Calming the Mind by Counting to 10 – with a Focus Twist

I’ve posted several times about different counting techniques that I’ve used to help calm and ground myself (counting backwards, counting 100 breaths). It sounds like such a simple thing, but it is surprisingly effective.

Counting is one of those things that we naturally learn when we are very young, and because it’s so familiar to us, we can do it with ease as adults.

Job #1 is to stop the swirling thoughts so that you can drop back to sleep.

This ease comes in handy when our Monkey Mind is jumping around like mad, stewing over what has happened or fearing for what is to come. Counting gives it something to do so that its attention is drawn away from anxious thoughts.

In particular, I’ve found this to be useful at night when falling back to sleep has been hindered by that incessant buzz of thinking that won’t go away.

The technique that I’ve used over the last few weeks weaves a counting pattern like this:

Become aware of your body lying in bed. Try to soften the most obvious places of tension (for me, neck and shoulders) and turn your attention to your breath.

Begin by focusing on your inhales of your breaths and counting them, up to ten. Then, switch your focus to your exhales, counting each one up to ten. And again, switch back to focusing on the inhales, continuing this way

The combination of counting up to ten and focusing on either the inhales or exhales provides enough of a distraction from your thoughts, but requires some gentle attention to keep on track. The switching of focus invites your mind to return to the breath.

Counting sheep might work just fine, but counting breaths helps you stay present and grounded.

I’ve found ten to be a very good number; however, five would also work. Whatever you prefer. This might require experimentation to see what is best for you. For example, counting to two might work better for some people during waking hours when there is naturally more stimulation around.

As you establish a pattern with your breath, extend your exhales regardless of where your focus is. This helps slow both your breath and heartrate.

Again, this technique works because counting to ten is simple and unstimulating, allowing the mind to lull itself into a calmer state. When I find myself missing ten and instead counting into the teens without switching my inhale-exhale focus, I know that I’m beginning to drift off. I gently stay with it, but sleep is nearby.

What Would You Like to Think About? – Visualizing a Positive Headspace

Some time back, I listened to a lovely guided meditation on the Insight Timer app by Emma Polette in which she instructed the listener to “feel how you want to feel”. I wrote a post about this because I thought it was a perfect morning exercise, one that helps train you to establish a sense of awareness of how much control you yourself have in how you feel.

Well, I wanted to revisit this concept but with a focus on thoughts, since so many of us deal with overactive minds.

Take a comfortable seat and think…what would you like to fill your head up with?

Find yourself a quiet spot and turn your attention to your thoughts. Regardless of how much brain chatter you’re currently experiencing, consider what you would like to be thinking about.

That’s it. Your mind may be cluttered with worries, but IF you could think about something pleasant and calming, IF that’s where your mind’s focus could be, what you be thinking about?

Allow yourself to sink into this. Maybe your mind would be focused on potential successes in your career, troubleshooting a problem that you haven’t had time to devote attention to? Maybe you would simply focus on the task at hand, without intrusive thoughts invading your headspace? Maybe you would sit quietly without feelings of self-blame or incompetence? Or imagine yourself breezing through a situation with a difficult individual?

Ah, headspace! There’s nothing more delicious than getting a nice big helping of perspective.

The act of asking ourselves what we would like to be thinking about requires us to take a step back and make space for it. The realization that we have the ability to decide what to think about unshackles us from our thoughts. The more we do this, the more we widen the gap between what we think and our concept of ourselves, making it easier to observe the thoughts before us rather than to be sucked into the torrent of images and feelings that course through our minds.

What we fill our minds with is so powerful in terms of affecting certain wanted outcomes. It is often during periods of mindfulness meditation that things I’ve forgotten come back to me, I realize solutions to problems or come up with useful ideas. That’s what a calm mind is perfect for.

And so often, people lament that things are not they way they want them to be. So why not use that opportunity to truly feel into and savor what your mindset would be if things felt good? And then, if it’s available to you, maintain that mindset.

What would you be thinking…and how would that feel? A sense of peace and self-confidence? Perhaps space, distance from negative thoughts.

Give it a try and see how it feels.

Wound a Bit Tight? Meditating with Muscle Release

I, like so many people, keep a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders. Some days it feels as though my neck is made of steel, but not in a good way.

The reality is that I don’t even realize how tight those muscles are until I lie down and try to relax.

So I have made a meditation of this for bedtime. Instead of focusing on the sensation of my breath, the focus is on releasing the tension in my neck and upper shoulders.

