Uncategorized

Mindfulness of FEAR

Unlike previous blogs, which I wrote with the reader in mind, this blog is written for me.  If you would like to continue to read, please feel free.  And if you feel that its contents may be useful for you, in coping with the fears that you are experiencing at this time in response to global, national, community-wide, and/or events that are personal to you (none of these are mutually exclusive, of course), I’m glad.  But this blog is, for me, a form of “putting on one’s own oxygen mask first,” recognizing that if I am not taking care of myself, I am not going to be able to support others whom I need and want to support.  I am going to write what I need to read, and remember, and practice.

First, I am going to name it.  I AM AFRAID.  I notice myself taking a deep breath, and letting out a looong exhale, the moment I type these words.  I AM AFRAID.  And I notice it again.  As I drove to work this morning, trying to listen to commentary on last night’s presidential debate (which I turned off exactly 7 minutes into it because I was so overwhelmed by FEAR, although the emotion was not named at the time), I found myself shouting at the comments made by people attempting to objectively speak about political and economic perspectives.  Their remarks seemed so irrelevant that they infuriated me.  All I could focus on were imagined worst-case scenarios, where human rights are threatened and violated on an ever-increasing trajectory, where the ability to feel safe, to maintain a sense of trust, and to remain hopeful about the future is absent,  and where I am so powerless and vulnerable that I am consumed by an existential crisis.

My heart is pounding.   As I got deeper and deeper into the preceding paragraph, my FEAR grew stronger and stronger.  I am currently experiencing FEAR.  Again, noticing, recognizing, calling out that emotion, I notice a return to a more grounded place.  Just noticing, being mindful of fear, rather than continuing to be caught up in the fear by trying to run away from it – by engaging in a debate in my mind (a slightly more civil version than the triggering event), shouting over the interviewees on the radio, trying to tell myself that “if only….”then worst case scenarios can’t possibly happen, or by imaging taking some action so that when the worst happens, I’ll be able to somehow morph into a superhero who can restore safety and hope.  All of those things I do try to escape the fear – the behaviors and the “mental gymnastics – actually serve to fuel and intensify the fear

When I owned, and paid attention to my fear instead of continuing to focus on what triggered the fear, a significant shift began to occur.   As I redirected my attention from the multitude of things over which I have no control, to the one thing that I actually have some control over, my actions, I felt myself regain a sense of safety and control. Starting with some basics, taking a few, deep, conscious breaths, reorienting myself to my physical surroundings, beginning to notice that my fear is no longer the dominant, overwhelming force that it was only moments before, and choosing something useful – to focus on (anything in the venn diagram where “what matters” and “what I can control” overlap.

During my commute, I went from feeling overwhelmed by fear to feeling calm and ready to proceed with my day, in a relatively short period of time. I know that all of the formal and informal mindfulness practice over the years served me well in a time of need. Undoubtably, I will have many opportunities to practice my response to fear over the weeks and months to come.  Here it is again, just anticipating.  FEAR.  I take a breath….

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.

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, 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.