It will come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic left its mark on many people, and not necessarily in a good way. We all have lived, and continue to live, through a very weird and unique period in our lives, that has ultimately caused serious negative impacts on mental health. Statistics from the UK Government revealed there was a record-breaking level of deterioration in people’s mental health and wellbeing during the height of the pandemic, with depression and anxiety high on the list. Similarly, more than 4 in 10 adults in the United States have reported having symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic.
Additionally, this past year has significantly impacted the health services; due to the under-capacity of services and the lasting effects from the pandemic, waiting lists are longer than ever for mental health services such as therapy. Now that life is beginning to start back up again, anxieties and moods can be all over the place whilst we learn to adapt to the new ‘normal’ – which is completely understandable considering we were all locked up for nearly a year.
As our lives are changing significantly, our traveling habits are as well. Working life used to be waking up and traveling downstairs to our makeshift office in the living room, but we’re now back to a daily commute on the road. Not to mention with traveling now permitted, staycations are more popular than ever since becoming a permanent alternative to going abroad – meaning more driving. In fact, Brits can spend at least 9 hours a week in a car, whilst American’s spend at least 6 percent of their waking hours driving.
With all this spare time to ourselves, it can be easy to lose focus and become distracted by those little niggling thoughts, whereby sometimes at the end of your journey you’re actually more stressed than when you left. Don’t worry though because we all overthink, but it’s an important habit to break, and we are suggesting using the practice of ‘mindfulness. But what is mindfulness practice and can it really help, and how can we incorporate it into our daily lives?
What is Mindfulness?
We as humans try so hard to multi-task our thoughts: “the dogs not very well”, “oh no I didn’t manage to get that one document at work completed”, “what am I going to eat tonight”, “must ring mum” – that it can get very overwhelming and eventually pretty draining. With time spent on our own, it is very easy to become absorbed by negative thoughts and feelings, often causing minor situations into full-blown issues by losing focus of the here and now.
Negative thought processes can cause quite a damaging impact on our mental health, but psychologists believe the practice of mindfulness can help break these cycles and improve our wellbeing. The Merriam-Webster definition states mindfulness is “the quality or state of being mindful”, which in principle requires a person to be fully present, aware of where they are and what they’re doing, and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around them. The practice of mindfulness is all about focusing on one thing at a time so distractions are minimized, as well as lowering anxieties about other things going on around us.
It is easy said than done for many people, since mindfulness originates in the mind, but there are several physical techniques that we can incorporate into our lives and rest assured it is 100 percent achievable by learning how to be focused on the moment. Some techniques opt to insert short pauses into everyday life – maybe a short walk at dinner in silence, taking themselves away from their current task for 5 minutes to refocus themselves, others may integrate mediation with activities such as yoga or sports. For us, we think driving can be a great time to practice mindful meditation.
Safe mindfulness practice whilst driving:
Driving can definitely bring out the worse in us sometimes, especially if you have been feeling worked up. Imagine it: we’re on our way to work in the car, a commute that we’ve needed to prepare ourselves for since we’ve been working from home for so long, and all of a sudden someone drives up your rear bumper practically sat in the car with you, or another driver has decided to cut you up. That bubbling feeling of anger inside us, body tense and wanting to lose your patience – ultimately being filled with ‘road rage’.
It can be frustrating, but this can cause significant issues on our health and wellbeing such as causing a rise in heart rate and muscle tension. A key tip to remember during a road rage situation is that you cannot control that third party’s behavior, so I know it may be irritating but reacting to said driver is not the answer and in all honesty, would it be even worth the danger of an encounter when one: you will never see them again, and two: it could provoke an attack that might harm yourself or others. “No, not really” is the short answer.
So with all this hustle and bustle that is going on around us in a car, incorporating the use of mindful meditation techniques can help settle any anxieties and stresses that could be occurring in your life, as well as making sure you arrive at your destination safely. The daily commute is a great opportunity to really hone in training your mind, all whilst using specific techniques repeatedly can improve three mental areas: to be more focused and able to concentrate; to experience more clarity in our thinking and decision making so we can make better judgments; approach life with a ‘go with the flow’ ethos when a situation cannot be changed in that instance.
With nothing else to do until you reach your destination except to focus on driving, how do we achieve safe mindfulness whilst driving?
Mindfulness practices to try at the wheel:
If you’re making a daily journey to work twice a day, or taking any kind of car trip, this gives you a chance to focus to start your mindfulness journey. Thanks to the work of Emmy Smit, a psychologist, and collaborator at SEAT Healthcare and Rehabilitation Centre, we have a list of 10 mindfulness exercises that you can do before, during and after a car trip:
- When approaching your car, take a deep moment to assess your emotional state and level of tiredness. Are you really sleepy? Have you noticed your mood drop in the past few hours? How far is your destination? Do you think you can make it on your fatigue level or could you postpone it until you feel more alert? Focus on your own wellbeing at this point, no one else, you’re the driver and your safety is paramount in a car.
- Settle into your seat, and take a moment to breathe. Listen to your breath – in and out, in and out – for a minute so you have the time to collect yourself together. This is a great tip to practice especially if you have been rushing around to drive off. An extra minute could really benefit your focus and concentration.
