Stop and Smell the Roses
For many years, I was an avid runner, but due to osteoarthritis in my knees, I am not able to run anymore. So I get out and move by taking long walks on the weekends. In fact, I just got back from a six mile stroll. When I started going on these long walks a few months ago, I did it primarily for exercise. I have now come to realize that spending some time outdoors every day is good for my mind as well as my body.
When I spend time on these walks, it gives me a chance to sort things out in my mind. For instance, the very idea for this article popped up while I was walking this morning. Often when I am moving on one of these walks, solutions to problems come more easily to me. I have also noticed that being outside gives me the opportunity to detach myself from the compulsive overthinking that we all deal with from time to time. I have found that one of the best ways to do this and to ease anxious thoughts is to engage in what I call "stopping and smelling the roses."
This practice I call stopping and smelling the roses was first introduced to me in a brilliant little book called Connecting the Dots to Inner Peace- Why Mindfulness Works and How To Try It by Dr. Mark Messler. In his chapter on Sense-Mind Coordination, Dr. Messler discusses ways in which to calm ourselves and get centered by engaging our senses. One of his own personal favorites ways to ground himself in this manner is to take a minute or two to examine, rub, and smell the bark of a tree. "It almost always works to ground me in that moment, which brings me peace," he writes.
I believe that one of the reasons my mind unwinds a bit more on my walks is because the scenery is always changing, and my senses are working hard to soak it all in. We don't have to be on a walk for this to happen. A simple change of scenery, like stepping outdoors, can usually set the scene to do the trick.
My favorite walking route includes a trek through an old growth forest park in my hometown of Memphis. The sights, sounds, and smells of this beautiful old forest never fails to have an instant calming effect on my senses. The tranquil impact on me is meditative in nature. It is as if all of my stress melts away, and my ever-chattering mind shuts up as soon as I enter the forest. I am confident that my blood pressure and heart rate drop when I am in this state. The Japanese call this practice Shinrin-yoku. This type of "forest bathing" was developed in Japan in the 1980's, and it has become a popular preventive health care practice there due to its numerous calming and restorative benefits.
One type of stop and smell the roses exercises I have found helpful in stopping students' minds from ruminating is called 5-4-3-2-1. It is a sensory awareness method in which I encourage stressed students (and/or their parents) to quell their anxieties by fully engaging their five senses. This exercise can be done anywhere, either indoors or outdoors. However, I have found it most effective when the participants are in unfamiliar surroundings, or at the very least not a location they frequent quite a bit. Here is how this simple but effective exercise works:
5. Name five things you see in this present moment.
4. Touch four different things around you in this present moment.
3. Hear three sounds in the present moment.
2. Smell two things in this present moment.
1. Taste one thing around you in this present moment (if safe and possible).
This type of sensory exercise is also common and effective for athletes when they need to get focused and conquer their nerves or negative inner chatter. Baseball pitchers on the mound often touch the ball and smell it to clear their minds. I knew a professional football player who would pick out a blade of grass to stare at to set his focus during the National Anthem. When I worked with the Memphis Grizzlies one of their assistant coaches would put his arm around one of the players who suffered from performance anxiety during time outs and ask him to state at the section 215 arena sign. It was a visual anchor to bring him back to the present moment and clear his mind.
Teachers can take their lessons to a higher level by engaging their students' senses, because holistic teaching through the senses enables students to lock the content into their long term memory. A few ways to do this include:
using physical props
playing sound effects
performing magic tricks
using herbs and spices
having essential oils in the classroom
taking them outside for class
various colors displayed in the classroom
playing soothing music
What are some things you can focus your five senses on when you get stressed or need to get focused? Where are some places you can take your child to practice this method? What are some situations in which you and your child can employ these tactics? The possibilities are endless if you just take the time to smell the roses.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com