique, being in a quiet, comfortable place can help. Lie down on a bed or mat, or sit in your most comfortable chair. Try to find a time when you are likely to be undisturbed.

  • If you wish, you could do the relaxation session with the person you care for. Or you may prefer to do it alone.
  • Listening to a recording or going to a class can be called ‘time-out’ relaxation. There are lots of relaxation apps or online recordings available to buy.
  • Try and look at your relaxation sessions as part of your self-care skills.
  • Attend a local relaxation group Use a gentle exercise programmes like Yoga, Tai Chi or Pilates

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about the kind of awareness that you bring to a situation. It means being in control of what you pay attention to, and for how long. It can be a helpful way of managing distress and focusing on enjoyment.

The aim is to be in a ‘state of mind’ that is more helpful. This state of mind helps the brain to soothe and calm. Mindfulness aims to balance ‘reasonable’ and ‘emotional’ thinking. It uses a ‘wise mind’ thinking approach to being with yourself as you are in your life, in the here and now.

Mindfulness is being aware of your body and mind in the “now”. It is about noticing what you think, feel or want at this moment without being critical or judging yourself.

  • Mindfulness can be about exploring with all your senses: taste, touch, sound, sight and smell.
  • It guides you to see your thoughts as events in the mind rather than facts or truths.
  • It allows you to choose how to respond to your thoughts rather than react to them.
  • It helps you make kinder choices on how to manage your situation.

We know from research that mindfulness helps us to live better. It also helps the brain to work better in many different ways, like improving memory or helping with attention so you focus and concentrate better. It is good for learning problem solving and being creative, so helps self-management. Mindfulness practice helps to reduce stress hormones and so lessen unhelpful emotions.

Jan’s moments of mindfulness

“It was a wet, cold day and I wasn’t keen to do my regular walk. I’d had a bad night and a busy morning. But I knew from experience that if I missed my walk I would get irritable with my relative.

Somehow, I found the energy to put on my waterproof gear and stepped out into the stormy day.

Soon I was splashing through puddles and being whirled along by the wind. I started to take a real interest in everything around me. I noticed the catkins dancing and pussy willows softly gleaming in the rain. My path led across a field where gulls and crows were feeding. They let out great squawks of annoyance at being disturbed as they took to the air. The gulls whirled round in the wind before settling down again. The crows tried to fly in a straight line to a tall tree, the wind forcing them into zigzag patterns against the sky. I love to watch birds so I waited as they settled down on the field to feed again. Time stood still.

Then I noticed I had been standing for too long so headed for home. As I went indoors I noticed my mood was lifted, I felt calmer and re-energised.

I suddenly realised – this must be what people mean by mindfulness!”

How to learn mindfulness

There are lots of ways to learn mindfulness. It just depends on how you learn best. You could:

  • Get support from a friend or help from a mindfulness trainer.
  • Read a book about mindfulness, work through a digital course or use an app.
  • Join a local mindfulness meditation group and practice at home.
  • There are also mindfulness movement courses, such as Tai Chi, that link breathing and movement together.
  • At the end of this Footstep there are ideas and resources that you can explore.

Here are some exercises that you can do to experiment with mindfulness:

A mindful breathing exercise

  • Give yourself a few minutes to sit quietly.
  • Notice your breathing. Pay attention to your breath going in and coming out.
  • Try to let your attention focus on the bottom of your in-breath.
  • Actively ‘let go’ as you breathe out.
  • When you notice that your thoughts have wandered, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • Spend a few minutes bringing your attention back to the centre in this way. This can lead to a state of feeling calm and secure.

A mindful observation exercise

  • Be aware of your hand on a cool surface, such as a table or glass of cold water. Be aware of your hand on a warm surface such as the arm of your sofa.
  • Stroke just above your upper lip. Stop stroking. Notice how long it takes before you cannot sense your upper lip any longer.
  • ‘Watch’ the first two thoughts that come into your mind – just notice them.
  • Imagine that your mind is a conveyor belt and that thoughts and feelings are coming down the belt. Put each thought or feeling in a box near the belt.
  • Count the thoughts or feelings as you have them.
  • If you find yourself becoming distracted, observe that too. Observe yourself, as you notice that you are being distracted.
  • Note: It is usual to have to start and re-start several times when you practise ‘stepping back’ and observing in this way.

A ‘describing’, ‘non-judgemental’ exercise

  • Practise labelling thoughts in groups, such as ‘thoughts about others’ or ‘thoughts about myself’.
  • Imagine your thoughts and feelings placed on leaves and drifting away down a stream.
  • Use the ‘conveyor belt’ exercise described previously. As the thoughts and feelings come down the conveyor belt, imagine sorting them into boxes, perhaps one box for thoughts, one for bodily sensations and one for pressure you feel to get things done.

Relaxation and mindfulness resources

Mindfulness on Soundcloud

Listen to free mindfulness audio meditations on the Breathworks Soundcloud page.

Moments for relaxation and mindfulness: key ideas

  • Relaxation and mindfulness are good for us
  • Learning relaxation can be easier than you expect, although it does take practice
  • Mindfulness can be a helpful way of managing distress and focusing on enjoyment
  • Mindfulness practice helps to reduce stress hormones and reduce unhelpful emotions