How to Practice Mindfulness During Stressful Times
What to do with mixed feelings
It is hard to be calm and collected while coping with a pandemic and mixed messages about how to stay well and safe. Staying home for physical health is important, but at the same time, staying home has an impact on financial, social and mental health. The technology that helps us stay connected can also be a source of stress. We may be talking to family and friends more often and yet feel lonely. We may be grateful for our health while also feeling disappointed due to the unplanned changes in our lives. Opposing feelings that occur simultaneously can cause tension, anxiety or depression. So, how do we find moments to step away from the strange reality in which we are living?
To start, let us practice self-care and encourage one another to do the same by being more accepting of ourselves and our struggles. If you are working from home, consider that you are actually trying to work while surviving a pandemic (a big deal!). Think from a “strengths” perspective. We are collectively handling something for which we were not trained.
When thinking about all you “should have” accomplished with the “extra time” you had, recall the difficult changes you've had to make all at once, such as being a teacher, partner, employee, student, parent or caretaker. We are trying to find ways to keep life going in the midst of crisis.
Ideas for practicing mindfulness
One way to work on self-care is to become more mindful of self, feelings, thoughts and actions. That is, to minimize being on autopilot. Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, a high-profile proponent of mindfulness, defines mindfulness as: “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Practicing mindfulness can be done in a number of ways.
First, there are a few free mindfulness apps that may be helpful (in-app purchases optional):
Stop, Breathe & Think
You can also visit the Mayo Clinic's page on mindfulness for a nice summary, and The Little Book of Mindfulness by Patrizia Collard contains great 10-minute exercises, including a “pebble meditation,” which reminds me of an exercise I often use in therapy sessions. Here's how to do it:
Hold a small pebble in your hand. Observe and describe the details of the stone. How does it feel? Does it warm up as you hold or squeeze it? Is the surface smooth, or are there rough patches or small cracks? Is it flat, round, triangular? What colors do you see in the stone? Feel it with your fingertips and in your palm. Massage your hand with the pebble. Describe the pebble in as much detail as possible.
Next, think of a peaceful place where you might have found such a pebble. Maybe you found it while walking along a beach, in a forest beneath a tree, along a riverbank or near a pond. Perhaps you found it in a park or a backyard (real or imagined).
Use all of your senses to create a very detailed image of the place where you imagine finding this pebble. Are there trees, flowers, a source of water, sand, moss-covered stones? Describe any plants, the sky. What do you hear? Birds chirping, crickets reminding you of summer, waves crashing? Maybe music…an orchestra or songs that bring back happy memories. Do you smell anything? If on the beach, maybe you smell food from the boardwalk, salty air, flowers in the forest or a garden. Does taste come into play? Maybe you find some wild berries or have a snack with you. Do you see animals or have a pet with you? How does the ground feel beneath your feet? Are you walking, sitting or lying down? Notice how your body feels in this place. Do your muscles become more relaxed as you imagine being there? Notice if your breath slows or if you start taking deeper breaths.
Come up with as much detail as possible to create a soothing, comfortable place that you can continue to recall. You can write your description down and even make an audio recording to playback so that you can imagine the place with your eyes closed and replay it whenever you want to.
The goal of pebble meditation is to be able to bring up these feelings of rest, peace or relaxation when stressful situations occur. But mindfulness is a skill that takes practice, so start doing exercises at times you feel neutral, good or calm, like when you wake up, before bed, when you are relaxing on the couch or during lunch. If your body is calm, your emotions may be calm, and you may be more effective in handling difficult moments. As you start to notice mind and body benefits, try the exercises in low-stress situations and eventually transition to using them in high-stress situations. If you forget, that's ok. Do the exercise when you remember.
You can keep the pebble in your pocket or purse. When you happen to touch it, think of the place you've created in your mind and how your mind and body would feel in that place.
Sometimes, mindfulness can feel ineffective or even make stress feel worse. For those experiencing severe depression, anxiety, symptoms related to trauma/PTSD or dissociation, it is a good idea to seek support from a professional to help you select styles of mindfulness that fit your preferences and needs.
Why practicing mindfulness is important
Taking care of yourself is important, and becoming more mindful gives us the chance to figure out “where” we are and what we need. Mindfulness helps us accept what we cannot change and commit to bettering ourselves. Slowing down and taking time for self-care can also give you more energy to seek out information and clarity about how you can thrive and help with what is happening in your community or society.
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