• How mindfulness can help us start a new year amidst a pandemic

    by Ashley Lodge

    Young woman looking out at hot air balloons in the sky

    It’s only natural that our brains are in a constant state of alert due to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has continued into the new year. Not only do we need to take steps to protect our bodies from the virus, we also need to take care of our minds to deal with the stress and anxiety occurring as a result. One approach that has been shown to be beneficial in dealing with this is mindfulness. 

    What exactly is mindfulness? 

    When I get asked this question, I always quote Jon Kabat Zinn, one of the leading figures in bringing mindfulness to Western audiences. He says it is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”  

    I came to mindfulness was because it was recommended to me by my doctor. I'd suffered from anxiety that, at times, could be quite debilitating. He suggested a book: Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, co-authored by Professor Mark Williams, the Founding Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. I managed to get a place on the Centre’s eight-week MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy) course in September 2013. Following several years of daily practice and seeing the positive impact it had in my life, I later trained as a mindfulness teacher.  

    By attending the weekly group sessions and doing the practices and meditations in my original mindfulness course, I could see my anxiety calming little by little. I was more present in the moment, less reactive to difficult situations, and generally calmer and more focused. I was able to observe the working of my own mind and see thoughts as subjective mental events, rather than an objective view of the world. Understanding the two modes of mind, ‘doing’ and ‘being’, and being able to shift the gear between the two, helped me better navigate daily life. It’s not some kind of quick fix. It takes daily practice (meditation) to help rewire the brain towards calmer, wiser ways of thinking and approaching life.  

    How can mindfulness help us get going in 2021 mid-pandemic?  

    We're all concerned about Coronavirus. Questions like ‘Will I/loved ones be okay?’, ‘What impact will this have on my learning and/or work?’, and ‘When will this be over?’ are never far from our minds. 

    Right now, we don’t have all the definitive answers and while mindfulness doesn't serve to make everything better, it can help us develop ways to feel okay during times of uncertainty. Mindfulness can help offer moments to pause and step back from what's going on around us, all the information we're receiving, and our own thoughts. Rather than getting trapped in ‘doing’ mode and trying to problem solve tricky emotional situations, we learn to stand back, be present in the moment, and observe. Therefore, if we choose to respond, we do so with the calmest and wisest approach to a given situation.  

    What are some ways to embrace mindfulness, starting today?  

    The best way to learn how to be mindful is by attending a course. This will give you a deep understanding of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ modes, the characteristics of mindfulness, and the practices covered. There are many courses being offered online and many apps that can help too. To help you get started today, here are some suggestions for beginning the new year with a mindful perspective: 

    Consider intentions rather than goals. A lot of what we learn through mindfulness is training the focus of attention. In order to do this, we need to be clear about our intentions. Having clear intentions sets where the attention goes. Setting your intentions at the beginning of the year is often more favourable than using language of goals. Rather than setting specific metrics that can be used to beat yourself up, intentions allow us to have more flexible parameters that can be adapted as situations evolve and change.  

    Be gentle and kind to yourself. Self-compassion is so important. Very often we can be our own worst enemies with how we talk to ourselves. Given how much is going on in the world right now, give yourself a pat on the back for what you are able to do. Practising self-care and compassion has the added benefit that it makes us kinder and more understanding to other people too. It has a positive upward cycle effect for us and those around us. It’s a win-win.  

    Reconnect with your body and reengage the senses. Mindfulness is great at helping increase focus and reduce distraction and rumination. Simple ‘everyday’ mindfulness practices, like mindfully preparing a cup of tea or coffee, are an easy way to do this. For example, going through the steps of boiling the kettle and pouring the water into the cup, smelling it as it brews and feeling the heat through the cup, adding milk and noticing the colour change, to finally tasting the drink. This helps focus the mind and train it gently to focus on one thing at a time.  

    Although the benefits of mindfulness are well documented, it’s important to check that it’s the right approach if you’re currently experiencing any mental distress. Please always check in with your doctor or clinician before undertaking a mindfulness course. Remember that talking things through with friends, family members, or one of the many support lines out there can help if you feel things are becoming difficult.  

