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Be Aware

Being aware is associated with increased psychological and emotional wellbeing. Being aware means taking notice of what you are feeling. Be aware of new sights, smells, and sounds as you do your daily activities. Try it as you walk, eat lunch or wait for a bus. Focusing on the ‘here and now’ can help you feel calm and reduce stress.

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Key messages about Being Aware

Take time to stop and be aware of your surroundings and the moment you are in, paying attention to your thoughts and feelings.  Doing this can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach life’s challenges.

Why Be Aware

It means being aware of your thoughts and feelings as they arise, without getting lost in them. This can increase your ability to keep calm, reduce stress, think clearly, cope better with difficult situations and improve mood.

Reduces worry, anxiety and depression

Many studies have shown that thinking about the past too much and worrying about the future is strongly linked with anxiety and depression (Michel et al., 2013). Although it is natural to respond to the stresses in our lives’ by thinking about them, it has been shown that, by focusing on the present moment, we reduce negative thoughts and maintain a level of calmness, which is good for our mental health and wellbeing.

Being aware of our sensations, thoughts and feelings have been shown to enhance wellbeing for several years (Huppert, 2009).

Self-awareness

Being aware is a step towards self-awareness. By developing a better connection to ourselves, we are more aware of our needs, values and interests, and the behaviours consistent with them.

This idea is grounded in self-determination theory. This ability to self-regulate our behaviours is thought to be important for our wellbeing and mental health (New Economics Foundation, 2008).

How to Be Aware

Take time in your day to appreciate something good that is already present in your life: this is called ‘practicing gratitude’. Like any other skill, gratitude takes practice.

Feelings of gratitude directly activate brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine feels good to get, which is why it’s generally considered the “reward” neurotransmitter. But dopamine is also almost important in initiating action. That means increases in dopamine make you more likely to do something again. It’s the brain saying, “Oh, do that again.”

Studies such as Ng et al, 2012, where a group of Chinese researchers looked at the combined effects of gratitude and sleep quality on symptoms of anxiety and depression, found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep. Once they controlled for the impact of sleep, they found that people practising gratitude were less depressed.

Doing yoga or tai-chi and can help the body to stretch and move with an emphasis on being aware of our breathing which relaxes and tones our bodies as well as improving our mood. MRI studies of the brain show that people who practice yoga regularly have an enlarged hippocampus, critical to dampening stress, as were the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, areas which are key to our concept of self (Villemure, 2013).

We can train ourselves to practice ‘mindfulness’. Awareness of thoughts, sensations and feelings for 8 to 12 weeks has been shown to enhance wellbeing for several years. In 2011, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, took magnetic resonance images of the brains of 16 participants 2 weeks before and after they joined the meditation program. The results suggest that participation in mindfulness is associated with changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, the way people process information about themselves, and perspective taking.

How to practice awareness
  • Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness.
  • As you go about your day, be aware of how things feel when you touch them. Notice the taste of the food you eat and the air moving past your body as you walk. Do this at home and work.
  • Try new things, such as sitting in a different seat in meetings or going somewhere new for lunch and notice how it feels and what you see in a new way.
  • Notice the sun or rain on your skin, the sensation of the heat or the cold.
  • Use your senses to notice the presence of others – their smell, touch, voice, smile and/or laugh and your reaction to them.
  • Keep a gratitude journal – write down the things you are grateful for on a daily basis.
  • Take photos of nature’s beauty – get them printed on paper or canvas.
How to practice awareness at work

When you are working in the same space all day, it can feel like nothing changes, but in fact, things do change, you just have to be aware of them. Try the following:

  • Buy a plant for your workspace and enjoy noticing it change and grow.
  • Take your headphones off, stand up from your computer or another work task you are doing, and pay attention to the sights, smells, conversations and things going on around you.
  • Notice how your colleagues are feeling or acting. Also, notice your own moods and how they affect others.
  • Vary your lunch and snacks.
  • Take a different route to or from work and go somewhere you’ve never been before on your break.
  • Start up a lunchtime mindfulness session using a mindfulness CD.
  • Start up a lunchtime or after work walking group focused on exploring the parks and neighbourhood.
How to practice awareness at home
  • Do a short course in mindfulness, Yoga, Tai-chi, or listen to a guided lesson online
  • Download a mindfulness app.
  • Join a group or do a course through a Community Neighbourhood House -see links below.
  • Find a group through the local newspaper.
  • Take advantage of your local public parks to practice being aware.
  • Before going to bed, think of two new things you are genuinely appreciative for, such as the fresh rain, flowers in the garden, nice park you can walk to, good friends, etc.

Testimonials

“Whenever I travel, I get inside the airport, smell the coffee and I know I am home. Being aware of the smell seems to offer me great comfort.”

- Emily

“I went camping last weekend and I was really surprised by how much I appreciated the silence. I camp probably 5-6 times per year but after reading about the 5 Ways, I think I notice the silence [more]. What a contrast!”

- Sergio

“I had a bit of health issue this year and I thought I [wasn’t] going to make it for a moment. That gives you a different perspective! I now appreciate things I took for granted before – the sun shining on my face, [and] the laughter of my son and wife are the best things. It is amazing how being aware of what you have in your life and being grateful it for makes you feel much happier.”

- Bill
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