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Destress your life in 10 easy steps

By Danny Penman and Mark Williams, Special to CNN
updated 7:14 AM EST, Tue January 17, 2012
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism and being compassionate with yourself.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism and being compassionate with yourself.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At this time of year, exhaustion, stress and unhappiness can dominate our lives
  • When you eat without thinking, you miss out on wonderful flavors, textures
  • Think back to when things seemed less frantic and duplicate your activities

Editor's note: Mark Williams and Danny Penman are the authors of "Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World."

(CNN) -- The gloomy days of January can be the most miserable and stressful of the year, but it doesn't have to be this way. If you follow this ten step guide to destressing your life, then the next few weeks just might become the most serene and fulfilling ones of the year.

One step should be carried out on each of the next 10 days. They're based on the ideas found in the international best-seller "Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World."

The book uses a program based on mindfulness meditation developed by us at Oxford University in the United Kingdom to relieve anxiety, stress, exhaustion and depression. Mindfulness has proved in some clinical trials to be at least as effective as drugs or counseling for dealing with these conditions.

So what is this mindfulness?

It is quite simply paying full, whole-hearted attention. A typical meditation involves paying full attention to the breath as it flows in and out of the body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them.

Mindfulness is about observation without criticism and being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hovers overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat it as if it was a black cloud in the sky, and to observe it with friendly curiosity as it drifts past.

Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability. When these negative thoughts arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that people who regularly meditate see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases and reaction times become faster.

Here are 10 ways to decrease stress and increase mindful meditation in your life:

Day 1: Eat some chocolate

At this time of year, it's easy to eat too much chocolate and other high-carb "comfort foods." At first, all that lovely rich food is packed with flavor and totally irresistible. but after a while, you hardly notice it at all. And if you are in a rush, it tends to be wolfed down by the handful.

When you eat without thinking you miss out on so many wonderful flavors, textures and aromas. A single bar of chocolate, for example, has more than 300 flavors. How many of them do you normally taste?

Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness, so why not try this chocolate meditation to help you enjoy your food again?

You can listen to it here

Day 2: Go for a short walk

Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. It's the ideal way of taking a break from all of that work that built up during the holidays.

Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever.
Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever.

So today, why not go for a 15- to 30-minute walk? You don't have to go anywhere special. A walk around your neighborhood, taken in an open frame of mind, can be just as interesting as a hike through the mountains.

There's no need to feel that you have to rush anywhere; the aim is to walk as mindfully as you can, focusing your awareness on your feet as they land on the ground and feeling the fluid movements of all the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs.

Pay attention to all of the sights, sounds and smells. You might see the deep red color of the berries on the trees and bushes or perhaps the inky grayness of slushy ice and snow. See if it is possible to be open to all your senses: Smell the mustiness of the winter leaves; feel the rain on your head; the breeze on your face; watch how the patterns of light and shade shift unexpectedly.

Day 3: Take a three-minute breathing space

When you're becoming angry, exhausted, anxious or stressed, it's difficult to remember why you should remain calm. And at such times, it can feel as if the whole world was created just to bait you.

The three-minute breathing space was created to deal with such feelings. Its impact is twofold.

First, it's a meditation that's used to punctuate the day, so that it dissolves negative thought patterns before they gain control over your life. Secondly, it's an emergency meditation that helps ground you when your thoughts threaten to spiral out of control.

When you are carrying out the meditation, you may find that your mind repeatedly runs away with itself. This is entirely natural. It's what minds do. They leap around and offer up thoughts to your conscious self, much as a child hold's up his or her toys to an approving adult. When you find that your mind has wandered, gently escort it back to full awareness and continue following the instructions on the track as best you can.

You can listen to the meditation here

Day 4: Do something pleasurable

At this time of year, exhaustion, stress and unhappiness can easily dominate. You can start to experience "anhedonia" -- that is, you can't find pleasure in life. The things you used to enjoy now leave you cold -- you feel as if a thick fog has put a barrier between you and simple pleasures, and few things seem rewarding any more.

You can counteract this by taking baby steps toward the things that you used to like doing but have since forgotten about. You can make a start by choosing one or two of the following things to do (or perhaps come up with your own ideas):

-- Be kind to your body. Have a hot bath; have a nap; treat yourself to your favorite food without feeling guilty; have your favorite hot drink.