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  • Wellness: 6 tips for taking care of yourself during this stressful time

    by Jessica Yarbro

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    Right now many of us are juggling working in a new environment, becoming a teacher for our kids, caring for our family full time and dealing with the anxiety that comes from living in the middle of a pandemic. We’re all feeling pretty stressed. Self-care is crucial for managing these negative emotions and being resilient.

    Here are six tips based on the science of learning to help you get through this:

    1. Look after your physical and mental well-being

    If possible, continue your current self-care practices since it is easier to stick to existing habits. However, many of us will have to alter or discover new ones.

    Here are some ideas if you are stuck at home for a few weeks:

    • Take care of your body by eating healthy, well-balanced meals, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep.
    • Work up a sweat with at-home or individual exercise activities by following workout videos on YouTube, using Fitness Apps for HIIT or strength training, or by hitting the pavement for a walk or run outside.
    • Practice relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. If you’re new to this, here are a few options to start.
    • Make time for appropriate activities that bring you happiness and joy. These might include cooking, listening to music, taking a warm bath, crafting, reading, or watching TV or movies.

    2. Maintain social connections

    For introverts and extroverts alike, the activities that are most important for promoting our well-being are inherently social, which can make this period where we are encouraged to be physically distant from our loved ones particularly difficult. It is all the more important to maintain our social connections, using technology to help us stay psychologically close.

    • Use the many different modes of communication at our fingertips – voice calls, text, social media. Video especially can make us feel closer.
    • Since interactions will not come up as naturally during this period, be more intentional about scheduling time to speak with friends and family. They will be excited to hear from you.
    • These conversations will be important opportunities to relieve stress by sharing your feelings with others. In addition, try to incorporate fun, play a game virtually or watch the same movie together.

    3. Create structure and a schedule

    Watching the news can make us feel a lack of control, which fuels stress. Control what you can and maintain as much normalcy as possible.

    • Develop a schedule and try to stick to your new routine. You can start with activities that support good eating and sleep habits, and fill in with both fun and necessary activities. Scheduling in regular opportunities for self-care can help us stick to those plans.
    • For those who are transitioning into remote work, maintaining a schedule can help ensure dedicated time for work while also protecting individual relaxation and family time.
    • Particularly for families who have young children home from school, maintaining a schedule may seem daunting. Be kind to yourself as you work through new processes and routines. Much of the benefit of the schedule comes from thoughtfully making one, not perfectly following one.

    4. Be a smart media consumer

    It is important to find a balance regarding media consumption. With situations changing quickly in a crisis, it is useful to follow the news in order to keep up-to-date. On the other hand, repeatedly viewing (often negative) news stories can increase stress and anxiety.

    Consider taking breaks from viewing the news, or schedule specific times to check the news. It can also be helpful to limit your media consumption to a few, trusted sites, which can help keep you from hearing the same information repeatedly.

    5. Seek additional help if needed

    During times such as these, it is completely normal to experience elevated levels of stress along with other negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and frustration. If these persist or worsen and begin to cause significant distress or dysfunction, seek additional help.

    More specific warning signs include:

    • Persistent anxiety, worry, insomnia, or irritability.
    • Withdrawing from appropriate social contact.
    • Persistently checking for symptoms or seeking reassurance about one’s health.
    • Abusing alcohol or drugs.
    • Experience of suicidal thoughts or actions.

    Many therapists are transitioning to providing telemedicine so you get professional support without needing to meet in person. Find a therapist from a site like Psychology Today. Those with preexisting mental health conditions should continue with treatment.

    6. Practice empathy

    We are in many ways overwhelmed with information and recommendations and it can be easy to fall into the trap of judging others for their choices. But many are having to weigh financial concerns with public health and personal safety, and making difficult decisions.

    • Hanging on to judgment and anger at others can be counter productive. It can cause our personal stress levels to elevate and can break down the social bonds that are so important to weathering crises. Try to practice empathy by considering the perspectives of others. Understanding why someone has made a different decision from you can help you be more compassionate. Loving-Kindness Meditation can also support compassion and empathy. This type of meditation involves mentally sending kindness and goodwill to others. Read more here.
    • But also, don’t let trying to practice self-care stress you out. Do the best you can and be kind to yourself and others.
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