It may sound like I would not be able to squeeze an entire meditation session out of this, but oh, I can.

Complete release takes focus!

Lying down on my back I inhale, and then with the exhale, I focus on my neck and relax it, releasing the rest of my body along with it. With the following exhale, I do that again. That’s because while I may think that the initial release took care of the tension, there is still tightness there and I really have to work on it mentally to release that.

It’s as though my neck muscles are springs that I can stretch, releasing tension through the exhale, but once I let go (inhale) the “memory” in my muscles tightens them up again.

It helps to imagine my body melting, as if I’m being drawn downward into the Earth.

I can keep going like this, feeling my chin inch slightly towards my chest as the tension releases. Melting into the mattress. The more I release, the more subtle the sensation, yet very satisfying. The more I relax, the more deeply I breathe and everything lets go.

The awareness of what is going on in my body helps so much, but the tension is tenacious. This is not surprising, given how much mental weight my neck and shoulders bear. So it is a dance between releasing and returning to release again. Little by little until I eventually fall asleep.

Being in Your Body: A Mindfulness Visualization

I came across a delightful mindfulness visualization on the Calm meditation app, presented by meditation teacher Jeff Warren who credits his teacher, Dan Clurman, with relating the idea of this exercise.

It is an effective and immersive way to ground yourself into the present moment with the emphasis on being in your body.

Imagine that your body is an hour glass and that the falling sand brings awareness as it fills the glass, from the bottom up.

Imagine that you are an hourglass and your awareness is the cool sand that falls from above. First, bring your awareness down into your feet and ankles, feeling into the sensations there, filling up not only that part of your body, but also inviting attention into the space between your feet and around them at the bottom of the hourglass. Feel the level of your awareness rise.

Now invite your awareness to fill up your legs, while still keeping attention on your feet and ankles. Notice how the level of these “sands of awareness” travels up and fills out the space up to your hips. Feel into how that feels, not trying to change anything, but simply noticing any sensations.

In this way, continue to work your way upwards, allowing these “sands” to gradually fill up your body as they empty from your mind. Allow the swirling thoughts to release and drop down to light up your lower limbs, your entire torso, your arms and shoulders little by little. Maintain awareness of the parts of your body that have awakened already, so that as you move along in this way, the sensations in your body build and you feel the liveliness of the present moment in them.

Finally, coming to the top of your head, feel into all the sensations vibrating through your entire body, perhaps gentle tingling in your feet and legs or a subtle pulsing in your arms and hands. Maybe the awareness of movement through your intestines, the beating of your heart and even the areas where your body makes contact with the surface that supports it.

In this way, you bring the whole of your body into the present, not focusing on just one part, but on everything that makes up your physical presence, and also the space around your physical presence, while at the same time relieving your mind of the pressures exerted by thinking. As your body fills, your mind empties and thoughts are replaced by a sense of peace and well-being.

I’ve tried this a number of times and found it to be both grounding and uplifting simultaneously and an effective way to bring myself out of my head and into the here and now. If you’re looking for a different way of engaging in a body scan, give it a try.

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Please note that a form of this meditation appeared on the Calm app on April 29, 2022, as an installment of Jeff Warren’s Daily Trip.

While I am a subscriber to Calm, I do not receive compensation for writing about the app. I am simply a very satisfied user.

When I Can’t Keep Images Out of My Head

When I first started my mindfulness meditation journey, I was taught to use the breath as the point of focus. It is a reliable anchor, always there to return to when you inevitably drift off into thought. It is a stable grounding force that keeps us present.

But there are times when it’s hard to focus on the breath. Perhaps when the mind is especially busy. At those times, I switch to other bodily sensations, such as tingling in my hands or pressure from contact with the surface that I’m sitting on. I wrote a post about moving between two points of focus to help the mind maintain concentration without wandering off. That helps too.

Some days my monkey mind is particularly loud and attention-seeking.

And sometimes my chattering “monkey mind” calls for a switch to an auditory focal point such as gentle music, singing bowls, nature sounds or even simply street noises. Those will keep me present as long as I don’t fall into the trap of making stories about the sounds.

But some days are extra tough.

I tend to avoid meditating with my eyes open. Doing so only reminds me that I need to clean my desk or vacuum the carpet (“guilt-guilt, blame-blame”). However, I am a very visual person with a vivid imagination, and opening my eyes immediately grounds me if my thoughts get too pervasive when my eyes are closed.

