TWEAKS 2 MYC #22: SMILING

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Would you agree that receiving a smile from a total stranger can brighten up your day? Consider the following scenario. You’re walking down the street with your head down after a terrible day at work. You feel angry and can’t wait to get back home. A bunch of negative thoughts are swirling around in your head and you can’t make them stop. When crossing the intersection, you lift your head and notice a person walking towards you. For a brief moment, they look at you and smile. You instantly feel better and realize that your problems are not that bad after all. Life is good!

Now, you can get the same types of benefits if you take the time to smile when you’re feeling down! Researchers have discovered that the simple act of smiling can increase positive mood (Yamamoto, Sugimori, & Shimada, 2010) and lower heart rate (Kraft & Pressman, 2012). Moreover, smiling can predict longevity! Abel and Kruger (2010) found that smile intensity (i.e., no smile, partial smile, full smile) is positively correlated with longevity.

Listen to Ron Gutman talk about “the hidden power of smiling” in his 2011 TED talk:

So, if you ever feel sad, stressed, or angry, STOP, TAKE A DEEP BREATH, and SMILE! It might not solve all your problems, but it’s going to help you take a step in the right direction.

Set goals. Do just one thing at a time. Keep it simple and smart. Do it consistently. Reflect on the process.

References

Abel, E. L., & Kruger, M. L. (2010). Smile intensity in photographs predicts longevity. Psychological Science, 21, 542-4.

Kraft, T. L., & Pressman, S. D. (2012). Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychological Science, 23, 1372-8.

Yamamoto, T., Sugimori, S., & Shimada, H. (2010). Effects of smiling manipulation on negative cognitive process during self-focused attention. The Japanese Journal of Psychology, 81, 17-25.

TWEAKS 2 MYC #21: SITTING MEDITATION

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As mentioned in last week’s blog post (TWEAKS 2 MYC #20), “focus” can be improved not only during a performance, but also at home by practicing sitting meditation. Sitting meditation, which should not be confused with the Western idea of yoga (i.e., exercise in which you move your body and hold various positions), involves sitting down quietly and focusing your full attention on your breath, while keeping a non-judgmental attitude towards your thoughts.

Research has consistently demonstrated that sitting meditation is associated with a variety of health benefits. More specifically, sitting meditation can improve memory, “focus”, and overall brain efficiency as well as decrease stress, anxiety, depression, and pain (Sharma, 2015).

Below are the basic instructions on how to properly practice sitting meditation:

  • Practice this exercise every single day
  • Set your timer for 5 minutes
  • Sit down in an armless chair
  • Place your feet firmly on the ground with your knees at 90 degrees
  • Keep your back straight
  • Place your hands on your thighs
  • Relax your arms, shoulders, neck, and jaw
  • Close your eyes
  • Take 3 deep breaths
  • Focus your full attention on your breath going in and out of your nostrils
  • Let your breathing flow freely
    • Don’t try to force anything
  • If your mind wanders (e.g., you are thinking about the past or future, you feel anger or boredom, you label your sensations), simply recognize it and then bring your full attention back to your breath
  • Think of this as a “repetition” (just like when you lift weights at the gym)
    • Your “focus” should increase if you repeatedly work on bringing your full attention back to your breath every time your mind wanders
  • When you notice that your mind is wandering, you can tell yourself “breath” to help you bring your full attention back to your breath
  • Keep a non-judgmental attitude towards your thoughts
    • Just view your thoughts as thoughts (don’t label them as good or bad)
    • Don’t try to stop your thoughts (let them come and go as they please)

Here’s a metaphor that I like to share with my clients to help them gain a deeper understanding of what sitting meditation is all about. Begin by visualizing your mind as a clear-blue sky and your thoughts as clouds floating by. If you decide to entertain your thoughts and/or try to stop them, then they will turn into menacing dark clouds and eventually create a storm, leaving you uncomfortable and anxious. However, if you take a “mental step back” and simply observe your thoughts, then they will become small clouds that float by less frequently, leaving you with a clear-blue sky and a feeling of peace and focus.

Once you feel comfortable doing this 5-minute sitting meditation exercise, you can add 2 minutes to your total time, if you desire. However, if increasing your total time means increasing your chances of not doing it, then keep your sessions short (around 5 minutes). If you have the time and enjoy sitting meditation, then try going all the way up to 20 minutes!

