We are all feeling a great deal of stress and fear regarding the novel coronavirus. This stress and fear can cause us to panic, obsess, and fall back into negative habits, such as overeating or eating unhealthy foods.
But there are two related practices that can help us to regain a sense of calm, as well as to gain some perspective. These two practices are mindfulness and compassion. In addition to helping the average person cope with their stress and fear regarding our current pandemic, mindfulness and self-compassion are particularly effective practices for those who have experienced trauma in the past, including former victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse who can become “triggered” by this current crisis.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to accept painful thoughts and feelings in a balanced way. In particular, it is, for most of us, a healthier way to deal with both the stress and fear surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Mindfulness offers a way to turn toward our anxiety and fear so we don’t become overwhelmed by it.
First and foremost, mindfulness involves being in the present. It has been said that the present moment is all we have. The past has already occurred and the future is yet to be. We can become so lost in our fears about tomorrow that we miss the present.
In addition to learning how to pay attention in the present moment, we need to learn how to do so without evaluation or judgment. We need to use our conscious awareness and direct our attention to observe and only observe. So mindfulness entails observing what is going on in our field of awareness just as it is—right here, right now.
Acceptance is another aspect of mindfulness. Instead of trying to ignore or get rid of our emotional pain, when we respond to our pain with acceptance, change can happen naturally. Acceptance is not the same as resignation or feeling powerless or hopeless. And it is not the same as sugar-coating reality. Instead, acceptance in this context refers to making a conscious choice to experience our sensations, feelings, and thoughts just as they are. When we practice acceptance in this way, when we give up trying to control or manipulate our experience, we open the door to change.
Exercise: Beginning the Practice of Mindfulness
This is a very non-threatening beginning exercise in mindfulness. You can’t do it wrong so don’t worry about “getting it right.” The entire exercise should only take five minutes but make sure you are in a quiet place with no distractions (unplug your cell phone, TV, radio, etc.).
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and begin to notice what it feels like to be in your body. Just be aware of and be with the physical sensations in your body as they come and go.
- You need not pay attention to any particular sensation but if you do notice a feeling or sensation, just feel it and let it go. Perhaps you feel a warmth in your hands or a tightness in your shoulders. If it is a pleasant sensation, feel it and let it go. If it is an unpleasant one, also feel it and let it go. Just notice whatever feelings or sensations arise. Take your time.
- After about five minutes, gently open your eyes. You may or may not notice that you are more in the present or more connected to your body. The point of this beginning practice is to help you become familiar with the practice of mindfulness.
While compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. More specifically for our purposes, self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.
If we are to be self-compassionate we need to offer ourselves the recognition, validation, and support we would offer a loved one or a dear friend who is suffering.
Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her ground-breaking book, Self-Compassion , she defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.”
Self-compassion encourages you to begin to treat yourself and talk to yourself with the same kindness, caring, and compassion you would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has actually been shown to comfort and even help heal others of their ailments or problems, connecting with your own suffering will do the same for you.
Putting Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Into Practice
Both mindfulness and self-compassion have proven to help us alleviate stress and fear. Let’s apply these practices to our current anxiety, fear, and stress reactions to the coronavirus.
1. Draw the line between preparedness and panic .
When we are stressed or anxious, our thinking brains go offline, and we go into survival mode. Intellectual information doesn’t stick because we’re busy running away from the danger. Only when our brains perceive safety does our thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) come back online. That’s when we can rationally plan for the future.
For example, when we are home, calmly writing a grocery list, our prefrontal cortex helps us to make a reasonable list. But when we get to the grocery store and see everyone running around in a panic state, we suddenly join in. The scientific term for this is “social contagion,” which is basically the spread of emotion from person to person.
So what do we do about this phenomenon? Noticing that we are panicking is a good first step. Similar to taking your foot off the gas when your car is going out of control, mindfulness helps us ground ourselves in the present moment, which helps our minds stop racing off into the future with worry or catastrophic thinking.
Grounding is a powerful yet simple strategy to help you manage and detach from fear, anxiety, and pain. The goal is to shift attention away from negative feelings toward the external world. Grounding is particularly powerful because it can be applied to any situation where you are caught in emotional pain (e.g. triggered) and can be done anytime, anywhere, by oneself, without anyone noticing it.
Please note: Grounding is not a “relaxation technique” and in fact, is a more effective tool for victims of trauma. Some victims with PTSD actually become more anxious when they are guided through conventional relaxation techniques (e.g. “close your eyes, focus on your breathing”). Closing their eyes can lead to dissociation for some victims and focusing on breathing, and even the word “relax,” may be triggers that remind them of sexual abuse.
Most people report that they feel more “present” after practicing grounding. In fact, many are surprised to realize that they are “out of their body” (dissociated) more often than they realize. Practice grounding whenever you are extremely anxious, when you are having flashbacks or traumatic memories, and whenever you feel you are dissociated.
Basic Grounding Exercise
- Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed or distracted.
- Sit up in a chair or on the couch. Put your feet flat on the ground. If you are wearing shoes with heels, you will need to take your shoes off so that you can have your feet flat on the ground.
- With your eyes open, take a few deep breaths. Turn your attention once again to feeling the ground under your feet. Continue your breathing and feeling your feet flat on the ground throughout the exercise.