Sometimes a thought will trigger an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling simply because a seemingly-innocuous scene has been associated with a disturbing event. The scene flashes before my eyes andbefore I know it I’m down a rabbit hole. Monkey mind is activated.

While staying with bodily sensations would be preferable, some days there are too many opportunities for my monkey mind to run away with me. It can get exhausting and counterproductive to “dodge” these visuals. Yes, we are “supposed to” let the thoughts pass by us without getting caught up in them. But there are days when they agitate me too much and throw me off track.

Tree!

So I’m cutting myself some slack and turning the “problem” into the solution. On those difficult days, I focus on an image of my own choosing. Something that I can visualize clearly so that it keeps the monkey occupied while at the same time keeping me away from troubling scenes. You could argue that I’m “avoiding” the thoughts. But I see this differently–I’m giving myself a little break from them.

What works best for me? An image unencumbered by potent associations–this is different for each person. A tree, for example, works for me. It might be a thin white birch tree or as majestic and meaningful as Yggdrasil. The tree itself doesn’t matter as much as that I choose it according to what suits me and what soothes me. I can focus on its rough bark, veiny leaves and thick canopy and the sensations that these things evoke to keep away from creating stories.

And if this results in greater concentration, I have the option of hopping back to the breath. Or not.

This might not seem like an earth-shattering revelation. There are relatively popular mountain and lake meditations, so this concept is not new. But with all the emphasis on feeling into your breath in an effort to calm the thinking mind, sometimes it’s simpler to not worry about the “shoulds” and instead see what your own self needs to help it let go and settle into peace.

Making Meditation Easier

So the recurring theme in my posts about meditation is the struggle that I have with maintaining focus. This has been complicated by breast cancer medications that are associated with cognitive effects, not to mention the eventual menopause and “brain fog” that has resulted from them.

And while I’ve taken all sorts of classes and scoured meditation how-tos, I used to wonder, am I even doing this “right”? Shouldn’t I have an easier time with this by now?

A recent “Daily Trip” contemplation on the Calm smartphone app, narrated by meditation teacher Jeff Warren, reminded me that it’s important not to overthink what we’re doing.

The breath is a wonderful point of focus because it moves through our body and elicits sensations in a number of places.

Often in mindfulness meditation, we’re taught to use different aspects of our breath as an “anchor” or point of focus. The breath is a nice anchor to use because it helps us move inward while still staying present. It’s also a moving target, so to speak, so it might be more interesting to watch (and therefore focus on) than a static sensation.

But people are different, and if it’s really not working for you, or if focusing on your breathing actually makes you feel more anxious, you can switch to another focal point. How about the sensation in the hands, the feeling of your body’s weight against the surface on which it rests, or the distant sounds around you?

Maybe you even use several anchors within a single meditation (consider dual focus). The idea is to remain present and aware of what is happening now, even if you have open all your senses in order to do so. What anchor(s) work(s) best for YOU? It is, after all, YOUR meditation.

What really matters is just that you make it back to the present.

And then, instead of worrying about maintaining focus, what if we let go of that? It’s okay, even expected, for your mind to drift off. I would argue that losing focus is an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Because it gives us the opportunity to be aware that we are no longer focused. And once you realize this, you have returned to the present. Nice job!

The more you practice this back-and-forth, like tossing a beach ball between your anchor and your errant thoughts, the more adept you will become at realizing that your thoughts have carried you away. The more you do that, the easier it will become to return to your anchor, and that’s the whole idea.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

Staying Present: Dual Focus Meditation

If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you might have found it difficult to hold focus on your breath. But the reality is that you don’t need to be a beginner to struggle with this. There are some days that the mind refuses to be still and even a long-time meditator will find themselves carried away by thoughts.

In an effort to help keep my head here and now, I started paying attention to how it was that I lost focus. For me, it happens during the lull between breaths.

The breath remains the main focus.

What is that lull? Well, there’s a very short, almost imperceptible pause between my inhale and exhale. I’m okay during that time because I can focus on the sensations in my chest and belly. That’s not the pause that gives me problems.

It’s after the exhale that I experience a longer pause before the next breath begins, especially if my breaths are slower and deeper, because my body doesn’t require another breath right away. And that’s when I’m more likely to “see something shiny” and my mind wanders off.

But I found that by focusing on my hands during this pause, I could keep my random thoughts at bay.

If you’re having focus issues and would like to try this, all you need to do is consider your focus as cyclic. First, with the inhale and exhale, focus on the breath sensation–choose wherever you feel the air movement most distinctly, such as the rising & falling of your chest, the rushing of air in and out of your nostrils, or similar. It will be different from person to person.

