Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend an 8-week MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) course, which completely changed the way I manage my depression. If you have an opportunity to attend an MBCT course, or an MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) course, I would highly recommend it. It will put you in control of your thoughts and feelings, enable you to take charge of your own mental health and put you firmly on the road to mental wellbeing.
However, if you aren’t able to access an MBCT or MBSR course, or don’t feel ready to commit to a regular mindfulness meditation practice, there is one technique I learned through MBCT that you can use on a daily basis to bring a moment of calm into your life. It is called the three-minute breathing space. It really does take just three minutes to reset your mind and bring calmness and clarity to your actions. You can use the breathing space whenever you are feeling particularly stressed, but you can also make it a regular part of your day. If you can take three breathing spaces per day – morning, afternoon and evening – you will start to feel calmer and more in control in just a few days. It really does take just three minutes, three times a day. No matter how busy your life, you can spare nine minutes a day to focus on your mental wellbeing.
If you are feeling stressed, you can take a three-minute breathing space anywhere – on the bus or while waiting in a queue, for example – but to make it a regular habit, it is helpful to choose a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes. Make sure you are sitting comfortably, with your feet flat on the floor and your back straight. Taking a moment to pay attention to your posture will help your mind and body prepare for the breathing space and will start the process of focusing your mind. When you feel ready, close your eyes, or, if you are somewhere where that isn’t appropriate, allow your gaze to rest softly on one point a few feet in front of you.
The breathing space follows three steps, each of which lasts for about a minute:
- Step 1 – Notice what thoughts and feelings are with you right now, without judging them. Mentally sum up how you feel, as objectively as possible: “I’m feeling tense because I have too much to do”; “I have a nagging pain in my shoulder”; “I’m angry with my colleague for cancelling our meeting” – whatever is going on right now, bring it into your awareness, notice how it makes you feel, but try not to judge yourself for the thoughts or feelings you are having. This is your experience – accept that that is just how things are right now.
- Step 2 – Now that you have stepped back from the dramas that are going on in your life, you can bring your focus to your breathing. Notice where you feel your breath most clearly – it could be your nose, your chest, your diaphragm or your abdomen. Notice the sensations you feel as you breathe in and as you breathe out. You don’t need to control your breathing or try to breathe more deeply, just be aware of the sensations of breathing. This is harder than it sounds. Your mind will want to wander off, back to the dramas that you have just stepped away from, back to planning what you are going to do next, back to turning over past events. Don’t feel bad about this – it happens to all of us, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t good at meditating or that the breathing space won’t help you. Each time you realise your attention has moved away from your breath, just gently remind yourself to focus on your breathing.
- Step 3 – After a moment of focusing on your breathing, you can start to also become aware of all the other sensations in your body. Feel your feet pressing on the floor, feel your chair supporting you, feel the contact of your hands with whatever they are resting on, feel your clothing pressing against your skin. But all the time remain aware of your breathing. Feel your body as an integrated whole with all of the sensations coming together with the breath. And then, when you are ready, open your eyes, feel the sense of calm that the breathing space has generated and carry that calmness forward into the rest of your day.
There is more information about the breathing space on the Mindful website. There is also a guided meditation that will talk you through the breathing space. I recommend using this guided meditation until you become familiar enough with the breathing space to do it on your own.
Practicing the breathing space regularly can make a huge difference to how you cope with stress and will help you to feel more in control of the things that are happening in your life. For an investment of less than ten minutes a day, the results can be incredible. Try it for yourself and let me know what changes you notice.