A photo from a Future Cities workshop from IxDA Taiwan. A positive image of mental health. (Flickr: Kaba)

All praise for mental health

How mindfulness, our bodies and the environment, and high-performance work are all inter-related

I attended a class on mindfulness at work yesterday in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Week, of which I didn’t think much about initially but I’m glad I attended as mental health is something we don’t talk about enough. It allowed me to really consider it more importantly in my work and personal life, and to consider mindfulness exercises to access living a fuller life.

There has been a lot of attention about MHAW, and it surprised me that so many people put in the effort to make it more prominent, but I’m glad for that. Even the Guardian wrote a long-form piece about anxiety this week.

I think there’s a perception that mental health is something that only a fraction of us really struggle with at a clinical level, but in reality, the issue of mental health is a lot closer to physical health than a medical condition.

Simply put, mental health is defined as “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.” When you put it that way, mental health affects every single one of us.

A book that fundamentally changed my perspective on mental health is “Decartes’ Error” by the prominent neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio. It debunks through empirical evidence that the mind and body are separate, a notion made popular by French philosopher René Decartes in the 16th century. The reality is that our emotions are much more integrated, inseparable even, to our minds than we think.

“the mind is embodied, in the full sense of the term, not just embrained” (from Decartes’ Error, Antonio Demasio)

Since then, this perspective has really influenced my approach to life and work, because of how it’s rooted in how we behave and who we are as human beings, and also because it has increased my sensitivity to embodiment within so many different things that concern with daily, such as visual thinking, design research, empathy, high-performance teamwork, eczema, parenting… the list goes on.

And true to nature itself, things that are invisible in nature often offer the most profound insights.

A few weeks ago, I was heading to work and picked up my backpack onto my right shoulder and felt a sharp pain across my shoulders. Despite all my efforts, the pain didn’t go away and I signed up to see an osteopath soon after.

Interestingly, the osteopath started advising me about mindfulness as a way of managing pain, partly because chronic pain has more to do with how our brain signals pain as opposed to our actual muscles. In other words, it’s our perception of pain more than the actual pain that limits our ability to function fully in life — and mindfulness is a really simple, effective way of dealing with that.

It got me reflecting again on the body’s role in ones’ ability to think, which has far reaching consequences to high-performance work. In many ways, practices in the user experience world such as design workshops, graphic facilitation, sketchnotes and bodystorming all leverage the body, our environment and our senses as very powerful and natural thinking tools.

In fact, there has been strong evidence that our bodies and the environment are strong contributors to perception of risk, language processing, signal detection, and memory performance.

That got me thinking about mindfulness’ as an effective method for sensitising ourselves to our bodies and environments, thus increasing our ability to do better work and live healthier as a result. It’s something i’ll be practicing a lot more on a daily basis, for sure.

Here’s a quick mindfulness exercise you can try out that isn’t awkward, difficult, or esoteric. It involves breathing — something we all do very well. Too well, in fact, that we lose sight of it and all the benefits it has to offer.

  1. Get seated comfortably, with your back straight in a good posture
  2. Close your eyes (this is optional, but it helps you focus better)
  3. Focus your attention to the present. I like to think of it as “slowing things down”.
  4. Take a deep, long breath in—slowly and gradually—until your lungs are full, and focus your attention on your breathing. Each long breath should take about 3 seconds or so.
  5. Hold your breath for 2 seconds, and then begin to exhale—slowly and gradually—until you are done exhaling out.
  6. As you are breathing in and out, simply observe what’s happening in the present—the rising and falling of your chest, the sound of your breathing, etc. It’s ok if your mind wanders or gets distracted—simply let that happen and bring your focus gently back to the present, maintaining your breathing rhythm.

You don’t have to do this for very long — maybe 3 minutes or so. If you prefer listening to an audio playback of this while putting your headphones on, there’s a really nice one I found on the Berkeley.edu Greater Good in Action website.

The technique is really short, effective, and relaxing. More importantly, it‘s a way to exercise your sensitivity to things happening around and within you, and you can take that further in whatever way you like.

Thanks to Victoria O'Callaghan for facilitating a really engaging and interactive session on mindfulness today at SapientNitro, and inspiring me to write this article.

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