Many people find it hard to make time to focus on their mind even though they know that it will be beneficial. What about you?

Maybe you do practice a little mindfulness, but all too often find yourself distracted by a never-ending to-do list, emails that need a reply, that small task that just needs finishing, or any other pressing thing your brain decides to alert you to - and that includes watching videos of cats doing crazy things on social media!

Because of these distracting thoughts, you might think that focusing on the mind isn’t for you, or you may even be self-critical about whether your practice did any good. Or maybe, every time you have tried to focus on yourself, you have had a sense of feeling overwhelmed by emotions or memories?

This is more common than you might think and it's nothing to be ashamed of. 

I have both personal and clinical experience of mindfulness and meditation practice and have struggled with all of the above. While I know a lot about the science behind the benefits of mindfulness, I still find it challenging to devote time to really developing my own skills in this area. 

What’s going on in your brain?

When life is incredibly busy, you may feel stressed and overwhelmed. This is your threat system that’s online; constantly scanning the environment with the motivation of protecting us from danger. 

Because our threat system emotions, such as anger and anxiety, are activating, we are more physiologically aroused, which can make even the idea of sitting down to rest feel unappealing. 

If we do actually sit down and close our eyes with the intention of focusing on our breath, we can notice that our thinking brain (our evolutionary new brain) can be constantly running through the things that we need to do, making mental lists, rerunning difficult conversations or trying out new ones (this is our default mode network, part of our neural circuitry, in action).

All of this can lead to further stimulation of our threat system and increased arousal, especially if we're being self-critical about the fact that we ‘can't even do some mindfulness which is supposed to help us’. 

This mental activity is the product of millions of years of evolution, together with genes, temperament and social conditioning that has shaped our brain. It’s actually perfectly normal, your brain is working in the way that it was ‘designed’ to. 

So, what can we do?

Quite often, the people who need the benefits of the mindfulness practice the most, are the ones who also struggle the most. Mindful mediation is a skill, and so many of us need support and structure, or scaffolding, while learning something new. There's no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

So, when my step-mum Hilary McLellan, an organisational behaviourist, spoke to me about her idea for a product that uses visual stimulation, beautiful scenes and sounds of nature, I could see how this could be so helpful in providing the scaffolding that people need.

Initially, the idea was to take ‘ready-made’ mindfulness audio scripts and have the scenes of nature as a backdrop. As our discussions progressed, we recognised that by interweaving the awe of nature, we could enhance what is being cultivated in our minds.

At the end of 2019, Your Virtual Mind Trainer (YVMT) evolved into looking at ways to both ‘calm the mind’ and ‘train the mind’ in different qualities and characteristics. We know this is not only incredibly beneficial in approaching life generally, but also in finding a sense of ease or happiness or competence at work. 

When I watch our 360° videos of nature, I always feel humbled at the positive physiological impact that seeing a scene of nature could have on me. I can soon feel my parasympathetic, rest and digest/soothing, system coming online. 

Modern-day life is so full of visual stimulation via technology and often what we're looking at has a negative physiological effect on our body. YVMT comes to you through the very devices we’re so often glued to anyway but rather than spending six minutes on social, you can spend that time getting a boost from nature and rebalancing your system. 

About the Author

Dr Ashleigh McLellanDr Ashleigh McLellan

Ashleigh is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with 20 years’ experience in the NHS. She is trained in a broad range of psychological models and specialises in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).