Stepping out of auto pilot

We operate on automatic pilot most of the time and our brains are so powerful that we are able to do most everyday things without actively thinking about what we are doing.  How often do you brush your teeth, put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, wash the dishes, take a shower and hundreds of other daily activities and not even notice anything about what you are doing?

When we learn to drive a car we pay attention to the steering, we focus on how much pressure we apply to the accelerator, concentrate on the tricky manoeuvre of depressing the clutch and releasing the accelerator whilst changing gear, and then breaking without catapulting the instructor through the windscreen. In the beginning, we wonder how on earth we are going to master this skill as there are so many different things to focus on simultaneously, however, within a few weeks we have begun to do many of the skills involved automatically. We can even drive from home to work without even recalling how we got there.

When we teach young children to brush their teeth, we show them how to hold the brush, how much toothpaste to apply, how to brush each surface of the teeth, and how to rinse. They do this all with great curiosity and pleasure. When adults brush their teeth they do this on automatic pilot and probably look at it as a chore that has to be done and may even begin multitasking by walking away from the sink to do something else at the same time.

When babies eat their first solid food, they are experiencing the feel of the spoon in their mouth, the texture of the food on their tongue and the new flavour reaching their taste buds. They take their time to eat and are not worried if the food spills out all over their face, hands and clothes. We gradually teach the child to eat neatly so as to remain clean and as they grow up it all becomes automatic and they no longer have to think about the eating process. As adults, we often eat whilst watching the TV and may not even recall eating the meal. We miss so much of our lives because we are not aware of what is happening in the present moment.

So how can we step out of autopilot? There are certain things we need to be able to do automatically, for example, when typing on a keyboard you don’t want to stop to notice what it feels like to touch each key. However, there are certain things that we do every day that we can pay more attention to if we purposely turn our minds to it. The next time you take a shower, notice the water temperature on your skin, smell the soap, tilt your head back and allow the water to fall onto the top of your forehead, maybe turn the temperature down a little to see what that feels like. When you do an activity like this you are stepping out of autopilot and becoming aware of what is happening in the present moment.   This can be applied to all sorts of everyday activities, such as eating, getting dressed, walking, cooking and cleaning. Try paying attention to a different activity each day for a week and see what you notice.

Emotional Friendly Schools 3rd Annual Conference

Staff wellbeing was this year’s focus at the Emotional Friendly Schools Conference and was very well attended.  A big thank you to Hannah Cartmell and Anna Serjeant for organising this excellent event.

Graphic by Inky Thinking

The key-note speaker Professor Neil Humphrey began the day with some alarming statistics around the poor mental health and wellbeing of teachers. To demonstrate the opinions of the delegates around this topic he asked them to take part in a live poll using Mentimeter.

Ever felt like giving up?

The results of the poll showed that 58% said they had felt so stressed over the last two years that they had given serious consideration to leaving the profession. It’s quite possible this statistic would have been even higher had the room been filled with just teachers.  He also asked, “What has an impact on your wellbeing at school?” and the option ‘Demands (e.g. workload)’ received a huge 87% response.  Professor Humphrey also reminded us of why we continue to do the job, with 63% saying they experienced weekly “…one of those joyful ‘moments’, where you are reminded why you became a teacher in the first place” and 23% experienced this daily. The poll was, of course, done in a light-hearted and fun way, however, I think it’s a very good demonstration of the feelings within the profession today.

Ever flipped your lid?

Unfortunately, I was one of those statistics. I became so stressed that I began to suffer with anxiety and subsequently developed a heart condition and depression. I was fortunate to be offered mindfulness as part of my recovery and it literally turned my life around. It wasn’t a quick fix but a lifestyle change. I began, for the first time, to see what I was putting myself through on a daily basis. I decided to leave my full time teaching job and I am now a qualified mindfulness teacher delivering mindfulness to schools, colleges and the mental health charity Mind in Salford.

We were heartened to hear from Professor Humphrey that the Manchester Institute of Education are including mindfulness as part of the teacher-training programme, so the new cohorts will have the tools under their belt to deal with the stresses and strains of the profession.

The Government Guidelines recommend all mindfulness teachers should have completed an eight-week mindfulness programme, plus a one-year supervised pathway (or other similar qualification), and have their own personal mindfulness practice well established. This is because mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, like putting on a sticking plaster. It is a subtle practice and can only be taught well by people with considerable personal experience. It is not something that can be learnt quickly. It is deceptively simple, and people can easily think that they know what it is when they are actually only using a small aspect of mindfulness. Presented simplistically, or with misinterpretations, the radical perspective-shifting potential of the approach is lost.

