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How to look after yourself (when you don’t have time)

Self-care can sound like a distant dream to many parents with young kids. But we know it’s essential for balance and mental well-being. Leading mindfulness trainer RITA RICCOLA shows us how small brain breaks and even hacking our shower or teeth brushing routines can help.

Mindfulness has gained a lot of attention and followers because it works, Rita says. Daily practice, over time, leads to noticeable changes including becoming calmer, clearer, less reactive, more present and attentive, and it helps our listening skills. The bonus is your children also benefit and learn to develop emotional awareness and resilience as you model this for them – a gift for life.

But Rita says it takes time to rewire the brain from old reactive patterns to new responsive behaviours, so you need to be patient with yourself.

Rita Riccola’s tips for developing an effective self-care routine for a busy life

1. Practice mindfulness daily, even for short periods

Ten minutes a day can create significant changes in life quality, tolerance, acceptance and happiness. If you haven’t got 10 minutes, make it five. Even such a short time, practiced daily, will start to unknot the learned reactivity of the nervous system on overload and help us adapt when adversity arises.

2. Try breathing exercises and body scanning

These have been proven by neuroscience research to lower stress, but the exercises must be intentional and uninterrupted. Sit somewhere quiet and turn your full attention to your breath. Notice the air enter your nose as you breathe normally and naturally (no forcing), and then notice as you exhale. Sounds super simple right? Very quickly thoughts will pop into your mind, and you will lose focus on this simple activity. When you notice you have drifted away gently turn your attention back to the practice.

3: Take brain breaks

Brain breaks are used extensively in mindfulness training to help people establish mindful moments throughout the busy day, especially for people who don’t have the time or interest in doing formal practices. Done three to four times a day, over a few weeks you’ll start to notice you are less reactive, anxious and better able to deal with the many challenges parents face every day. No-one needs to know you are doing this simple, self-calming practice so you can be anywhere. Here’s how to do it:

S -stop what you’re doing for a few minutes.

T- take a few deep, slow, even, full breaths – breathe deep down into the lungs.

O – observe how you feel in these moments and, importantly, name those feelings quietly to yourself. Perhaps you feel irritated, tired, annoyed, calm, OK. Naming an emotion or feeling immediately takes half the pressure of it away from your nervous system.

P- proceed with mindful awareness (as best as possible).

4. Hack your teeth cleaning, hot drinks and showers  

Give your thinking mind a total rest (it’s the repetitive often draining thinking that wears us down) by not planning and thinking outside the actions you go through while doing regular things such as showering, having a hot drink, or cleaning your teeth. For example, stay totally focused on the movement of the brush when you do your teeth, the taste of the toothpaste, feel of the water, any sensations you experience. When you notice yourself drifting into planning and thinking STOP and return to noticing all the actions of teeth cleaning again.

5. Connect with nature

Too many people have forgotten how important it is for overall well-being to have a regular connection to nature. We co-regulate with nature and have a biological need for it to calm and clear our minds and bodies. Notice the textures, colours, and smells you experience in nature. This leads to a calmer nervous system and a calmer you. It’s super important that children spend more time in nature, preferably daily, for the same reason.

6. Eat mindfully

Mindful eating brings a new level of awareness to the process of eating. Too often when we are stressed and rushed we eat too fast. Slow down and savour the food; the texture, smell, colour, taste. Notice yourself chewing and swallowing. Purposefully shutting the eyes for a few moments to really engage in mindful eating can be a fun way to be fully present. Doing this together with your children also sets a great habit for the future and helps foster appreciation and gratitude for the food we eat and the people who prepared it.

The Practice of Mindfulness and Balance, by Rita Riccola. On sale 9 May, 2024, $29.99 RRP, White Cloud Books (Upstart Press)

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