Ruth Taylor manages the mindfulness team at Norfolk and Waveney Mind. She is a mindfulness teacher and specialises in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and mindful parenting courses. As Ruth explains, mindfulness means to pay attention to things in a particular way; non-judgementally and keeping the focus on the present moment.
“It is a way of helping us work differently with challenges, as well as live life more fully,” says Ruth. “Most of our lives we are on auto-pilot mode which means we are often reacting out of our habitual patterns and if these aren’t healthy ones for us, we keep repeating the same old cycles. Mindfulness helps us recognise what we want and feel and helps us make better choices.
"It also helps us notice how much our inner critic controls us and how we can be kinder to ourselves. And on a physiological level, the act of being aware of your breathing or your physical sensations in this way literally calms our nervous system down and helps us be more creative and connected to those around us".
To develop the habit to be more present, takes practice, like any skill, says Ruth. “So mindfulness practices help to focus us on the present moment and develop more self kindness, and like going to the gym to train our muscles, we start to develop and use that capacity in the rest of our day,” she says.
Ruth describes discovering mindfulness as “life changing”.
“I became interested in it after a period of prolonged stress and anxiety in my early 20s. I realised that while traditional relaxation techniques, counselling and exercise certainly helped, mindfulness, for me, was the best way to deal with my difficulties longer term, by nipping things in the bud before they escalated and it quickly became an essential part of my life.”
It also taught herself to be kind to herself, which is the key theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.
“I think the main thing it’s taught me is how to observe my foibles with kindness; I can catch my very over-active ‘inner critic’ and understand that just because I can be my own harshest critic, it doesn’t mean I am necessarily always right,” says Ruth.
“It helps me stay calmer in difficult situations, knowing I can be at the eye of the storm where it’s calm and still, observing it, rather than lost in the chaos,” she continues.
“Learning that paying attention to my physical experience, of breathing or your feet on the floor, calms your nervous system has been very helpful to me even if I can’t always feel it in the moment.
“Lastly, working in mental health, I believe it’s noticing and changing our little habits that can help – major changes can spring from that. Really knowing how I think and feel about something, as someone who often didn’t, has been instrumental in making better choices for myself. It’s helped me develop a lot more appreciation for the good things that life brings and more resilience when things are tricky.”
Ruth practices mindfulness daily and tries to incorporate it into her usual routine where she can.
“It’s become a necessary part of my life like any other habit – exercise, sleeping, eating, etc. I try to find little moments in the day where I can bring it in too, like brushing my teeth, boiling the kettle, they all contribute to having that greater presence. When I write my to-do list, I try to do that mindfully and it helps me prioritise and step back – do I really need to do this now? It all helps me to stay a bit more connected by exercising my mindfulness muscles.”
Ruth was one of the first wave of mindfulness teachers in Norfolk, more than 11 years ago.
“Myself and my colleague at Norfolk and Waveney Mind, Rob, specialise in trauma-informed mindfulness courses, as well as delivering to a range of workplaces. Rob also specialises in the Mindful Self-Compassion approach,” she says. “We have a number of other mindfulness teachers who help us, including one who specialises in teaching mindfulness in schools and we are the longest-established provider of mindfulness courses in Norfolk.”
Mindfulness could be beneficial for people during the unprecedented and uncertain time we find ourselves in – both people who are struggling with lockdown and feelings of isolation and worry for family, friends and themselves and people such as doctors, nurses, carers and key workers who are working on the frontline during the pandemic, and beyond.
“Mindfulness gives us a ‘safe place to land’ when we are whipped up in anxiety or overwhelmed,” says Ruth “I believe what we are experiencing at the moment is on many levels traumatic for most of us, whether or not we have a predisposition to be stressed or down or anxious. This is a normal response to an abnormal event. This crisis has been an unprecedented event and while we have in some ways got used to it, it is still having a big impact on us emotionally.
Most of us are probably a bit more emotional or hypervigilant than we realise – our stress response is much more easily engaged and mindfulness literally helps to counteract that physiologically. It engages our ‘rest and digest’ response in the body – the hormones in our nervous system which help us feel safe and content. Also soothed, if we are feeling down or lonely. It can help us deal with contact that we have with others better too as we stop before we think a bit more, we say what we mean more skilfully, we take things less personally and we choose our battles,” she says.
For anyone who is curious to see whether mindfulness could help them, Ruth has the following suggestions:
Spending even just 10 breaths on waking up, focusing on the present moment – how you feel in your body or focusing on your breath – can really help us learn to become more mindful if we don’t have time for a longer practice.
Having little mindful pauses for half a minute or whatever you can squeeze in, can be very helpful throughout the day to take stock. Feeling your feet on the floor to ground yourself and then asking yourself, how do I really feel and what do I need now? It is particularly important for key workers and those in stressful situations to stop and step back where they can so they can also take care of their own needs.
For those that can, developing a regular mindfulness practice of even five or 10 minutes a day will start to rewire our brains for kindness and presence. Even if it doesn’t feel much is changing, it will be giving you a respite and will be developing capacity to be more awake and aware in the rest of the day – and not so ‘super-alert’(although Boris would like us to be even more alert!).
Choosing a practice to help you take a moment out can also be useful like toothbrushing or tea drinking – adding mindfulness to something you already do routinely can help us to stay a bit more grounded and calm and top up our presence during the day.
There are also apps, such as Headspace, which can offer a way into practicing mindfulness.
“However, the most effective way to learn mindfulness is with an appropriately trained teacher and ideally with others in group – online is fine,” says Ruth. “Mindfulness courses with others are proven to really help to motivate you to do the practice, even if you aren’t a ‘groups’ kind of person.
You also get to hear how mindfulness is helping others and it avoids you going down blind alleys as it can feel a bit confusing without any guidance. Mindfulness seems simple, but it takes a bit of help to get the hang of it. A good place to start is by joining an eight-week mindfulness course, like our forthcoming Finding Peace in a Frantic World course, or trying out a taster session – we are offering one this week.
“Courses like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy are specifically designed to help support people who are experiencing recurrent depression and are NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) approved.
“However, I would also say its really important to do a course with a teacher who is appropriately trained by a recognised teaching institution. There are a lot of people saying they are mindfulness teacher trained but do not adhere to the minimum guidelines that are now becoming regulated. This means the training they offer may not be safe or appropriate for you.
“Mindfulness is not for everyone and if you have experienced severe mental illness or are currently experiencing clinical depression it may not helpful for you. People are welcome to contact us for more information on this.”
To get in touch with Mind’s Norfolk and Waveney Mindfulness Service contact Ruth Taylor or Rob Black at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 0300 330 5488.
Norfolk and Waveney Mind is holding a free online mindfulness session on Wednesday, May 20, from 6-7pm as part of its Festival of Kindness to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. An eight-week course, Finding Peace in a Frantic World, starts in June. For details visit norfolkandwaveneymind.org.uk/how-we-can-help-you/mindfulness#VirtualCourses