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Mindfulness improves memory‘But when I’m too stressed I just forget about mindfulness!’ This is what I often hear from corporate clients when teaching them mindfulness skills. While there are hundreds of books on mindfulness and clever smartphone apps to remind us of taking a breath and slowing down, what really matters is whether we can remember to apply mindfulness techniques when we need them most. In this blog post, we will look at the link between memory and mindfulness, and you will be introduced to an easy-to-remember mindfulness technique.

Mindfulness Relies On Remembering

When we are stressed, our memory suffers – there is plenty of research supporting this fact. You might recognise from your own experience that when you are under a lot of pressure, your mind becomes so scattered and preoccupied that it is difficult to remember everything you need to. Sometimes people even worry that they are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but in fact, they are just too stressed.

So how is mindfulness related to memory and the ability to remember things? The term ‘mindfulness’, as we’ve been using it over the last 40 years to describe non-religious meditation practices, is a translation of the Pali word ‘sati’. Sati, however, does not only mean mindfulness, it also means introspection, recollection, and retention. Mindfulness is therefore closely related to our ability to recollect the techniques of being mindful. If we never remember to practise mindfulness in our daily lives, then the development of our mindfulness skills will be very limited – and of limited usefulness. We need to be able to retain the essential instructions so that we can draw on them when they are needed.

Why I Love Mindfulness Acronyms

Mindfulness acronym

Acronyms are a wonderful tool to help us retain important information. I like to compare them to zipped files (apologies for this analogy to those who are not so digitally-minded). A zipped file is a packed-down, economical version of an otherwise much larger file. It is stored in a zipped form so that it doesn’t use too much computer memory. When the data inside the file is needed, it can be unzipped and used immediately. The same goes for acronyms – they lie dormant in our memory, without using too much space, but when we need to access the information inside them, we simply remind ourselves of what each letter in the acronym stands for, and the meaning is revealed instantly.

The N.O.W. Technique

NOW mindfulness technique

This acronym assists you in connecting to the essential practices of mindfulness without having to rely on books or meditation CDs. So let’s unpack its meaning.

N is for “Noticing”

The activity of noticing is the most important aspect of any mindfulness practice. Without noticing, without intentionally paying attention to what is happening in our immediate experience, there is no mindfulness at all. The act of noticing has the quality of precision and clarity, and is connected to clearly knowing where our attention is and what thoughts, emotions or physical sensations are present in our awareness. When you’re facing a stressful situation at work, for example, you can remind yourself to notice what is really going on inside you. We could compare this step to an unexpected guest knocking on the door. What do you notice about your reactions?

O is for “Opening”

Opening follows Noticing. It is the activity of purposefully keeping ourselves open to the unfolding experience of every moment, even when it feels challenging or painful. Opening is the opposite of aversion. It allows us to explore with curiosity the details of our stress reaction, for example, the impulse to say something hurtful to a colleague who irritates us, or the tendency to browse the internet mindlessly. Opening is counter-intuitive. Our habitual response is often about closing down and hiding away from that which feels uncomfortable. This is an understandable reaction, but it has dire consequences. As we disconnect ourselves from our immediate experience, our automatic knee-jerk reactions take over and we often end up more stressed. We could compare it with opening the door and observing the unexpected visitor in great detail.

W is for “Welcoming”

Welcoming is the proactive decision to turn towards any feelings or thoughts that come up when facing a challenging situation. The ability to take this step comes from our understanding that fighting or rejecting our experience will only make it worse. When we accept whatever we are feeling or thinking, and make a step towards it, we are expressing our willingness to be present with all that is here, even if it’s unpleasant or difficult. Letting go of struggle in this way releases a huge amount of energy, which in turn, often leads to an insight or a skilful action. This step is equivalent to welcoming the unexpected guest into your home and making her a cup of tea.

A Case Example

Mindfulness dissolves office stress

Pauline (not her real name) is head of department for a large organisation and manages 150 people. Her role involves her dealing with complex issues on a daily basis. Pauline’s main problem was her constant impatience and irritation. For example, in meetings she suddenly found herself becoming short-tempered and seemingly unable to control her emotions. She even made comments she later regretted. She knew her emotions were unhelpful, but didn’t feel capable of helping herself.

After attending a series of one-to-one mindfulness coaching sessions, Pauline gradually learned how to train her attention. As her mind began to settle and become more stable, she was able to observe her experience in greater detail. Pauline describes here how she used the N.O.W. technique during a stressful situation at work.

‘We had a meeting with one of my teams. I think this was the fifth meeting on that day. We had a problem to deal with and we were all under a lot of time pressure. I started observing those familiar sensations in my body – the tension in my stomach gradually rising up to my chest, my heart beating faster, and within few seconds, my jaw tensing up as well. I knew that if I carried on as I was, I would become irritable and snap at someone in my team.

I remembered the N.O.W. technique and took my attention into my body to explore what exactly I was feeling. I gave myself a moment to step back from the situation and observe the mixture of physical and emotional reactions inside me. It wasn’t easy, but while I was trying to stay open and curious about the stress rising up in me, I had a sudden insight. My willingness to look at my reaction openly, without judging it as ‘bad’, allowed me to see that my irritation actually stemmed from feeling overly responsible for everybody in my team. As I welcomed the whole range of bodily sensations and emotions, and stopped fighting my own reaction, I saw that underneath my short temper was a belief that I had to control everything. It was such a relief to remind myself that I could let go of all that responsibility just a little bit. As soon as I did, my irritation just disappeared.’

In this way, the N.O.W. technique allowed Pauline to increase her awareness which in turn profoundly changed her behaviour, improving her emotional intelligence and well-being.

Conclusion

Mindfulness fosters workplace wellbeing

As the research shows, stress has a negative impact on memory; it is much more difficult to access the information stored in our minds when we are under pressure. The N.O.W. technique can be used as a reminder of the essential principles of mindfulness, helping us to deal more skilfully with work-related issues.

Next time, when you’re confronted with stress in your office, try N-O-W and see what happens.

 

How do you remind yourself of being mindful? Please share your tips in the comments below.