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Originally published October 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 23, 2008 at 11:12 AM

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Mindfulness: take charge of your mind and body

The meditative practice of mindfulness focuses us on the present, not on an uncertain future, and the acceptance of change

Seattle Times staff reporter

Dealing with it

Jermone E. Granato, Medical Director of the Coronary Care Unit of Allegheny General Hospital and author of "Living with Coronary Heart Disease" (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), weighs in with these stress-busting tips:

Take a bath in the dark. Hot water plus silence and no visual stimulation equals relaxation. Steam in the tub, breathe deeply, and let your mind wander.

Use the remote. Avoid maddening or violent TV programs at night. Mute the commercials if they annoy you.

Revise your standards. You don't have to be a perfectionist about everything. Take pressure off yourself when you can.

Huff and puff. Any activity that makes you temporarily short of breath eases stress. If you have no time for an aerobic activity, simply sit and do deep, fast breathing. It oxygenates your brain and blood, and takes away the strain.

Program your MP3 player. Find songs that make you feel happy and calm. Listen to them whenever you feel most uptight — at the end of your workday, for example.

Break it down. Many of us stress because we're overwhelmed by work, too many options, and by information. Break tasks or problems down into small parts that you can tackle easily.

Information

If you'd like more information on mindfulness, try these sites online:

www.carolynmcmanus.com

www.swedish.org/body.cfm?id=1207

www.mindfulness.com

www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

Boeing engineer Miryam Chavarria has, like the rest of us, reasons to stress. She is concerned about upcoming labor negotiations, the future of her job, and a chronic health condition she must manage. She even disregarded her husband's warning and peeked at their plummeting 401(k) bottom-line.

In times like these, she turns to her practice of mindfulness. It's a meditative approach that focuses attention on the present — not on what might happen or what she should have done.

"I thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus at first," Chavarria says. "I had a rough first session, but I chose to stay with the meditation and it has caused a great transformation in me. I find I'm more myself, rather than what the world expects of me."

She doesn't meditate every day but takes time to take self-inventory, to become absorbed in rote chores like washing dishes and be relaxed yet purposeful during so-called down time, like waiting in a line.

To be in here-and-now has never been harder. Is your job to safe? How low can the retirement nest-egg shrink? Will this political sniping ever end? Will the sun ever again shine in Seattle? Will our teams ever win? The world gets more complex. Layoffs, the constant drip of bad news, 24-hour doomsday hype, and the diving stock hammers that home.

There can be a fine line between dealing with what's happening and dwelling on it. That's where practices like mindfulness might help. You don't need to head to a retreat to gain a little perspective.

But face it, stilling our minds can be hard. When is the last time you even took a deep breath?

Carolyn McManus specializes in caring for people with chronic and stress-related medical conditions and taught Chavarria in the Mindfulness-based Wellness Program at Swedish Medical Center. She says there are ways to find shelter amid the storm.

"Imagine a wheel with pleasant life circumstances on the top, unpleasant ones on the bottom and neutral ones on the side. If you only focus your attention on the circumference of the wheel you experience life as a continual roller coaster of ups and downs," she says.

"If your attention rests in the center of the wheel, your experience would be different. You would still have the ups and downs of life, but your relationship to them would change. You would experience being centered while in the midst of constant change."

There are ways, other than a full-blown meditation practice to find peace and here are some her tips:

Breathe: When stressed, we revert to cave-dweller days and go into fight or flight mode. Our breathing gets shallow. Slow, deep breathing reverses that. Make sure your breath is deep and deliberate and fills the lower lungs so it feels as if it is reaching your waist. McManus suggests repeating a word or phrase as you breathe to help your focus.

"You might know the feeling of having a very long day and you finally make it home and open the door, step into your home and a feeling of ease and relaxation washes over you. You can recreate a little of that feeling with each breath by repeating to yourself "arriving" on the in breath, "home" on the out breath. You can choose any word or phrase that works for you."

Focus on today: Anxiety and worry are future concepts. We don't know what the future holds but the mind is adept at conjuring up the worst possible outcome. When you focus on your breath, you bring your mind back to the present moment. That, says McManus, is where your power resides.

"I tell people, 'Plan for the future, but don't spend your life there.' "

Be on your side, not on your case: Mindfulness training teaches how to observe your thoughts in a detached way. Imagine your mind is like the sky and thoughts are clouds. That helps you observe your thoughts without getting completely absorbed and invested in them. If you can do that, you can make clearer, more conscious choices, she says. "I encourage people to think about how they would comfort and advise their best friend if he or she were in their shoes. Then talk to themselves with those same words. People have the wisdom within them and often readily give it to others. They need to be reminded to share their wisdom with themselves."

Remember the good: Sorrows and joys coexist," McManus says. "Think of your life like a big garden with some plants that are healthy and other plants that are a sickly. If you spent all your time focused on the sickly plants, you would miss out on the whole garden. By paying some attention to the other plants you gain a more realistic perspective on the garden."

Instead of fixating on the plummeting stock market, go on a walk or a hike or pursue some other activity that adds to your perspective and lends stability that helps you deal with the difficult.

And each day, review the things in your life for which you are grateful.

Help someone else: It might be as simple as a kind word to a co-worker having a difficult day or checking in on a neighbor, or really listening to a family member or friend.

"People often underestimate the value of their presence in someone's life. Just knowing we are not alone can reduce stress," McManus says. "We are all in this together and being here for one another will help us all through these difficult times."

Change happens: The practice of mindfulness embraces the idea that change is constant and can feel painful in the short-term. McManus recalls as friend, now in her 90s, who was living a successful and financially affluent life in Germany when World War II changed everything. Her family lost their livelihood. She, her husband and young children immigrated to the United States and had started over.

"She said to me, 'Do not place your security on things outside of yourself. Everything outside of yourself can change. Your security is within you. Security comes from the self-confidence that you can respond to life circumstances, whatever they might be."

Richard Seven: 206-464-2241

or rseven@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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