Next, during the pause between your breaths, turn your focus to the sensations in your hands and fingers. There may be some tingling or throbbing, or perhaps nothing discernable. That’s okay. Just see if there’s anything there that you can feel.

Then, when your next inhale begins, pay attention to the breath again.

The main point of this exercise is to stay present during those times that the mind is very active.

It may sound like you’re jumping from one body part to another, but in reality the transition is very smooth. The focus on the hands gives you a place to go until the next breath returns, all the while keeping you present.

When I first tried this, I thought I was “cheating” because I wasn’t staying with the breath. And I had to remind myself that the purpose of this wasn’t to earn a gold star for being the best “focus-on-only-the-breath” meditator. It was to stay with whatever was happening “now”.

Allowing a slight change in focus when my mind is active keeps me present. Staying present calms me more effectively. And that helps me return to the meditation cushion day after day after day.

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There is beauty in the stillness that we experience between breaths. This dual focus practice isn’t meant to pull us away from that. Rather, it gives us a focus for those days when the mind is active and easily distracted, and appreciating that stillness is not available to us.

Is It Metastasis or Menopause?

Ever get the funny feeling that something’s wrong?

Like things are a bit “off” but you can’t be sure? I’ve been dealing with that ever since I got off letrozole, an endocrine therapy for breast cancer with a reputation for being difficult to take.

As of this posting, I’ve been off letrozole for 117 days exactly–yes, I’m counting. I’m still shaking off side effects like stupid-crazy joint stiffness, but at least I can tell things have improved.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’ve taken a few rides in the MRI tube already. Not in any hurry to repeat that.

Right now I’m having some “really intense” memory and focus issues. I’ve put “really intense” in quotes, because I talk in superlatives so that my concerns are taken seriously. It’s a bad habit, especially when speaking to an oncologist, because it’s a sure way to end up in an MRI tube. Again.

In the past, my oncologist suggested that my memory problems might have been related to anxiety and not the medications I was on. That’s quite possible, although it’s hard to tease apart “anxiety” and “med side effects”. I mean, simply being told you have cancer causes an immediate spike of the Stress-O-Meter. For someone as anxiety-prone as me, it’s like I’m constantly red-lining.

Now I’m off the endocrine therapy and my memory and distractibility seem to have gotten even worse. What I had before wasn’t like THIS.

It’s kind of like saying, “This hurts. I think I’m being hit on the head with a hammer.” But then you actually get hit by a hammer, and think, “WHOA, now THIS is being hit on the head with a hammer!”

If thoughts are beads on a string, my beads are dropping off at a constant rate, leaving me wondering what I was about to do three seconds ago. And getting distracted by shiny objects. Couple that with having to learn a complex new financial system for work (grrrrr, Larry Ellison), not having helpful documentation to do so and having to go through that while being mainly confined to my bedroom for over a year…yeah, it’s a mess.

I am not being rational and I know it. But I’m still on high alert and dialing my fears down is going to take time.

Because my breast cancer was HER2+–which has been associated with metastases to the brain–my anxious little self immediately thinks, “Wait, maybe this is cancer’s spread stealing my thoughts???” I think that I will forever be jumping to that as the first possibility.

That’s not completely unreasonable, either. According to “Medical News Today”, memory problems are listed as one of the symptoms of brain metastases, along with headaches, stroke, seizures, confusion, dizziness…okay not really experiencing any of those.

And the Mayo Clinic metastasis website asks: what are the most likely causes of my symptoms? So, I admit, a brain tumor probably isn’t, given all the other more likely possibilities: menopause, work stress, loneliness, lack of purpose…and *cough* listening to Twitch video streams while I’m trying to focus.

So really, these memory issues could be a completely normal effect of menopause, but in the cancer context the possibilities are frightening. It takes a lot of perspective to be able to look at what’s going on and realize that it’s not aberrant or dangerous. I feel like an idiot for jumping to the worst conclusions, but here I am…

It’s a survivor thing.

Grounding Through the Fingertips: Hand Steepling

Note: this is another grounding technique, by which I mean a way to retain focus on what is happening in the “now” rather than getting lost in memories of the past, which we cannot change, or succumbing to fears about what may happen in the future. It’s not a woo-woo magical technique. It’s merely being mindful about what is currently taking place so that you can respond appropriately and maintain your composure.

During acute stress, we need to bring ourselves back to the present quickly. By doing so, we are able to clear our heads of the “what-ifs” and “you shouldas” that cloud our thoughts at those times.