-- Do something you enjoy. Visit or phone a friend (particularly if you've been out of contact for a while), get together what you need so you can do your favorite hobby, get some exercise, bake a cake, read something that gives you pleasure, listen to some music that you have not listened to in a long while.

Day 5: The intensely frustrating line meditation

Sometimes life can seem like one big long line. You have to line up to buy gas, to pay for the food in the supermarket and all of the bars and restaurants are crammed with people waiting to order.

Next time you feel like screaming "why don't they just get on with it!", try carrying out our Intensely Frustrating Line Meditation instead.

When you are in a line, see if you can become aware of your reactions when something holds up your progress. Perhaps you joined the "wrong" line, and are obsessing about whether to make a dash for another one that seems shorter? At such times, it is helpful to check in with what's going on in your mind. Taking a moment to ask yourself:

-- What is going through my mind?

-- What sensations are there in my body?

-- What emotions and impulses am I aware of?

Mindfulness accepts that some experiences are unpleasant. Mindfulness will, however, help by allowing you to tease apart the two major flavors of suffering -- primary and secondary.

Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as the frustration of being in a long line. You can acknowledge that it is not pleasant; it's OK not to like it. Secondary suffering is all of the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration, as well as any ensuing thoughts and feelings that often arise in tandem. See if you can see these clearly as well. See if it's possible to allow the frustration to be here without trying to make it go away.

Day 6: Set up a mindfulness bell

Pick a few ordinary activities from daily life that you can turn into "mindfulness bells," that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. There's a list below of things you might like to turn into bells. You don't have to turn them all into mindfulness bells -- they are just suggestions.

-- Preparing food: Food offers a host of opportunities to become more mindful. If you're preparing food, particularly if they are rich in flavors, smells and textures, then try and pay full mindful attention to all that you are doing.

-- Washing the dishes: This is a great opportunity for exploring physical sensations. If you normally use a dishwasher, do them by hand for a change. When your mind wanders, shepherd it back to the present moment. Pay attention to the texture of the dishes, the temperature of the water, the smell of the detergent, etc.

-- Listening to friends: If you are planning to meet a friend, or bump into one unexpectedly, it's easy to lapse into the same tired-old conversations. So why not turn a friend's voice into a "bell" that's a signal to pay full attention to what they are saying? Notice when you are not listening -- when you start to think of something else, what you are going to say in response etc. Come back to actually listening.

Day 7: The ten-finger gratitude exercise

To come to a positive appreciation for the small things in your life, you can try the gratitude exercise. It simply means that once a day you should bring to mind 10 things that you are grateful for, counting them on your fingers. It is important to get to 10 things, even when it becomes increasingly harder after three or four. This is exactly what the exercise is for -- intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.

Day 8: Do the sounds and thoughts meditation

Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. Certain songs might cheer you up -- or send you into an emotional tailspin. Sensing the power of sound -- and its relationship to thoughts and emotion -- is central to mindfulness and to becoming a happier, more relaxed and centered person.

Today, why not try our sounds and thoughts meditation? This elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this -- deep in your heart -- then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes.

This meditation gradually reveals the similarities between sound and thought. Both appear as if from nowhere, and we have no control over their arising. They can easily trigger powerful emotions that run away with us leaving us feeling fragile and broken.

You can download the meditation here

Day 9: Reclaim your life

Think back to a time in your life when things seemed less frantic, before the time when some tragedy or increase in workload took over your daily existence. Or it might be more recent than that, before the run-up to Christmas say, or perhaps a relaxing break in the summer.

Recall in as much detail as you can some of the activities that you used to do at that time. These may be things you did by yourself (reading your favorite magazines or taking time to listen to a track from a favorite piece of music, going out for walks or bike rides) or together with friends or family (from playing board games to going to the theater).

Choose one of these activities and plan to do it today or over this weekend. It may take five minutes or five hours, it might be important or trivial, it might involve others or it could be by yourself.

It is only important that it should be something that puts you back in touch with a part of your life that you had forgotten -- a part of you that you may have been telling yourself was lost somehow, that you could not get back to. Don't wait until you feel like doing it; do it anyway and see what happens. It's time to reclaim your life!

Day 10: Go to the movies

Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies -- but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only when you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected -- the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.

Before you go, notice any thoughts that may arise such as, 'I haven't got time for pleasure', or, 'What if there is nothing on that I'll enjoy?'

They undermine your enthusiasm for taking action and discourage your intention to do something that might nourish your life in important ways. Once you're inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film.

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