This article was originally published on Smiling Mind.
Mindfulness can help cultivate a greater awareness of our own emotional landscape, as well as increase our capacity for compassion when it comes to other people's emotions.
Managing our emotions and supporting each other can be challenging at the best of times. This is why, now more than ever, we all need to be doing our best to regularly pause, take a breath and be proactive in looking after ourselves and others.
We know that this isn’t always easy, and we want to support you. In this article, you will find different practical things you can do to take care of your own wellbeing, as well as support the children in your life, your colleagues, loved ones and friends.
This resource takes an evidence-based approach to offering you practical tools and techniques to help manage uncertainty, reduce anxiety and stay connected and grounded.
Mindfulness provides us with a means of cultivating greater and more objective awareness of our own emotional landscape, the emotions of others, and of external circumstance.
In doing so, it gives us more choice in how we respond to challenges we may face and the ability to more consciously choose where we place our attention.
Wherever you are in the world we sincerely hope that you and your loved ones remain safe and healthy. In the words of one of our favourite meditation teachers: “Moment by moment we can find our way though” - Sharon Salzberg.
Fear, anxiety & denial
Acknowledging that feeling fearful and anxious during challenging times is not only normal but appropriate. Fear and anxiety are adaptive responses as they alert us to the fact that we need to be taking appropriate action to keep ourselves and others as safe and healthy as possible.
It’s also important to recognise that fear and anxiety can quickly escalate and reach a tipping point beyond which they are no longer helpful and can affect us in negative ways. When the acute stress response, otherwise knowns as the ‘fight or flight’ response, kicks in we’re not as able to think clearly or make good decisions; we become more reactive and less responsive; and our thinking can quickly spiral, becoming increasingly negative and difficult to unhook from.
Mindfulness helps us get better at recognising and understanding our own personal signals that tell us we’re close to our tipping point. We can think of mindfulness as being like our own personal ‘fear and anxiety thermometer’ helping us get to know our own warning signs and recognise them as they’re kicking in.
- losing patience
- a sense of urgency
- difficulty sleeping
- inability to focus
- catastrophic thinking
- eating or drinking more than usual.
In addition to knowing and recognising our warning signals, mindfulness gives us the opportunity to respond by taking steps to settle and soothe our nervous system, which in turn enables us to think more clearly, make better decisions and respond as opposed to react.
It can also be tempting to turn away from and deny the seriousness of what’s happening. Denial may be particularly appealing given the significant impact that this outbreak will have on so many people financially, emotionally or physically. While temporary distractions can be useful for giving our minds a break, on the whole denial is not a helpful approach. It can leave us vulnerable and exhausted as it may lead to not taking appropriate precautions and it’s difficult to sustain in the face of reality.
Mindfulness can help us see things more clearly, which in turn helps us strike a balance between staying informed and making sensible choices without becoming overwhelmed.
Healthy brain breaks
Giving your brain a break when you’re nearing your tipping point can be a helpful way of deactivating the acute stress (‘fight or flight’) response. Even short moments of reprieve are beneficial as they help reset enabling us to find the middle ground between overwhelm and denial. It’s in this place that we’re able to make better choices and are best placed to support ourselves and those around us.
We recommend trying out the following as often as you need to:
Any kind of physical movement is a great way of releasing the build-up of excess energy that accompanies the acute stress (‘fight or flight’) response – take yourself for a walk or run outside; do some stretching, yoga or some other form of mindful movement; or crank some uplifting music and dance around the house for a few minutes.
When you slow your breathing rate down the uncomfortable physical sensations of fear and anxiety start to subside. Try the following:
- Stop what you’re doing, take three long, slow deep breaths.
- Impose a rhythm on your breathing so that your out-breath becomes longer than your in-breath.
- Try a 4-2-6 rhythm – e.g. breathe for 4 counts, hold your breath for 2 counts, and breathe out for 6 counts.
- If that doesn’t feel comfortable, try imposing a 3-1-4 rhythm. The main thing is that your out-breath is slightly longer than your in-breath.
Connect to what is happening in this moment right now more consciously engaging your senses. Try the following:
- Splash cold water on your face
- Take a hot (or cold) shower
- Cuddle your pet
- Smell and/or diffuse a relaxing essential oil (i.e. lavender, geranium, ylang ylang)
- Take a moment to enjoy a cup of tea – really pay attention to the aroma and taste
- Do one of the following short guided grounding exercises from the ‘Stress Management’ program in the Smiling Mind App.
When we’re fearful and anxious it can be hard to sleep. Given the importance of sleep for our mental and physical wellbeing, including immunity, establishing good habits around sleep is particularly important at the moment.
Consider creating a pre-sleep routine by turning off news and screens at least an hour before going to bed. If you wake during the night and find you can’t sleep, rather than sit lay there and worry, try a meditation from the ‘Sleep’ program in the Smiling Mind App.
Contributing to the wellbeing of others helps shift our attention from ourselves onto what we can do for them. This helps us connect with others; gain a sense of agency, even if only in a small way; plus helping others also positively impacts our own wellbeing.
Consider how you might help others. For example, you could support a local business you value that is likely struggling at the moment or check up on an elderly friend or relative.
Create healthy habits
Mindfulness can help us create healthy habits to keep us and others as safe and healthy as possible. For example, washing your hands mindfully and taking care not to touch your face.
If you need assistance please visit the dedicated Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service. Trained mental health professionals are available to talk to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, via phone.