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Mindfulness in Times of Extreme Stress

by on April 13, 2020

If your first instinct upon seeing the word “mindfulness” in the title is to roll your eyes, I don’t blame you. The term has become so ubiquitous that it feels somewhat meaningless. It is often used synonymously with words like “relaxation” or “self-care.” And while mindfulness can produce relaxation and can be a form of self-care, at its heart, mindfulness is a practice of being with what is, as it is, without trying to change it. Though this may seem simple, it can be far from easy. 

The benefits of regular mindfulness practice are relevant personally and professionally as we continue to live in the upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are enduring a collective trauma. What does this mean for us physically, physiologically, and mentally? It means that we are operating more from our limbic system – the part of our brain responsible for survival. 

Whether at work or in home life or virtually chatting with friends and family members, we may find that we don’t feel quite like ourselves right now. We may obsessively plan for the future or try to predict what will happen next. We may experience increased physical pain or have trouble sleeping. We may be more easily irritable, set off by seemingly small things we would typically manage with ease. We may feel unable to shake off the blanket of exhaustion. These are all examples of what can happen when we are living in extreme stress. 

The human brain does not like uncertainty or unpredictability because, evolutionarily, such conditions are not conducive to survival. Under stress, our hormone production changes, increasing the amounts of cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. These hormones come to our aid when we need to react quickly to an immediate danger. But over a sustained period of time, such stress responses meant to keep us safe can negatively impact our physical, emotional, and mental health. 

This is where mindfulness comes in. Will trying one of the practices below immediately transform the experiences of working from home, homeschooling kids, grocery shopping while socially distancing, etc. into a starburst of joy? No. However, by making time to practice being with one object of focus, in the present moment, without reacting to it or trying to change it, we can reduce the hypervigilance of the limbic system and move our body from the overworked stress response into the relaxation response produced by the parasympathetic nervous system. 

These exercises take time to take effect. They must be practiced; we cannot think our way into experiencing the benefits of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is not about clearing the mind; thoughts and feelings and sensations and all kinds of distractions will arise because we are human beings with human brains. This is a normal part of practice. Resistance is also normal. It is easy to tell yourself that you don’t have time to practice (even when all your typical things to do are shut down) or that sitting around doing nothing isn’t going to help anything. Remember, though, when you are practicing mindfulness, you are doing something. You are training your brain, much in the same way that physical exercise trains the body. You are training your brain to accept what is, as it is, even if you wish it were different. And that in and of itself can help reduce the negative impacts of extreme stress.

Below are five basic mindfulness practices, with links to freely available guided instructions. 

Breath Meditation. In this practice, the object of awareness is the raw sensation of breathing. It is a great way to begin practicing mindfulness; if we are alive we are breathing and in that way the breath is always available to anchor your practice.

Under Five Minutes: Breathing Meditation from UCLA Health (Also available in Spanish as Meditación Básica

Longer Practice: Breathing Meditation by Jack Kornfield from Insight Timer

Body Scan. In this practice, the awareness focuses on physical sensations in the body, often moving through the body from the bottom to the top or vice versa.

Under Five Minutes: Body Scan Meditation from UCLA Health

Longer Practice: The Body Scan from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

Mindful Movement. The physical sensations of the body are the object of awareness also in moving meditation, but rather than noticing those sensations from a still position, you are invited to notice the sensations (and how they change) with movement, such as walking or stretching.

Under Five Minutes: Walking Meditation by Celestine Fedley available from Insight Timer

Longer Practice: Mindful Movement by Deborah Rana from UC San Diego College of Medicine

Sound Meditation. To practice mindfulness of sound, you are invited to let your awareness be open to all that you hear around you. Some sounds may be pleasant; others, less so. Notice these judgements and (just as you do with any other thoughts and feelings that arise in practice), softly let them go. Keep coming back to hearing what you hear, right now.

Under Five Minutes: Body and Sound Meditation from UCLA Health

Longer Practice: Mindfulness of Sound by Imee Contreras from Insight Timer

Loving-Kindness Meditation. A slightly more complex practice, loving-kindness is a process for cultivating compassion for oneself and for others. It is my personal daily practice right now, as I find that I am often harshly judging myself for what I can or cannot do, what I should or should not feel. Lovingkindness helps us acknowledge, not just in our heads but also in our hearts and bodies, that we are all humans, suffering to some degree, and doing our best to take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Under Five Minutes: Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation by Livia Walsh from UC San Diego College of Medicine

Longer Practice: Sending Compassion to the World During the Coronavirus by Kaira Jewel Lingo from Insight Timer

Mindfulness is not a panacea that will make everyone feel better immediately. Nor is it dogma. Think of it as an experiment. Pick a practice, try it for a few days, and notice any impact it has on your life. If it helps, great. If it doesn’t, or if you simply don’t want to try it at this time, let it be. The breath will be there whenever you choose to spend some time noticing it. 

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