coping with COVID-19, mindfulness, self-help, stress management, Uncategorized

Coping With COVID-19:  The Mindful Fight

photo of woman wearing red boxing gloves
Photo by Jermaine Ulinwa on Pexels.com

The current global pandemic is causing even those who are normally most immune to worry to experience unprecedented levels of anxiety.  The dire threat of this virus alone is terrifying.  Add to that the uncertainty about how it will affect our lives in the days, weeks, and, perhaps, months to come, and our dizzying efforts to adjust to changes that impact every aspect of our lives, it is no wonder that the resulting stress feels oppressive.   Possibly the greatest contributor to the staggering stress levels is the lack of control that we have over our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

The fight against COVID-19 is creating so much anxiety and stress.  What can mindfulness possibly bring to the table to cope with the seemingly overwhelming challenge? Mindfulness, defined as paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, can help us to identify and bring attention to what we can control.  Without minimizing the need to keep abreast of the latest developments and guidelines, if we can redirect our attention from all that we can’t do, control, or anticipate, and imagining worst-case-scenarios, to things that we can both control, and that are associated with improved health outcomes, we can decrease both stress and our risk of becoming sick.

What would it be like to fight for health, instead of fighting against COVID-19?  First, consider all of the domains that contribute to good health:  physical, emotional, spiritual and social.  Insuring that each domain is attended to builds resilience to illness and stress.  Then, identify behaviors within any of these domains that are within your control, including:

  • Physical health: make healthy food choices, eat mindfully, exercise, drink more water
  • Emotional health: read, engage in hobbies, learn something new, meditate, spend time in nature, keep a gratitude journal, connect with a therapist via telehealth
  • Spiritual health: participate in virtual worship experiences, read from or follow inspirational figures, pray
  • Social health: keep in touch with family and friends, join and take part in communities (based on shared geography, values, or interests), practice random acts of kindness

Start small.  Choose one domain, or just one activity within any of the domains.  Then, commit to doing at least one thing every day that is aligned with your healthy intention.  Tell people about your intention so that they can support you (maybe even join with you!), and create visual cues or reminders so that you will remember your intention.  The threat is real, however, allowing the threat to monopolize our attention contributes to feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and stress.  There are many things, especially in these challenging times, that are beyond our control.  But instead of being consumed with the fight against COVID-19, fight mindfully – commit to and engage in the pursuit of health.

mindful living, mindfulness, self-help, stress management

Mindfulness in Scary Times

greyscale photography of woman wearing long sleeved top

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.
  • Exercise.
  • 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.


Uncategorized

Mindfulness When Things Go Wrong

wrecked iphone

Meditation can be intrinsically rewarding – a brief vacation  or respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life, a relaxing or refreshing activity, or even a time set aside to connect with a community of fellow meditators.  Following each meditation session there may be a lingering feeling of relaxation, the sense of being a bit more grounded, and a bit less reactive to challenging events.  The same may be true, however, for a number of activities, like taking a nap or a bubble bath, sitting with a good book, or having a glass of wine with a friend.  With so many demands on our time, why choose to sit in meditation?

When things go wrong, our “fight-or-flight” response takes hold. For our distant ancestors who lived in primitive conditions, surrounded by wild beasts, far from the top of the food chain, the activation of stress hormones that allowed them to spring reflexively into action to save themselves was crucial to human survival.   In our complicated and complex modern world we typically do not encounter tigers or other predators with teeth and claws, but instead are bombarded daily with challenges from social, psychological, financial, electronic, environmental, political, and so many other domains. Because our brains have not evolved to keep pace with such radical change, we tend to perceive and react to all kinds of challenges as if they were tigers – our bodies tense, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, our attention narrows, and we experience intense urges to either attack or run away from the situation.  When we become caught up in the fight-or-flight response in contexts where it is not called for, our behavior is likely to be counter-productive to effectively responding to the actual situation at hand.

A meditation practice is to mindfulness what regular exercise is to fitness. One meditation session, like a single trip to the gym, is not going to produce significant or sustained results.  Hopefully, in addition to the possibility of some short term positive feelings, the single session will allow us to experience the deeper satisfaction of knowing that we have done something that is contributing to our overall health and wellbeing, and a boost of confidence that despite the inconvenience or discomfort, “I can do this!”  If this sense of deeper satisfaction and confidence boost result in another meditation or exercise session, we may be on track to realizing some tangible benefits.  Just as working our muscles, over time, will result in greater endurance and strength, meditation practice, over time, cultivates the quality of presence we call mindfulness.

