Kristin Race, PhD, a world-renowned expert in the field of mindfulness, founder of Mindful Life, and Executive Director of Mindfulness for Solvasa, shares simple ways she and her family use daily mindfulness activities to alleviate stress, stay connected—and feel happier. Borrow some (or all) of her tips to see how becoming more mindful can boost your outlook, your day—and your life!
Fight the natural urge to be negative
“Our brains are wired to have a negative bias. It's a survival mechanism,” explains Dr. Race. “As we evolved, it was much more important to be thinking about the things that could kill us than to stop and smell the beautiful flowers. And in 2020, we had many negative pieces of information thrown at us: the pandemic, natural disaster, social unrest. So, it’s easy to be thrown into a survival response where we focus on the negative or worst-case scenario. The goal, therefore, is to be intentional, and that's where mindfulness comes in. Look for the places where we can focus on the good within the context of what we're going through,” says Dr. Race.
For example, in 2020, most of us didn’t get to travel much or see extended family. “And around the holidays,” says Dr. Race, “we didn’t have parties, and our kids didn't have their concerts or nativity plays or secret Santas. But when I started thinking about all the things I was missing, I also realized I’d gained the gift of time.” When Dr. Race added up all the hours last December that she was not at parties, hosting events, shopping and decorating, she calculated that she’d gained nearly 90 free hours. That realization made her find a silver lining, even in disappointment. “We have a choice every day of focusing on all that we are missing and how we wish things were different—which is what our brains want us to do—or focusing on this gift of time and how we want to use it,” says Dr. Race.
Start your day without your smartphone
Dr. Race believes how you start your day sets the tone for your day. “It's very easy to wake up to that alarm on your smartphone and start digging into all of the red badges, the texts, the notifications and the headlines,” says Dr. Race. “But when we do that, instantly, we are thrown into our survival mechanisms, to the alarm response in our brain.” What Dr. Race does instead: She wakes up in the morning to an old-fashioned alarm clock. Then she goes downstairs and sets her coffee maker—and while she waits a few minutes for the coffee to brew, she practices some mindful breathing. Then she sits down with her coffee and her daily planner and identifies her top three priorities for the day.
“What this ritual does for me is primes my prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the forward-thinking, decision-making and problem-solving part of the brain so I start the day in a healthy brain state,” says Dr. Race.
Find ways to give meaningfully (rather than just give stuff)
“In my retreats, one of the activities we do is write a letter of appreciation to someone who has had a profound and positive impact on our lives,” says Dr. Race. After the letter is written, the writer calls up the recipient and reads it to them. “It's a very profound experience, both for the recipient and for the person who wrote the letter,” says Dr. Race, who asked her children to write letters for their grandparents last holiday season. “It’s important to teach mindfulness to kids too, and this exercise enabled my kids to feel what it’s like to do this for somebody else, to see how it is received, and to get that boost from giving meaningfully.”
Set a short-term challenge for personal growth
When January rolls around, Dr. Race says she often feels like a “puffer fish from all the December gluttony.” So, this year, to avoid that feeling, Dr. Race and her family created a fitness challenge for the month of December. Their goal: to get outside and do something physical every day. Dr. Race and her family live in Colorado so options included walking the dog, hiking or backcountry skiing. “It’s easy in December to just hunker down—especially when you're feeling a little depressed and want to crawl under the covers,” says Dr. Race. “But our fitness challenge gave us a daily goal to defy that. And we all felt so much better when January arrived.”
Stop the worry cycle
“We spend almost half of our lives in what is known as the default mode network. When we are in this mode, we think about the future and about the past. We think of others—and how they think about us. Or we just think I'm the kind of person who likes this. I'm the kind of person who is good at that,” says Dr. Race. The problem arises when we spend too much time in that default mode network. “That’s when we experience higher levels of depression and anxiety because we’re spending a lot of time judging ourselves, judging others, regretting and worrying,” explains Dr. Race.
“The default mode network was important for us as we evolved, because when we weren't being chased by those saber-toothed tigers, it was helpful to think about where those tigers might be. But, now, more often than not, it takes us out of the present moment. It puts our focus on what is wrong and not on what is right.” So how do we avoid spending too much time in this mode? The goal, says Dr. Race, is to shift your focus to what is happening right now—and give your brain a break.
“This is called a noting practice. It's noting what your brain is doing, I am seeing, I am hearing, I am feeling, I am thinking, I am thinking. When you become lost in thought, the goal is to bring your attention back to your point of focus, and that's where the real magic occurs. That's where we can start to integrate mindfulness into our daily thoughts, behaviors and actions.”
To bring your attention back to the present, Dr. Race suggests closing your eyes for a few moments and just listening—or try focusing on the feel of the weight of your feet on the floor or the weight of your seat in the chair. “When we do that, we shift from that negative default network in our brain where the worrying and the negative thoughts exist. That is mindfulness. That subtle shift toward what is happening right now turns down the volume on the negativity,” Dr. Race explains.
Want more tips on daily mindfulness from Dr. Race? Check out “Give Yourself Presence for the Holidays” on the The Beauty Construct podcast, now available for download on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
You can also access our free Solvasa Life Mindfulness app by scanning the QR code.