Life is all looking a bit the same at the moment. As much as I am enjoying the extra space and time this current situation is providing, I have found it far easier to get caught up in looping thought processes that sometimes don’t serve me. At best, they leave me feeling a bit unsure; at worst they make me feel downright fearful!!
And based on the conversations I’m having with both clients and friends, I know I am not alone! Our minds can be beasts of their own making when given a lot of spare time – and it’s even more ghastly when they’re combined with a dash of uncertainty and fear!
I was talking to a friend last week and she was finding it all particularly challenging. Not the working from home, the ability to sleep in later because of no commute, but the hours she found herself worrying and fretting about the “what if’s” of life at the moment. What if she lost her job? What if she ran out of money? What if she got COVID-19 and there were no respirators left and so on.
This is a sure-fire way to completely and utterly do your own head in. The “what ifs” in life can really make you feel unhinged if you’re not careful!
This challenge is compounded because our mind learns very quickly which thoughts meet its needs (see the Six Core Human needs – certainty, uncertainty, significance, connection, growth and contribution). Thoughts may not be meeting our needs in a good and healthy way whatsoever but they’re still meeting them, just in a more sinister way. Like a child wanting attention: if they can’t get the high-quality attention of being focused on, loved, and praised, he or she will take the low-quality attention of control, being told off, and yelling. It’s still attention. Meeting our six core human needs works in exactly the same way.
Every time we access a particular thought process, we strengthen the neural pathway and make it even easier to access next time around. This is fabulous if it’s a healthy and resourceful thought pattern, but it’s pretty crappy if it’s a low-quality thought pattern that leaves us feeling anxious, fearful or depressed.
As I talked through this with my friend last week, mindfulness came up as a great option to help her let go of the attachment to her thoughts and find some more peace in her days.
Meditation is a great way to develop mindfulness. Sitting quietly in a still and comfortable position, focusing on your breathing, scanning your body for tension or stress, softly and gently observing your thoughts and letting them float on by will absolutely move you into a state of mindfulness: total presence in the moment.
My friend declared that she is not a meditator and having tried it numerous times was not keen to use that as a vehicle to help her change her thought processes. I get that. Meditation can be challenging when our mind is noisy and boisterous. That being said, maybe that is exactly what she (and perhaps the rest of us) need right now.
If we break mindfulness down, it comes down to complete presence, being in the moment NOW. Having awareness of now – and now – and now – and now. Not yesterday, last year, tomorrow or next month, now. Just now.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is a Professor Emeritus of Medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He sums it up nicely in this short video:
Given that meditation was off the menu, I wanted to offer something that would help my friend and would feel easier for her to do in the moment.
It’s all about focus: what could she focus on in the now that would move her thoughts away from the vicious loop she kept finding herself in? That’s right – her senses!
No matter where you are or what you are doing, you always have your five senses with you – sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. The five senses are the way we filter information and then code it into our brain. Of course we all do this subconsciously, but using our senses to actively become present and mindful is also very easy and can be done anywhere.
Simply put your focus on exactly what you are seeing right now – for me there is a computer, my tea cup, books on my desk. What I am hearing right now is the magpies outside, the wind blowing through the trees, traffic in the distance. What can I smell right now – hmm not much really because my nose is a bit stuffy! How does my stuffy nose feel? Well to tell you the truth the air feels like it is being pulled up into my nose (there’s a lot of resistance) instead of easily entering my nostrils. What can I taste right now? That would be the remnants of my toast with honey on it and the roof of my mouth as I run my tongue over it.
By shifting my attention to my senses I am able to let go of any swirling thoughts in my mind. Sure, this can take some practise, but I promise you the more you train yourself, the greater the rewards.
The Five Senses Exercise is a great one to keep in your tool kit. You can calm your mind by using your five senses and focusing on the environment around you. Give it a go:
- First, notice 5 things that you can see. Look around you and become aware of your environment. Try to pick out something that you don’t usually notice.
- Second, notice 4 things you can feel. Bring attention to the things that you’re currently feeling, such as the texture of your clothing or the smooth surface of the table you’re resting your hands on.
- Third, notice 3 things that you can hear. Listen for and notice things in the background that you don’t normally notice. It could be the birds chirping outside or an appliance humming in the next room.
- Fourth, notice 2 things you can smell. Bring attention to scents that you usually filter out, either pleasant or unpleasant. Catch a whiff of the pine trees outside or food cooking in the kitchen.
- Finally, notice 1 thing you can taste. Take a sip of a drink, chew gum, or notice the current taste in your mouth.
I trust this will be useful for you. Keep practicing it – and any other mindfulness tools you have – on a regular basis and I promise you will find more peace in your life.
One thing this COVID-19 period has reminded me of is to have a variety of tools in my emotional and mental tool kit. If we only have one or two ways to make ourselves feel better and for some reason they are removed, we can find ourselves stranded on the Island of Negativity and Fear without a lifeboat in sight.
Mindfulness is that lifeboat.