‘Live in the moment for better mental health’

Mindfulness guru Brenda Shankey
Mindfulness guru Brenda Shankey

Experts say practising mindfulness will help you beat depression and be happier in your day to day life. Businesswoman Brenda Shankey talks about slowing down to mindfully succeed

At a basic level mindfulness is about learning to become more conscious of, and to try to live within, the present moment.

It involves trying to make a special effort to give your full attention to the here and now – to what’s happening to your body, to your breathing, your thoughts, your surroundings – in a non-judgemental and accepting way.

By becoming conscious of the primacy of the present moment we can create a distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings in order to examine them and decide to respond to them in a different, more compassionate way.

Too often we are overwhelmed by the welter of thoughts, feelings and sensations that make up consciousness. Mindfulness is about stepping outside the stream of thoughts and feelings in order to place distance between yourself and what you are feeling or thinking – you notice what you think and feel and understand that you can tune in or out of the constant chatter of the mind in order to gain mastery over negative emotions and behaviour.

In her book Sane New World Ruby Wax describes mindfulness as a way of taking back control of our frazzled minds that are operating at high stress levels thanks to excess cortisol and a fight or flight reaction to the information overload of our tech-laden every day lives. We need a degree of stress in order to function but too much leads to depression and anxiety and that’s where mindfulness can become an important tool in retraining our brains to function in a more tranquil and mellow way.

Belfast businesswoman and hairdresser Brenda Shankey is author of Be Fabulous, a book which outlines how to practice mindful living day to day. Brenda gives classes on mindfulness and has also recently written about mindfulness for children. The 45-year-old Londonderry businesswoman credits this therapeutic approach with helping her through her recent divorce and the loss of her sister Erin to alcoholism in 2016.

“I started to practice mindfulness because I was that hyper, busy person,” says Brenda. “I was a workaholic and I became full of anxiety and panic and fear. I was so stressed out. I knew my mind was overactive and that I needed to bring it under control.

“I was searching for that peace inside.

“I went through a difficult time when I had so much trauma and was grieving and unable to function and that taught me that sometimes things happen in life and you are pushed in a particular direction, good or bad.

“The death of my sister Erin taught me that we only have today. Tomorrow isn’t here yet and yesterday is gone. Every morning I sit and meditate and say ‘let me be the best that I can be for today’. I try not to worry about tomorrow because it isn’t here yet and yesterday is gone. I am concentrating on today by being mindful.”

Brenda describes mindfulness as a form of slowing down in order to succeed, pulling back from the constant onslaught of sensations, anxieties and negative voices that can overwhelm us day to day.

“Our minds are all so busy and so preoccupied with thousands of thoughts,” explains Brenda. “We live either in the past or the future and our minds are always consumed with things we’ve done or things we have to look forward to and this means we find it difficult to focus on the present moment. We are all full of worry, excitement and anxiety about what has been or what is to come and in all the stress of this we forget about the here and now and we forget how to be thankful for what we have.”

As Brenda explains mindfulness is about taking back that control by anchoring or rooting oneself in the here and now.

“If you try to focus on this moment and accept it as it is – whether you are having a good or a bad day the challenge is to accept this and you accept the emotions and feelings you are having and that acceptance makes you calmer.”

Brenda describes how dealing with her over-wrought thought processes meant she had to learn how to meditate and concentrate on her breathing as a way of feeling grounded and calmer.

“My mind was so frantic. I call it the monkey brain. The mind is always playing tricks and pushing us towards new problems and distractions. It’s the constant inner critic and self-analysis that we always come up against in our day-to-day lives. You did this, you should have done that, you’re not good enough, you did that wrong – it’s about dialling down that voice of negativity we all have to deal with.

“Breathing and meditating even just for one minute is to step outside the constant chatter of the mind and take a step back to become aware of the distance between yourself and the constant stream of thoughts.”

Another key aspect of practising mindfulness is gratitude – learning to be grateful for all that you have and accepting the gift of the present. Being grateful for basic things like the air you breathe and having a roof over your head helps you become more compassionate and accepting towards yourself and the world around you.

“Gratitude is the most positive forward-thinking attitude that we can practice. It can change how we process everything in our lives.

“We are always rushing and looking for the next thing that is going to make us happy and we keep thinking if I get this I will be happy, if I do that I will be happy and on to the next thing and the next while happiness eludes us. Mindfulness is about trying to be contented in the present moment and practising gratitude in this moment.”