Mindfulness, the ability to remain rooted in the present moment, able to take in information from the external environment, and experience sensory changes as sensory changes and not as indicators of imminent physical danger, allows for improved assessment of, and response to things that go wrong.  In most cases, the outcome will be improved by pausing, gaining greater perspective on the situation, considering options, and choosing a response most likely to navigate the challenge successfully. Failure to respond mindfully may even lead to secondary problems, as when we react aggressively (“fight”) and are then faced with consequences our own bad behavior, or when avoid dealing with (“flight”) smaller problems that then grow into bigger problems.  Mindfulness may also prevent the sorts of problems that we frequently associate with “mindlessness”, as when we caught up in distractions that result in losing or forgetting our belongings, missing turns, or saying things without thinking rather than pausing, considering our current circumstances, and responding thoughtfully.

Things will go wrong.  If you start, or recommit to a regular meditation practice today, maybe they won’t go wrong as often, and when they do go wrong, you may be better able to get back on track sooner.

mindful living, mindfulness

Remembering to be Mindful

bracelet photo

Mindfulness, defined as paying attention, on purpose, to present-moment experience, is an act of intentional attention.  If we sit down to meditate, or engage in formal mindfulness, the intention to pay attention can be assumed as part of the process.  The longer or more regular our meditation practice, the more habitual the setting of the intention to be mindful becomes.  We may struggle to remain and/or return to being mindfully attentive during the meditation, but are unlikely to altogether forget to be mindful.

Anything we do can be done mindfully by slowing down, and engaging in and noticing one thing at a time.  Why even bother, when multi-tasking, engaging in more than one activity at the same time, is more the norm, often seen as a necessity, and even considered a valuable skill?  The truth is that many studies and scholarly articles have concluded that multi-tasking is, actually, not more efficient or effective than doing one thing at a time, and has been correlated with increased stress.  Mindfulness has been popularized for its tendency to reduce stress – it is often, erroneously, equated with “relaxation” – but not often understood as a skill that leads to greater efficiency and more effective behaviors, which results in less stress in the long run.

Mindfulness, like all skills, is learned and strengthened through practice.  You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading about how to ride a bike, and you can’t learn to be mindful by just reading about mindfulness.  If not committing to a meditation practice, it is easy, as we go about the business and busyness of our daily lives, to forget about mindfulness altogether.  However, using some of the typical activities and experiences of daily life as reminders to be mindful can be quite helpful.  These can include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Take a few moments before getting out of bed in the morning to notice the feelings in your body, and notice when your first foot comes in contact with the floor
  • Consciously inhale the aroma from your first cup of coffee, and feel the warmth of the cup in your hands
  • Pause at your doorway, before leaving home, and take a few conscious breaths before opening the door
  • When you are stopped at a traffic light, notice the feeling of the steering wheel in your hands, notice the contact between your body and the driver’s seat, or notice your breath, or take a moment to look at the sky
  • Take a few deep, conscious breaths between meetings, or tasks, or during times in the workday when there is a transition
  • If you are at home with children, pick a transition time during the day to take a mental snapshot, or pay attention to the feeling of your child’s skin, or scent, or sound

You may find these moments of mindfulness to be pleasurable or relaxing.  However, by engaging in brief, but routine moments of practice such as these, you will be cultivating a skill that will leave you more resilient in the wake of the unavoidable challenges and stress of everyday life.  If you can remember to be mindful on a daily basis, over time you will notice that your ability to respond to challenges in more calm, focused, and effective ways will improve – and likely the people you live and work with will notice, too!

 

 

getting unstuck, mindful living, mindfulness, self-help

Set your GPS for Successful New Year’s Resolutions

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The New Year’s Eve ball has dropped, 2019 has begun, and we’re returning to “life as usual” after the disruption of routines that occurs during the holiday season.  For many, making resolutions for the new year – often related to habits that we would like to change – is a tradition associated with this place in the calendar.  Unfortunately, the pull of habits acquired in previous years is strong.  A number of people who would like to make changes eschew resolution-making as a set up for certain failure.  Perhaps by approaching resolutions differently, rather than abandoning hope, we can benefit from this age-old practice.

The “all-or-nothing” mentality created by the concept of “keeping” or “breaking” resolutions is a set up for failure.  If we have to be perfect in keeping our resolution, failure is likely.  If we accept that there will be mis-steps, and that each moment is an opportunity to either stray further from the new path we are choosing, or take a step that leads us back towards that new path, the resolution is still guiding us.