But what’s the fastest way to do that? For me, it’s definitely focusing on the fingertips. Each fingertip has approximately 3,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the body (except the most intimate). When you touch something, all those nerves start firing.

You can take advantage of this sensitivity to ground yourself.

Channel Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and put your fingertips together.

This is what I do: I “steeple” my fingers (thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger, etc.) as if I were Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock contemplating a complex situation. The fingertip pressure immediately commands attention from my fearful mind in the same way that a boss displaying that hand gesture would command an employee’s attention. Taking deeper breaths, I rub my fingertips against each other in a circular motion. The movement enables the nerve endings on the fingertips to keep firing as the sensation continues. Or I can bounce my fingertips off each other, or keep them together but flex the fingers to create a pulsing motion.

Closing my eyes accentuates the emphasis on sensation and makes maintaining focus on it easier.

Yes, this seems so simple, but it’s also quite effective. By placing our focus on the fingertips, we take our attention away from more reactive parts of the body like the chest area, where the heart might be beating fast and ribcage expanding and contracting with rapid breathing. Feeling into those areas might only serve to reinforce the heightened emotions that we’re experiencing.

The hands lie further away from that commotion, and that distance between the chest and our fingertip sensations enables us, if even for a short while, to get some perspective. Think of it as the anxiety not being “in your face”.

We can use body sensations as anchors to help stabilize us through anxious times.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, all I “see” is that sensation of fingertip to fingertip, as if it’s the only thing that exists. I can play with this, imagining that I’m holding something between my hands, and that the sensation I feel is actually the feeling of that object against my fingers. It can be a pane of glass or even a beach ball. It all depends on what my brain is willing to accept at the moment. It’s a relaxing mental exercise.

As with many things related to mindfulness, it’s helpful to practice this fingertip pose when we’re in a relaxed and meditative state to connect the sensation to a feeling of calm, enabling it to serve as an anchor when our emotional seas are rough. The more we practice, the stronger that association, and the more effective the grounding response when we use this technique in the midst of anxiety.

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Fun fact: body language experts consider steepled fingers to be an expression of confidence. That might be the little boost you need when you’re navigating a stressful event!

Mental Grounding Through the Roof of Your Mouth

Okay, this is going to sound weird, but I’ve found that this really works.

A little background: in the midst of a stressful situation, I struggle with staying present and grounded. While I try to focus on and slow my breathing, that can be ineffective, since my heart is often beating quickly and, you guessed it, focusing on my breath brings me to close to my heart. It’s hard to ignore the pounding.

I’ve written before about turning attention to the extremities, in particular the hands and feet, feeling into the sensations there, since they are as far as you can get from your heart and still be in your body.

But most of us are very aware of our hands and even our feet since we get signals from them all day long as we manipulate objects and walk around. It’s not a new sensation. Even digging your nails into the palm of your hands may end up as a stressor of its own (ow!).

Granted, we’re not hippos. But IF we were, we would have a whole lotta palate to explore!

However, one place in our body that can still elicit novel sensations is the roof of the mouth. Even for someone like me, who often scratches my palate with hard veggie stems and uses my tongue to feel around up there, the ridges and other surfaces still seem new and unexplored.

Imagine that you’re drawing a topographical map of the inside of the mouth: feel where the teeth sit in the gums, and the hard area to the inside of the teeth traveling deeper in, how that hard ridge drops off into the concave part of the hard palate, curving up and then softening into the soft palate.

One of the supposed benefits of stroking the roof of the mouth with the tongue is that doing so can purportedly stimulate the vagus nerve, and thereby the parasympathetic nervous system, because the vagus nerve rests close to the surface of the inside of the mouth. All of this may have a calming effect, which is exactly what you’re looking for.

Just thinking about the sourness of biting into a lemon makes my salivary glands go bonkers!

It’s also worth noting that in the throes of stressful situations, our mouths tend to dry out. Something to try the next time you’re anxious and cotton-mouthed: elicit salivation by simply thinking about something extremely sour–imagine biting into a slice of lemon. Try that now, visualize it as realistically as you can, and chances are your salivary glands will respond. Mine are just writing about this!

When you are able to focus on bodily sensations you bring yourself back to the reality of the here and now. It removes you from the fear of what may be, and gives you the opportunity to come back to Earth, take a deep breath and carry on.

So next time you are feeling overwhelmed, see if you can allow the novelty of the roof of your mouth to buy you some breathing room.