It is impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the tv, the radio, or any electronic device, or leave one’s home, or engage in conversation, without one or more scary topics triggering anxiety. The topics range from politics, to economics, to the environment, to violence, and, of course, coronavirus. What may trigger our fears, and often the most potent trigger for our fears, often comes in the still of the night, or the moment when we can finally escape all of the business and pressures of daily life and find ourselves with a little peace and quiet.
Whenever we are faced with a threat, or a perceived threat, our minds are drawn to that real or perceived threat like the proverbial moth to the flame. The instinctive “auto response” to threat can be crucial to our survival, as when we are driving in a snow storm (at least before global warming…..) and are laser-focused on the road ahead – a distinctly different experience from the typical way that we mindlessly drive a familiar route, arriving safely at our destination without having any memory of our time at the wheel. That auto response can also create misery for us – as when we look back and realize that we had a sleepless night, worrying needlessly about something that, in the light of day, seems either trivial, or unlikely to ever occur.
The current challenges don’t fall under either of these categories – they are NOT trivial or unlikely to impact us in some, serious way, and maintaining focused attention on them does NOT in any way increase our chances of a positive outcome. When we focus on things that we cannot control, we experience an increase in stress and anxiety that, actually, makes us more vulnerable. Anxious minds are not as rational, logical, and adept at problem-solving as calm, well-rested minds. And stress hormones are secreted, and continue to be produced as long as the mind is fixated on scary thoughts, wreaking havoc on immune systems.
Mindfulness, which can be defined as paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, allows us to control what we CAN control – what we pay attention to – when we do not have as much control as we wish we had over the scary reality. What we are paying attention to has more impact on our sense of wellbeing in any given moment, than what is happening in our surroundings. I can be on a pristine, tropical beach, feeling the warm sun on my skin, toes buried in soft sand, completely cut off from the sensual experience because I’m so stressed anticipating the work piled up waiting for my return. Or I can be sitting in the dentist’s chair, visualizing that beach, feeling comfortable and relaxed.
Important issues need our attention – there are serious problems that need solutions, and dire threats that require us to take protective measures. Being mindful, choosing to focus attention on what we can control, rather than becoming overwhelmed, immobilized, and panic-stricken by fixating and ruminating on worst-case scenarios, allows us to live more fully, with a greater sense of well- being, and in a position to respond in healthier ways to the challenges we face. Easier said than done! The following recommendations may help to direct attention in ways aligned with healthier coping:
- Limit time spent tuned into the media, in all forms.
- Maintain or increase structure and routine. Be especially mindful of sleep hygiene and bedtime routines. Eat healthy. Stay hydrated. These behaviors increase resilience to stress.
- Obtain and implement guidelines for safety set forth by credible sources.
- Spend time in nature. Practice yoga and or meditation. Recite or keep visual reminders of inspirational prayers, mantras, or affirmations. Keep a gratitude journal.
- NOTICE when your conversations – with others, and in your own mind – are focused on “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios, and contributing to physical, emotional, and spiritual distress. REDIRECT the conversation to things you can control, or things in your life that bring you a sense of gratitude, joy, accomplishment, peacefulness, etc.
I repeat, easier said than done. As a mindfulness-based therapist, Mindful Living teacher, and meditator with decades of practice who is still subject to the same challenges of living in scary times, I don’t think that it is possible, or even desireable, to eradicate fear. Practice makes better, not perfect, and setting the intention of improving this moment will, over time, result in improved health, well-being, and resiliency in the face of real threat.