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Elise Bialylew Personal Essay on Mindfulness

Elise Bialylew on How Mindfulness Can Improve Your Mental Wellbeing

Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.

We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.

It was my first year of medical training. I was nineteen years old, and as I stood in the cold, sterile dissection room with a brain in my hands, I wondered how a lifetime of memory, feelings and thoughts could arise from this one-kilogram tofu-like substance.

This fascination with the brain, coupled with my desire to help people live happy and meaningful lives, led me to a career in psychiatry. But as I moved deeper into my career I discovered that while psychiatry helped save people's lives, it often left the flourishing part of the equation to other health professionals. I realised that this was the part of the journey I was most passionate about. I wanted to support people in thriving, not just surviving.

Alarmingly, the World Health Organisation now considers depression as the leading cause of ill-health and disability worldwide. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with on average, one-in-four people experiencing anxiety at some stage in their life. We urgently need inner resources to manage the increasing demands of our complex times.

And although medication can be lifesaving and essential for many people, there are inner tools we can learn, like mindfulness, that can help us manage our minds more effectively and develop greater psychological resilience.

Just as our immune system protects us from bacteria and viruses that can harm us physically, regular mindfulness practice protects us from unhelpful thinking and rumination that can be the cause of so much stress and mental "unwellness", by helping us develop awareness of what is happening in our minds. With this enhanced clarity and awareness we become masters, rather than the slaves of our minds. This has a lot of benefits:

  • Being aware of our emotions and responding to them rather than reacting
  • Recognising thoughts and letting them go rather than getting stuck in obsessive planning or worrying
  • Managing our stress and developing greater resilience
  • Being in relationship with others with less conflict
  • Communicating more effectively as we are more aware of why we are feeling what we are feeling
  • Staying focussed at work and less prone to multitasking
  • Falling asleep at night as we have a tool to help us settle the mind
  • Making decisions that are aligned with what we truly value

Much of the research in the field of mindfulness explores the impact of thirty to forty-five minutes of meditation a day on physical and psychological wellbeing. Excitingly, in my pilot research published in Mindfulness journal we discovered that just ten minutes a day of mindfulness meditation over one month was enough to support increased positive emotions, reduced negative emotions, increase self-compassion and greater focus in daily life.

Mindfulness is a crucial tool for any leader and personally has been an indispensable ingredient to my personal reinvention from hospital working doctor to becoming founder of the social impact global mindfulness campaign, Mindful in May. This year I was very excited to be nominated as one of the AFR Top 100 Women of Influence in the Social Enterprise and Not-for-profit category for my work in mindfulness.

Here are three ways you can use applied mindfulness to manage the stress in your life

1. Use Your Breath to Calm Yourself Down

You breath is intimately connected to your nervous system. Use it to your advantage when you're feeling stressed to calm yourself down by slowing and extending your exhalation. This activates the vagus nerve and helps quiet your entire nervous system, keeping you calm and helping you make better decisions when under pressure.

2. Name It to Tame It

Neuroscientific research demonstrates that when we're stressed, labelling or writing about how we're feeling helps us calm down by activating the part of our brain that regulates our emotions, our prefrontal cortex. As we become more mindful of difficult emotions, we reinforce neural pathways that help us stay calm under pressure and remember to pause before we act opening up possibilities for wiser action.

3. Take a Ten Minute Holiday For Your Mind

Although when we're stressed the last thing we want to do is stop and meditate, research shows that meditating for just ten minutes is enough to bring you benefits. Give your mind a ten minute holiday and it will reward you with a powerful return on investment of greater focus, clarity and wellbeing.

Elise Bialylew is the founder of Mindful in May, an online global mindfulness campaign that teaches thousands of people each year to meditate, while raising funds to build clean water projects in the developing world. A doctor trained in psychiatry, turned social entrepreneur, she's passionate about supporting individuals and organisations to develop inner tools for greater wellbeing and flourishing. She offers online courses, workshops and corporate training through The Mind Life Project. Her work has been featured in the Huffington Post, New York Times, and on Australian television. Her book, The Happiness Plan, is a #1 bestseller.

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