Mindfulness Tips in Turbulent Times

Wow! What a beginning to the new year for us as a nation.  Like you, my wife and I were glued to our TV on Wednesday, January 6, feeling incredulous, horrified, deeply sad, frustrated, and so many more emotions.  It was an exhausting and very stressful day—and the days since then continue to feel somber and heavy as we collectively hold our breaths, hoping for no more challenges to the seeming fragile state of our democracy. 

And all of this on top of a global pandemic that is hitting the US hard:  We have the highest number ever of cases and deaths as we head into the heart of winter.  While the arrival of vaccines is definitely hopeful, the rollout has been slow, disorganized, and disappointing with fewer folks receiving vaccines than originally stated.   

Our country seems to be struggling on all sides. 

In addition to our national stressors, we continue to face our own personal ones—loved ones with COVID-19, maybe we ourselves have been sick with COVID, contentious conversations with those we love who are blindly believing conspiracy theories, loss of jobs and income, overseeing the remote education of our children, inability to gather with our family and friends during holidays and other celebrations.  It’s very overwhelming. 

How can a practice of mindfulness help us through all of this stress, heartbreak, and heaviness? 

Mindfulness can give us space to process our experiences and circumstances and our resulting emotions instead of getting caught up in them. It’s ok to feel what we’re feeling—the good, bad, and ugly.  What’s not helpful is staying in a high state of heavy emotion and stress. In fact, refusing to embrace reality or stuffing our emotions is not helpful to our brains, our souls, and those we live, work, and engage with.   

So how do we process our emotions? 

  • Embrace all the feelings.  Acknowledge the weight of the moment and all the accompanying emotions.  Feel them all.  Try even identifying in what parts of your body you’re feeling these emotions. 
  • Then come back to the present moment.  It’s easy to ruminate on what is wrong and how we’re feeling about it, like a cow chewing its cud.  It’s easy to stay in the lane of “what if’s,” reliving the past.  It’s also easy to feel fearful about the future, about what could happen.  Instead, turn off the news and start focusing on your breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds.  And keep repeating, allowing the sensation of the breath to ground you into the present.  This will serve as your anchor and help you return to the present moment. 
  • Focus on gratitude.  In this moment, what are you grateful for?  Start with what you’re doing right now.  Maybe you’re washing dishes or loading the dishwasher after dinner.  Become aware of what’s around you as you start saying, maybe even out loud, what you’re grateful for—I’m grateful for this running, clean water; I’m grateful for a dishwasher that works; I’m grateful for these dishes that remind me of my grandmother; I’m thankful for my grandmother and her impact on my life; I’m thankful for my dog who is eagerly waiting for me to drop a scrap of food off a plate I’m loading into the dishwasher, etc.  Focusing on gratitude helps to pull us back in from going down a highway of emotions and being taken all over for long rides.  
  • Give yourself some loving.  These are hard times—there’s no denying that.  So after corralling your mind from going down the emotional road to nowhere, do something that is kind and healthy to yourself.  Maybe it’s playing with your dog, taking a walk with your partner, playing a game with family members, having a dance party with your favorite music, or working on an outdoor project or indoor puzzle.   

One note:  Because these are hard times, many of us have had difficult conversations with people we love about the past four years, the November presidential election outcome, and the attack on our Capital.  In order to be in a peaceful and safe place, we first have to always take care of our inner selves as outlined above.  But sometimes, we also need to take care of our outer selves and the joint spaces we reside in with others.  A few suggestions: 

  • No healthy outcomes result from having debates, so avoid entering into these (or being pulled into them). 
  • We may need to set boundaries when it comes to having hard conversations.  For example, one boundary you may want to set in this moment is to stay away from conversations that may trigger you or those you’re conversing with.  If having calm conversations is not possible right now, give you and your loved one or friend some grace-filled space. 
  • Set an intention to strengthen relationships in big or small ways.  We can love people with different perspectives.  It helps to have some perspective ourselves.  For example, when we zoom out for distance and look at the universe, we’re more alike than different: We’re all human with a desire to love and be loved.  So let’s think through and focus on the ways we’re alike.  Do we both like chocolate?  Kayaking? Dogs?  Books? Music? 

There’s no denying that these are difficult, stress-filled days for everyone.  A consistent practice of mindfulness can help us round up ruminating and fearful thoughts and help us stay in the present moment of focusing on our breathing, what’s around us, and on gratitude.  

Let’s encourage each other to mindfully live in the present moment! 

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