How to Live Mindfully on the Run
Clinical psychologist Dr Chantal Hofstee says living mindfully can be done ‘on the run’
What if we could train ourselves, without a daily dose of formal meditation, to remain calm and in control, reacting to inconveniences with grace, learning and moving on from uncomfortable feelings and basically just being a consistent cool cat? Is it really possible? Oh sure. What if your two-year-old decided to draw and tip milk all over your friend’s expensive white chair, moments before you were due to leave for an important presentation? How would you avoid having a meltdown then?
Dr Chantal Hofstee managed not to when this very scenario happened to her. In her new book Mindfulness On the Run she explains how, despite feeling the panic start to rise, she was able to clean up, keep calm and carry on. All by focusing on her breathing and surroundings, being mindful of her posture, and questioning the validity of her stressful thoughts. By now, they’d become quite self-critical (along the lines of ‘No one will take me seriously if I’m late’).
“If you can bring your attention from worrying about potential negative outcomes to what is happening in the moment, it makes the stress just melt away,” says Hofstee, over a plate of waffles at her favourite Kingsland cafe. “Then you address what was triggering the worry much more effectively.”
The irony is that Hofstee is being taken increasingly seriously. The Dutch clinical psychologist is poised to become the Dr Libby of mindfulness. Through her clinical practice Renew Your Mind, her regular mindfulness workshops and speaking engagements and now her first book, she is literally on a mission to change our minds. Hofstee is adamant we shouldn’t just accept stress as an unavoidable part of life. Not when prolonged stress can cause such ugly side effects as immune, digestive and sleep problems, irritability, tension, narrow thinking and peeved partners.
“Stress is like smoking,” she says. “People are addicted to it. They find it hard to imagine they can be successful without stressing when in fact you can be just as productive, if not more so.”
Hofstee’s dedication to mindfulness on the run kicked in four years ago, when she had her son and was juggling motherhood with running her clinical psychology practice. The calm frame of mind she’d fostered for years soon dissolved into a mountain of stress. So she started small: learning to focus on the enjoyment of her morning coffee, rather than checking emails or rushing around cleaning. She also reignited her practice of the techniques she taught her clients.
The catalyst for the book was more serendipitous. When Hoftstee and her husband put the top level of their Titirangi house on Air B&B, the publisher of Exisle Publishing rented it out. The company, which happens to be just across the road, were looking for a New Zealand-based mindfulness expert to write a book on the subject, and Hofstee, with her growing public reach, fit the bill.
Already pressed for time with a second baby joining the brood, Hofstee initially turned them down. But the idea gnawed away at her, until she realised she could set aside her Saturday mornings from 6-9 to write, without compromising work or family life. If nothing else, the book, written over the course of a year, is a potent reminder that busy-ness is a matter of perspective.
Mindfulness on the Run is a plain-speaking guide on how to react to life’s ups and downs in a kind and non-judgemental way, plus practical advice on how to bring this skill into relationships. It’s what Hofstee calls “mindfulness plus”, drawing on neuroscience, psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy, as much as traditional mindfulness and relaxation techniques.
Despite its time-saving premise, you will have to put in the time and effort to make the techniques habit. Especially as the brain has a tendency to revert to old thinking habits, looking for evidence of its negative beliefs, even if there’s no truth to them.
But the payoff is greater access to what Hofstee calls the “green brain”, the state of mind we associate with feeling positive, relaxed and creative, as opposed to the “red brain”, that sense of a perceived threat that has the capacity to take us over, cause a racing heart, black-and-white thinking and rash behaviour.
“Our brains are wired for survival, rather than happiness,” Hofstee explains. “These days we don’t need to be worried about bears and fires and tribes out to get us. But the emotional part of the brain still functions in that way.”
One of the habits she encourages is to pay attention to what we tell ourselves. ‘I don’t have enough time’ is a common thought that isn’t necessarily true but has the potential to cause stress and deprive ourselves of opportunities. It’s worth investigating the “layers” beneath these thoughts, Hofstee adds. She gives the example of a workshop participant whose stressful thought was ‘Can I retire comfortably?’
“The worry is that ‘I won’t’. I asked him, ‘What would happen then?’ He said, ‘If I can’t retire comfortably I won’t be able to be of service to people.’ What would happen then? ‘They won’t need me anymore.’ What would happen then? ‘They won’t have reason to be around me anymore.’ What then? ‘I will end up alone’. What then? ‘I will be miserable.’
So the real fear is that people are interested only if he has something financial to offer. At the core of that is ‘I’m not good enough’. At the core of that is a fear of rejection, that who I am is not enough. When people begin to unravel and identify that, there’s a big shift. It creates an opening where they can begin to change these stressful thoughts into something more helpful.”
Likewise, it’s all too easy to mentally call yourself an idiot or a bad mother but we wouldn’t speak this way to others, or put up with it if someone spoke this way to us. Often, says Hofstee, it’s a silent form of abuse.
“So why not have boundaries around how you talk to yourself? For example, instead of saying ‘I am angry’; say ‘I feel angry’. Things like that make a big impact.”
The book elaborates on self-inquiry techniques from Byron Katie, plus Hoftsee’s own twist on a powerful emotion processing technique she learnt from Auckland counsellor Pauline Skeates, called Acknowledge-Link-Let Go.
“It has created the biggest change for me. It takes me from the emotion having me, to me having the emotion. The more I practise, the more I realise my emotions are not there to get rid of as quickly as possible. They are there to communicate something to me. And if I listen to them and take it seriously, without giving them any control, that’s where I make really good decisions.”
• Mindfulness on the Run by Dr Chantal Hofstee, $24.99, published by Exisle Publishing, is out now. To register for her monthly workshops, visit drchantalhofstee.com
HOW TO PROCESS EMOTIONS USING ‘ACKNOWLEDGE-LINK-LET GO’
Step one: Acknowledge the emotion so the brain can begin to process it. You could do this by greeting it, i.e. ‘Hello anger’.
Step two: Link it to the event that caused it, i.e. ‘It makes perfect sense that you are here given what I have gone through.’ When you say this, your brain automatically begins to scan your past for underlying, unprocessed events. Memories come up, creating sometimes surprising insights and uncovering links you were not aware of.
Step three: Put one hand on your chest, and one on your stomach. Take a deep breath. Breathe out and relax. Say or think ‘I let it go’. Repeat a few times.