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Published July 17, 2013, 10:00 PM

Mindfulness: Finding ways to calm the busy brain

MOORHEAD - When Heidi Brammer walked her dog, she’d focus on problems and other situations that made her anxious. “I would get so focused on what was going on in my mind,” Brammer, of Moorhead, says. “Now I intentionally make myself aware of what’s going on around me.”

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

MOORHEAD - When Heidi Brammer walked her dog, she’d focus on problems and other situations that made her anxious.

“I would get so focused on what was going on in my mind,” Brammer, of Moorhead, says. “Now I intentionally make myself aware of what’s going on around me.”

She uses mindfulness to calm her busy brain. Mindfulness is trying to be present in the moment without judgment, says Nadine Hillesheim, a counselor at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

In short, it’s stopping to smell the roses.

“We spend most of the time in our heads thinking about what’s going to happen in the future and regretting things that have happened,” Hillesheim says. “Mindfulness is kind of bringing us to the moment.”

The concept of mindfulness has been around for centuries, Hillesheim says. Traced back to its roots, she says it’s likely a Buddhist ideal, but anyone can benefit from it. The practice is gaining popularity again, likely because of Americans’ busy, technology-driven lifestyles.

“It’s hard on our brains – being connected all the time,” Hillesheim says. “If you never get a break from it, you operate like it’s the norm.”

Some people might think the concept is “out there,” but Hillesheim says it’s based in science. Mindfulness has been used to deal with chronic pain and stress reduction, she says. Universities and hospitals have found it helps with depression and anxiety, too.

“I think it’s been widely accepted because it’s proven. I think it’s attractive because of the busyness in our lives,” she says.

Hillesheim has studied mindfulness for a decade and regularly teaches mindfulness classes at The Village Family Service Center. Brammer attended a session that started in January, and since then, she’s used mindfulness to help control her anxiety.

“I wanted something that would last a long time, something I could use the rest of my life if I needed to,” she says. “With medications, you don’t want to stay on those for a long time.”

Busy mind

One mindfulness practice that Brammer’s found useful in her daily life is acknowledging her thoughts and emotions and then letting them go.

“Your thoughts can become a cycle. You can get too focused and down a rabbit hole,” she says.

One of the benefits of mindfulness is its ability to “quiet the mind,” Hillesheim says. It can help people achieve calmness during mental chaos.

“ ‘Busy mind’ is a word a lot of people use. It’s a tool to slow that down,” she says. “It’s slowing down to just being.”

Ultimately, the mind would be silent, but Hillesheim says that’s difficult for anyone to accomplish. Instead, she encourages people to slow down, even if it’s just a little bit.

Looking outside for 30 seconds a day and absorbing the color of sky or the beauty of a tree is an example of practicing mindfulness.

“They can be really simple things, but they all work to slow us down and bring us back into the moment,” she says.

People can practice mindfulness formally and informally, Hillesheim says. Some people practice mindfulness without knowing it.

An example of formal practice is sitting for 10 to 20 minutes, breathing and paying attention to the breath. If thoughts come up, Hillesheim says to watch them go on by rather than getting “hooked” into them. She likens the practice to meditation.

Informal practice of mindfulness could include doing a daily task, but fully engaging in it.

“When you’re brushing your teeth or eating a meal, pay attention to the brushing, the food,” Hillesheim says. “It seems kind of crazy, but really attend to the mouthful you’re chewing.”

Brammer found informal practice beneficial. Instead of focusing on problems while she walks her dog, she pays attention to the people she sees on the walk and the scenery around her.

Mindfulness can offer people a fresh perspective on an issue in their life, Hillesheim says. It’s like sleeping on a problem.

“If we stop getting worked up about a co-worker or something, amazingly, some ideas pop into our heads that wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says.

On the job

Construction and a quiet mind might not seem like they go together, but Wanzek Construction, of Fargo, uses mindfulness to prepare its employees each day.

Every morning, crews get together for “Stretch and Flex.”

“It basically gets you mind and body ready for doing work,” says Rob Lee, operations manager at Wanzek Construction.

The crews stretch and talk about the project they’re working on that day. Safety concerns are also discussed since the jobs are often dangerous.

If someone is lagging behind, it’s a good indication they’re not ready to work for the day, Lee says.

Since starting the program five years ago, the company’s seen a significant reduction in injuries, he says.

Red River Dance & Performing Co. also uses mindfulness. Students at the company learn body awareness and breathing techniques from a young age.

“I think one thing that’s really challenging about dance, in a good way, is that it’s body awareness and mental awareness,” says Annika Nynas, an instructor at Red River Dance Co.

As dancers progress, they start learning how to use mental awareness to improve their ballet technique, she says.

Simple movements like pointing the feet encourage dancers to “really feel the movements and understand them,” Nynas says.

Like the dancers, Brammer too tries to stay focused when issues arise in her career. Since she works from home, she’s isolated during the day and doesn’t have anyone to talk to about work-related issues. Her last anxiety attack was related to work issues. Now, she slows down, takes a deep breath, and thinks about the issue that’s bothering her and considers her reaction choices.

Everything starts with taking a slow, long deep breath, Hillesheim says.

“It sounds too simple to even think it’s worthwhile, but part of what it does is it then allows us this platform of choice about what we’re going to do next,” she says. “People typically just react instead of slowing down to consider their options.”

When faced with issues, Hillesheim says people often immediately think, “How do I fix this?” rather than, “How do I feel? What is this?”

“You really do have a better stance to do something about it,” she says. “It’s almost like getting a more objective view on your life.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525