Mindfulness, awareness of what we are feeling, thinking, and experiencing in the present, is like a GPS – tracking our progress moment-by-moment, and suggesting a way to get back on track whenever we go astray.  Some simple mindfulness-based practices for effective resolutions include:

  • Starting the day with a reminder of the change you would like to make
  • Visualizing yourself engaging in the desired behavior
  • Noticing when you are vulnerable – feeling tired, under the weather, stressed – and give yourself the compassion and self-care that you would offer to a loved one who is in need of some kindness
  • Accepting recurrences of undesired behaviors as normal “bumps in the road”, or detours on the road to the desired behavior, rather than failure
  • Re-committing to the desired behavior NOW, rather than tomorrow, next Monday, next year….

Best wishes for your 2019 journey towards the person you want to become!

mindful living, self-help, time management

A Brief Blog about Time (because I know you are busy)

There ARE “only” 24 hours in a day, AND we do have “enough” time.  It’s as if we all think we are somehow the exception to the rule, and while everyone else should be able to find the time to do everything they want, need, and are expected to do, we can’t possibly make it work.  If this does not pertain to you, then please stop reading this article, and get back to your life, already in progress.  If,

pexels-photo-707676-e1540674760422.jpeghowever, you do find yourself feeling stressed by your lack of time, please try the following:

  • NOTICE when you are having thoughts such as:
    • “I’ll never finish….”
    • There’s no time for….”
    • If only I had more time….”
    • If I could ever find the time, I’d….”
  • Then PAUSE.
  • Take 2 or 3 DEEP, CONSCIOUS BREATHS
  • Ask yourself: WHAT IS MY PRIORITY IN THIS MOMENT?

This step will be easier if you make a short list for yourself, maybe after you finish reading this article, of your uppermost values, the things (somewhere between 4 and 6, perhaps) that are most important to you (think relationships, health, career, etc.).  FYI, “values” represent issues of enduring importance.  They are not the time-sensitive items that appear on your “to-do” list.  KEEP THIS LIST IN A PLACE WHERE YOU WILL SEE IT.

  • Now CHOOSE the task, from your to-do list, that is aligned with the priority that is most important right now.
  • ENGAGE MINDFULLY in the task – bring your attention to it, redirecting your attention back to the task at hand whenever you become distracted – esp. by thoughts of “not having enough time” – until you have completed, or made sufficient progress towards completing the task.

Like all mindfulness-based strategies, the above is easier said than done, and can only really become useful with practice.  As so many sages in the realm of mindfulness frequently remind us, the only moment over which we have any control is THIS moment.  So I encourage you (as I remind myself many times each day) to commit to pausing at just those moments when you are either about to enter into a frenzy of activity, or, perhaps, to distract yourself from the stress with some mindless activity (eating, binge viewing, immersing in social media, to name just a few).  In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:   “We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.”  The key to mindful use of time is bringing our attention to this moment, instead of allowing our  thoughts to steal it from us.

mindful living, psychotherapy, self-help, Uncategorized

Mind Driving? Drive Mindfully!

Boston_traffic_re-routed_Ted_Williams_tunnel,_2006Mindfulness practice can take place anywhere, and need not involve a specific time of day, quiet environment, cushion, or even closing the eyes.  Cars are, in fact, an ideal place for informal mindfulness practice.  Chances are, the next time you get behind the wheel, you will experience something that you find annoying, inconsiderate, infuriating, or maybe even alarming.  This can be a perfect opportunity to practice:

  • Notice what thoughts arise when you see driving that takes you out of your peaceful, or just benign place. My mind starts sending me thoughts like:  “What’s wrong with that person?” and “What a jerk!” or “Why are people able to get away with driving like that?!!”
  • Notice what feelings you experience in your body. Where in your body is the tension most prominent- your jaws? neck and shoulders? chest? What do you notice about your breath? Notice any change in temperature?
  • What urges do you experience? The urge to yell?  lean on the horn? wave your fist?  accelerate until you are virtually on top of the car in front of you?

Noticing, or being “mindful” of the ways in which we react to situations allows us to respond in ways that are more effective and less stressful.

  • Dwelling on, ruminating about, and continuing to justify our anger about these momentary experiences keeps us anchored to an event that is over and done with, and over which we have no control.
  • Focusing attention on the thoughts, feelings, and urges, which are happening in the present, is the beginning of being able to move forward.

Allowing thoughts, feelings, and urges to control us is like being “hijacked” by some random stranger, encountered on the road, who will never be seen again. The stranger is none the worse for all of my seething and ranting, but I no longer have the benefit of enjoying my commute, or arriving at work in a calm, relaxed state of mind.

Notice what happens to the thoughts, feelings, and urges when you just allow them to be there.  Bring a sense of curiosity to what is happening “under the hood” of your own “vehicle”, notice the feeling of your hands on the steering wheel, talk a few deep, conscious breaths, and then redirect your attention to the road ahead – looking through the front windshield rather than being fixated on the rear-view mirror.