- Fasten your seat belt and acknowledge your posture. Make sure you are relaxed and seated comfortably since prolonged, awkward seated positions can weaken our bones and muscles. Straighten your back (but don’t stiffen it), allowing the natural curve in your spine to occur. Let your shoulders and head easily rest on the top of your vertebrae, making sure you aren’t sitting at an angle. Take into account your hands on the steering wheel and your body contact with the seat.
- Focus on the task ahead of you – driving. It is so easy to cast our minds to non-driving subjects or feel tempted to check our phones for notification. Stop. Pay more attention to the road, the sights around you and the sounds you can hear. If you don’t like complete silence, put some of your favorite music/radio on. The practice of mindfulness requires you to focus solely on one task at a time, so don’t get lost in your thoughts as this could risk you losing attention of the road and missing something dangerous.
- Do not engage with road rage. So what if someone cut you up? That’s okay! Practicing kindness to other drivers can ensure you are focused on giving yourself a safer trip without worry.
- Are you caught in a traffic jam or a red light? This is a perfect opportunity to take a short break, again focusing on your breath and involve yourself with the experience of ‘living in the moment’.
- When you arrive at your destination, give yourself a moment to sit in silence before jumping out of the car.
- Take another look at your body and recognize the sensations that the journey may have inflicted on you. Unclench your jaw, straighten up your back, lower your hands and be mindful of your breathing again.
- Is there something you might do differently about the drive, or something you enjoyed that you’d love to do again? Did you notice a beautiful house that you often missed because you were so wrapped up in your own thought previously, or do you think you reacted well to a reckless driver? It is a great habit to adopt self-reflection inside and out of the car, as you can recognize your behavior and learn from anything that may have occurred to better yourself. Everything can be a lesson for self-growth.
- And finally, just appreciate the fact you made it there safely. You are worth so much and it is something to be grateful that you arrived safe and well.
Can a car help us become more mindful when driving?
If you haven’t already guessed by now, but we’re a firm believer that driving can give you the chance to become a more mindful person. Not only does being mindful avoid damaging your mental state, but training your brain to focus on one thing at a time can improve your ability on completing a task without distractions and be carried out to the best of your abilities.
However, when data shows we spend a lot of the time in our cars, we tend to look at the usual characteristics when purchasing our next one: how many miles does it have on the clock, is it big enough for what we need it for, how old is it? But have you ever really considered if that car could contribute to staying healthy and mindful? The amount of times I hear people talk about how uncomfortable their car is or how their car causing more stress than it’s worth, is quite frankly worrying. So is it about time as a society we start looking for mindful characteristics, to enjoy the drive and focus on our practice of mindfulness?
Using innovative technology and acknowledging how driving can impact a person’s health, mindfulness car designs are being incorporated by many car manufacturers to improve driver’s mental health and wellbeing. Not only does driving relax us as a driver, but also others will benefit from less dangerous driving, as this is one of the leading causes of shorter life expectancy.
The Spanish car manufacturer, SEAT, have helped pioneer mindfulness car design and continues to do so with their latest models. Working alongside Emmy Smith they’ve created a new range of SEAT cars that are designed with a balanced space to inspire tranquillity.
To create this environment, lighting is crucial. Using ambient LED lighting that runs all around the car, SEAT have created intensity and shade in equal measure, helping relax drivers with a feeling of tranquillity.
What is coined as the ‘ergonomics of happiness’ is all about recognizing the connection between our mind and body. For example, you hurt your toe – that is going to put you in a bad mood. That’s is the same concept as if you’re sat awkwardly, you aren’t going to be too happy because all you’ll be thinking about is how uncomfortable you are in your seat. That is why SEAT has been working on improving the ergonomics of their seats to make sure anyone traveling in them is sat in comfort so you can improve your posture during your mindfulness sessions.
Societies are consumed by technology, that we can be overpowered with strong emotions when we have no choice but to lose touch with the online world. By introducing state-of-the-art technology such as SEAT Full Link, the fusion of technology and cars has never been easier. This is a great feature for drivers who need their apps at their fingertips in a safe way whilst driving, so the infotainment console is positioned higher so it is in a good line-eye whilst minimizing distractions.
Furthermore, when practicing mindfulness, being able to breathe in a well-ventilated and cool space can optimize your techniques and allow you to refocus. That is why added to the SEAT range is the Climatronic function, which detects excess pollution and purifies the air through the Air Quality Sensor and Air Care systems. Not only does being a mindful driver help you breathe cleaner air, but also focusing on the task of driving can make us reduce our carbon emissions by concentrating on the right gears and anticipating braking a lot sooner.
Finally, sometimes people find solace in silence, that can be provided by electric and hybrid vehicles. These types of EV are either powered by electric motors or a combination of engine and motors, so when you drive on pure electricity you will be driving in near silence.
Being able to incorporate mindfulness techniques into our everyday tasks can really benefit our mental health and wellbeing, which can also be optimized by your decision in how you decide to travel. So next time you’re looking for a car, it may be worth considering cars that provide the tools to be mindful – what’s the air ventilation like? Are the seats ergonomically designed so you can sit in a healthy posture? Is the front cabin cluttered and busy, with lots of information staring you in the face? It’s important to remember, a car is a big investment, as well as is investing in your health and wellbeing, so finding the right car that helps you feel safe, relaxed and focussed will lead to a healthier lifestyle.
This content is brought to you by Megan Maxwell.
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