Set goals. Do just one thing at a time. Keep it simple and smart. Do it consistently. Reflect on the process.

Reference

Sharma, H. (2015). Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu, 36, 3.

TWEAKS 2 MYC #20: FOCUS

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In today’s day and age, having the ability to “focus” seems like a real superpower, given the popularity of multi-tasking and the incredible amount of distractions around us. Most people would argue that having this ability is something innate. However, contrary to popular belief, this is false. “Focus” is actually a skill that can be (and should be) developed through consistent practice. The problem is that we just haven’t been taught how to “focus”!

More specifically, “focus” can vary in terms of its width and direction. On the one hand, it can either be broad or narrow. For example, an archer can “focus” only on the bullseye in front of him/her (narrow) or the trees and cheering crowd behind it (broad). On the other hand, “focus” can either be internal or external. For instance, before releasing the arrow, an archer can “focus” on the tension in his/her shoulders (internal) or the target (external).

 Below are the basic instructions on how to improve your “focus” during a performance:

  • Give yourself 30 minutes to complete this exercise
  • Determine exactly what kind of “focus” will help you perform to the best of your ability
    • Do you want to have broad, medium, or narrow “focus”?
    • Do you want to have an internal or external “focus”?
  • Pick a word or short phrase that will help you regain your “focus” during a performance
    • Make sure that your word or short phrase is positive and meaningful to you

So then, let’s suppose that you are a long-distance runner. Through self-reflection, you figure out that a narrow and internal “focus” is ideal for you and you pick the word “feet”. Therefore, when your mind wanders during a performance (e.g., you think about your aching muscles, you worry about the weather), then simply tell yourself the word “feet” and bring your “focus” back to the sensation under your feet. Do this whenever you notice your mind wandering during a performance.

If your job or sport requires you to have a narrow “focus” for an extended period of time, it’s important that you develop an effective strategy for managing your “focus”, since it’s nearly impossible to stay fully “focused” all the time. In a commentary, Dr. Tribble, a world leader in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery mentioned, that it’s important to create a rhythm between having a narrow and broad “focus”. Like swimming the breaststroke, “you come up for air, transiently becoming aware of more of your surroundings, and then you regain your focus during the next stroke with your face in the water” (Tribble & Newburg, 1998).

Although you can improve your “focus” during a performance by following the instructions outlined above, you can also increase it at home. A great way to do this is to meditate regularly! Luckily, I will be covering this topic next week. In the meantime, refer to my blog post entitled “body scan” (tweaks 2 MYC #18) to get started!

Set goals. Do just one thing at a time. Keep it simple and smart. Do it consistently. Reflect on the process.

Reference

Tribble, C., & Newburg, D. (1998). Learning to fly: Teaching mental strategies to future surgeons. Journal of Excellence, 1, 6-19. Retrieved from http://www.zoneofexcellence.ca/Journal.html

TWEAKS 2 MYC #19: MUSIC

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It’s safe to say that most of us have experienced the power of music. I’m sure that everyone who listens to music can think of at least one song that has shaped them into the person they are today. This is because music can make you feel a vast array of emotions. It can inspire you. It can make you smile, cry, love, hate, relax, or dance!

Music can therefore be a powerful tool that can help you “master your craft”. When used thoughtfully, it can have a tremendous positive impact on your mind and body! Music can optimise arousal, reduce perceived exertion during submaximal exercise, increase positive emotions, and improve energy efficiency (Karageorghis & Priest, 2012).

More specifically, you can listen to music before a competition or during a training session to get yourself into “the zone” (i.e., increase or decrease your arousal). In addition, you can listen to it during a hard training session to dissociate yourself from the fatigue that you are experiencing (e.g., focus on the lyrics and/or beat rather than your “burning muscles”).

Below are the basic instructions on how to create your own personalized playlist:

  • Give yourself 30 minutes to complete this exercise
  • Determine exactly how you would like to feel before a competition or during a training session
    • Do you want to increase or decrease your arousal?
  • Select songs that will help you feel the way you want to feel
    • Increase arousal (>120 bpm)
    • Decrease arousal (<80 bpm)
    • Consider the lyrical content
  • To create a cohesive music mix, think about
    • Beat matching
    • Style matching
    • Artist matching
    • Era matching

Although music is associated with an increase in physical and mental performance, not everyone should listen to it before a competition or during a training session. You should avoid listening to music when learning a new motor task or during high-intensity exercises that require your full attention. Furthermore, some people are better able to get themselves into “the zone” by not listening to music. For instance, Matthias Steiner, gold medalist in weightlifting at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, stated in an interview: “A lot of other guys listen to music, but I intentionally don’t. I leave it all at home, because I want to feel the atmosphere, if I listen to music I’ll be distracted”.

