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  • Sherry

Mind full? Try a stress busting mindful walk

How are your stress levels? Do you have a lot going on? Is your head full of all the things you have to do today, and tomorrow, plus all the things that didn't get done yesterday? Are most days like this? How about taking a short mindful walk?

It may seem counterproductive to take a break when your to-do list is a mile long, but if your head is full of circling thoughts a break may be exactly what you need. Alternately, maybe your stress is causing you to ruminate and dwell on items resulting in an inability to focus on the work you need to be doing right now. Either way, I've found that using mindfulness to get out of your head and into the present moment is particularly effective for managing and reducing stress.

My favorite definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zin:

the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally

Said differently, mindfulness is nothing more than consciously bringing your awareness into the present moment to observe and experience what is going on without trying to explain, rationalize or otherwise attach a particular meaning to it. Noting is a technique that can be used to bring forth awareness and mindfulness. It involves using one or two words to note what you are feeling, thinking or sensing. Focusing on the 5 senses - what you see, hear, taste, smell or touch - is a simple and easy way to practice mindfulness.

Going for a walk outdoors offers many opportunities to use the noting technique. As you walk, focus on the sounds you hear - perhaps it's birds chirping, traffic, the rustling of leaves, the sound of the wind in your ears, the footsteps of someone approaching from behind, a dog barking. Take a few deep breaths and notice what you smell - at this time of year it might be crisp fresh air, or maybe melting snow, wet grass, or mud, the exhaust of a car that has just driven by, food cooking at a nearby restaurant or someone barbecuing in their backyard. Note the scenery as it passes through your field of vision - the patches of brown grass visible in between the snow, a bird perched on a tree branch, a parent pushing a baby stroller, a crack in the sidewalk, the architectural features of a building. Pay attention to the physical sensations you feel as you walk - the soles of your feet hitting the pavement, the motion of your arms swinging, the cool breeze on your face, your cold cheeks, the sun warming your back. Taste is the one sense you may be less likely to note while out walking, although maybe you're chewing gum, or perhaps you just finished a meal and some of the tastes still linger, or you've been walking a while and take a sip of water.

As you walk, you can note these sensations with one or two words such birds, wet grass, cars, pressure, warmth; or alternately you can simply use the words - hear, smell, see, feel, and taste to note your sensory experience. You can methodically cycle through each of your senses or simply note the one that is most prominent from moment to moment. There's no right or wrong way to practice noting and mindfulness. At some point you will likely get caught up in a thought - you might see or hear something that sets off a cascade of thoughts or suddenly remember something you need to do. That is perfectly normal. The moment you realize that you've been distracted simply acknowledge it and return to noting.

The beauty of this practice is that is doesn't take long before you'll notice the benefits. After just a few minutes, the swirling, ruminating thoughts are replaced by an awareness of the present. This creates space and an opportunity to further reduce the impact of stress on your nervous system by consciously slowing your breathing and releasing some of the tension in your body. Continue walking and noting until you feel calmer, more centered and more present. Take this renewed sense of peace back with you as return to work or the next item on your to-do list. And even if you don't immediately feel better, take comfort in the fact that you are doing your physical body some good at a cellular level by getting in some exercise and exposing yourself to sunshine and vitamin D. I always love it when one healthy action checks off more than one box!

Are you familiar with the noting technique? Have you ever tried using it while walking? The next time you are feeling stressed might you try a short mindful walk?

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