The success of mindfulness programmes in school depends to a considerable extent on the quality and experience of the teacher’s own mindfulness practice, and this can take several years of sustained personal commitment well beyond the formal training. Quality is also affected by how it is implemented; an isolated instance of a teacher working with one class is less effective than a whole school approach in which everyone in the school community including parents and all the staff participate in the programme. (Mindful Nation UK, Report by the Mindfulness All-Parliamentary Parliament Group (MAPPG), October 2015).

We were delighted to be able to deliver a workshop at the conference on mindfulness, which was really well received. We were able to give delegates a taster, which included:

  • Stepping out of autopilot: to help you become aware of how much we operate on automatic pilot and don’t stop to notice what’s happening around us, or to enjoy what is happening in the present moment.
  • Noticing distraction: to notice where our thoughts are. We get caught up in planning what we need to do, or thinking about what somebody said, or maybe having an imaginary conversation, which may not ever happen. Our minds are constantly caught up in thoughts and this practice is great for noticing what our minds are doing.
  • Body scan: this helps us to become more attuned with
    what’s happening in our body.  We may be unaware that we are holding tensionin our body, and may not have noticed this until we stop and focus our attention. Through meditation we train our brain to notice when we are feeling anxious, what we are feeling and begin to recognise sensations such as shallow breathing.

The conference was rounded up by Inky Thinking who were amazing at getting everyone to come up with ways of improving their school’s wellbeing. They drew a huge graphic to reflect what the conference was all about (image at the beginning of this blog).  Each group came up with unique ways to improve staff wellbeing, centred around the question, “What will staff wellbeing at your school look like?” Groups came up with ideas from toolkits to singing and it was interesting to see many people had included the need for mindfulness in their school.  Below are ideas from a couple of the groups:

Depression is now the leading cause of ill health and depression worldwide

Raising awareness about depression is the focus of this years WHO World Health Day 2017

Depression causes mental and physical suffering and can limit a person’s ability to carry out even the simplest everyday tasks, with sometimes devastating consequences for relationships with family and friends.  Untreated depression can prevent people from working, participating in family and community life and in the worst case scenario, can lead to suicide (Public Health Matters).

Time To Change state that mental ill-health is the leading cause of sick ness absence in the UK, costing an average of £1,035 per employee per year. One in four British workers are affected by conditions like anxiety, depression and stress every year and 95% of employees who called in sick with stress gave a different reason. You can demonstrate your commitment to change how we think and act about mental health in the workplace by signing up to the Time to Change Employer Pledge.

More and more workplaces are turning towards mindfulness because employee health and wellbeing is now widely acknowledged as a key driver of business success and so employers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of looking after both the mental and physical health of their staff  (Workplace opportunities to prevent and treat poor mental health).

Organisations across England are being encouraged to use, share and discuss the Mental Health Toolkit for Employers. This has been designed to help businesses take steps to proactively incorporate better management of mental health into the everyday working environment; it’s available for everyone to use.

Many people suffer with mental health problems in silence and often push through until they are no longer able to cope. So by integrating mental health into the workplace and creating an environment where employees feel valued and which promotes open communication and encourages people to seek help when they need it, can make a difference to someone who is suffering.

Why Schools are Turning to Mindfulness

We cannot ignore that today’s children are growing up in a fast moving, competitive and technologically complex world.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for children to avoid scrutiny and to switch off.

Schools are under increasing pressure to perform to standards and this pressure is pushed downwards onto the children who feel it necessary to ‘succeed’ to a set standard.  In addition to this they have tremendous peer pressure.

Issues around educational failure, family disruption, disability, offending and antisocial behaviour impact significantly on the mental health and well-being of children and young people; if left untreated this can create untold distress for all those involved. This may continue to cause difficulty into adult life and most certainly impacts on future generations.

Mindfulness is a pro-active way of dealing with the stresses and strains of life and doesn’t single out children like other forms of therapy such as counselling or psychotherapy because it can be practiced by groups of children.

Benefits that mindfulness offers to children include:

  • The physical body and emotional mind are balanced.
  • Children develop self-knowing awareness, which is essential for building positive social connections.
  • Children become more “tuned in” to themselves, wand thus become more “tuned in” to those around them.
  • Developing empathy, which enables us to feel another person’s experience and image others’ reality.  They learn to consider the bigger picture, imagining and acting on what’s best for the group rather than just seeing things from ones own perspective.
  • Improved impulse control is developed and children learn to pause before taking action.
  • Children are be able to calm and self soothe, and even unlearn fears.
  • Improved attention span; the practice of paying attention can build our focus and attention.
  • It enables individuals to develop a balanced perspective, to be able to deal with set-backs and have the inner resources to cope.

Further information about our Mindfulness for Children