The important point here is that you must figure out what works best for you! If music helps you feel the way you want to feel then create your own personalized playlist!

Set goals. Do just one thing at a time. Keep it simple and smart. Do it consistently. Reflect on the process.

Reference

Karageorghis, C. I., & Priest, D.-L. (2012). Music in the exercise domain: A review and synthesis (Part II). International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5, 67-84.

TWEAKS 2 MYC #18: BODY SCAN

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Eastern philosophers have always stressed the importance of living in the “present moment”. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, that “to live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now”.

Being in the “present moment” is a state of mind that enables you to be fully immersed in the activity you’re doing. You are in tune with all your senses, you don’t think about the past or the future, and you don’t use your mind to describe what is happening to you in the “present moment”.

Although most of us can understand the importance of living in the “present moment” from an intellectual standpoint, only a handful of people seem to have the ability to experience this state of mind on a daily basis. So what can we possibly do to be more “present”?

An easy way to become more “present” and stop being in our “heads” all the time is to do what we call a “body scan”. A “body scan” is a form a meditation where you focus your awareness on the sensations in your body. This type of meditation exercise has been linked to improvements in the tendency to describe one’s experience, rumination (repetitive thinking), self-compassion, and psychological well-being (Sauer-Zavala et al., 2013). Moreover, Kaufman and colleagues (2009) found that a mindfulness training program, which included “body scan” exercises, enhanced athletes’ flow, mindfulness, and aspects of sport confidence.

Below are the basic instructions on how to properly perform a “body scan”:

  • Practice this exercise every day
  • Set your timer for 5 minutes
  • Sit down in an armless chair
  • Place your feet firmly on the ground with your knees at 90 degrees
  • Keep your back straight
  • Place your hands on your thighs
  • Relax your arms, shoulders, neck, and jaw
  • Close your eyes
  • Take 3 deep breaths
  • Focus your awareness on the “sensations” in your body (e.g., sensations in your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and organs such as tightness, suppleness, pain, spasms, energy levels, pressure, vibration, heat, and weight)
  • If your mind wanders (e.g., you are thinking about the past or future, you feel anger or boredom, you label your sensations), simply recognize it (you can tell yourself, “my mind is wandering”), and then bring your awareness back to the “sensations” in your body
  • Scan your body parts in the following order: toes, feet, calves, thighs, pelvis, glutes, lower back, stomach, chest, upper back, shoulder, arms, forearms, hands, fingers, traps, neck, jaw, mouth, nose, eyes, top of the head
  • Once you are done going through each body part, focus your awareness on the sensations in your “whole” body.

To be effective, meditation needs to be practiced consistently. For instance, you will reap many more health benefits if you do a 5-minute “body scan” 7 days per week, rather than a 60-minute “body scan” once in a while. Therefore, make sure that you pencil in your meditation sessions into your schedule!

Once you feel comfortable with a 5-minute “body scan”, you can increase your total time by 2 minutes and 30 seconds if you desire. However, if increasing your total time means increasing your chances of not doing it, then keep your sessions short (around 5 minutes). If you have the time and enjoy this meditation exercise, try going all the way up to 20 minutes!

A “body scan” is a great introduction to the world of meditation. There are many other types of meditation exercises out there, as well as important concepts to keep in mind. However, you don’t need to worry about that right now. I will cover these different exercises and concepts in future blog posts. Just stay tuned!

Set goals. Do just one thing at a time. Keep it simple and smart. Do it consistently. Reflect on the process.

References

Kaufman, K. A., Glass, C. R., & Arnkoff, D. B. (2009). Evaluation of mindful sport performance enhancement (MSPE): A new approach to promote flow in athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology3, 334-356.

Sauer-Zavala, S. E., Walsh, E. C., Eisenlohr-Moul, T. A., & Lykins, E. L. B. (2013). Comparing mindfulness-based intervention strategies: Differential effects of sitting meditation, body scan, and mindful yoga. Mindfulness, 4, 383-388.