- Now, as you continue breathing, clear your eyes and take a look around the room. As you slowly scan the room, notice the colors, shapes, and textures of the objects in the room. If you’d like, scan your eyes around the room moving your neck so you can see a wider view.
- Bring your focus back to feeling the ground under your feet as you continue to breathe and to notice the different colors, textures, and shapes of the objects in the room.
This grounding exercise will serve several purposes:
- It will bring your awareness back to your body, which in turn can stop you from panicking, being triggered, or from dissociating.
- It will bring you back to the present, to the here and now, again a good thing if you are panicking or if you have been triggered and have been catapulted back into the past by a memory or a trigger.
- Deliberately focusing your attention outside yourself by being visually involved in the world breaks the panic spiral and allows those feelings and thoughts to subside.
2. Learn how to stop your fears, many of which feel quite real, from snowballing (“I’m going to lose my job,” “My grandmother is going to die.”) Mindfulness practices such as the mindfulness exercise offered above can help you stop your fears from snowballing and to build good “mental immunity” to stress, anxiety, and panic.
3. Learn to “anchor” yourself when you begin to obsess or panic . It is easy to focus if you are simply noticing what comes and goes. Problems arise, however, when you unconsciously resist discomfort, judge your discomfort or allow your mind to begin obsessing or fantasizing. When this happens, you will discover that a simple exercise such as sitting still for a few minutes and allowing your thoughts to come and go can become uncomfortable or even unbearable.
Because it is so difficult to allow ourselves to just observe and just be—without the automatic mental functions of labeling and judging taking over—the mind needs an anchor. The most common anchor used in mindfulness practice is the breath. Paying attention to your breath is an excellent way to gather your attention and bring yourself into the present moment.
A note to former victims of trauma, especially those with a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse: Unfortunately, victims of trauma often have a difficult time focusing on their breath. This is true for several reasons.
First of all, victims of physical or sexual abuse may not like being reminded of their bodies since this can bring back bad memories. For example, it is common for those who were sexually abused to be reminded of either the perpetrator’s breathing or their own as they were being abused. Those who were held down, gagged, or confined in a small space may experience shortness of breath when they focus on their breathing. Those who suffer from physical pain due to flashbacks or being triggered by memories of the abuse may not want to focus on their body. And those who don’t like how their body looks or who experience hatred of their body may find that focusing on their breath brings them too close to their bodies.
For these reasons, I recommend that those who have a history of trauma find a different anchor. Practicing the grounding exercise I provided earlier can act as your anchor. A physical object can also be an excellent anchor. You can use whatever you wish—a small stone, an object given to you by a loved one—just make sure it is readily available. For example, some people carry a small, flat stone around with them to help them become anchored or grounded whenever they experience a strong emotion or when they are triggered.
4. Learn how to soothe yourself. When you start to panic, obsess, or feel triggered by something in your environment, try each of the following:
- Gently stroke your arm, face, or hair
- Gently rock your body
- Give yourself a warm hug
Notice how your body feels after receiving each of these self-soothing techniques. Does it feel calmer, more relaxed? Notice which of these self-soothing techniques feels the best to you. For example, do you have more positive associations with one more than the other?
Don’t allow your self-critical mind to try to talk you out of it—it is not silly or self-centered to soothe yourself—it is a loving thing to do for yourself.
5. Stop judging yourself for feeling anxious and fearful or for behaving in ways that seem unproductive or unhealthy . We need to take a fresh look at difficult emotions like fear and pain that can provide us with important information about what’s happening inside of us. Emotions become destructive—meaning that they cause us greater mental or physical suffering—when we either cling to them or push them away. And emotions seem to get stronger the more we fight them.
The healthier way to deal with these difficult emotions is to “hold” them in an open, aware, self-compassionate way. You can also change your relationship to your feelings by not judging an emotion or getting upset because you are feeling an emotion, telling yourself things like, “I hate feeling like this,” or “I shouldn’t feel like this,” or “I’m wrong to have this feeling.” Instead of becoming self-critical when you begin to panic, become obsessive, or fall back on old coping methods like overeating, you can work toward accepting your behavior with self-compassionate statements like:
- “It is understandable that I would feel afraid right now.”
- “It is understandable that I would go back to old habits when I’m stressed.”
The key here is to remind yourself that it is understandable, given the present situation, that you would be afraid, stressed, or panicked and that offering yourself understanding and self-compassion will help you a lot more than judging or criticizing yourself.
Combining Mindfulness With Self-Compassion
Self-compassion and mindfulness can work in tandem to help you learn to lean into your fear and anxiety and establish a new relationship with it. As Christopher Germer stated in his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion : “While mindfulness says, ‘Feel the pain,’ self-compassion says, ‘Cherish yourself in the midst of the pain.’”
Mindfulness practice often leads to self-compassion. Mindfulness combined with self-compassion will help you to experience fear, anxiety, and pain in safe doses instead of either avoiding these feelings or allowing them to overwhelm you and your ability to focus and function. Self-compassion teaches us that instead of dealing with difficult emotions by fighting against them, we acknowledge our pain and respond to it with kindness and understanding.
As Kristin Neff so eloquently stated in Self Compassion : “The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are experienced simultaneously.”
Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. New York: Guilford Press.
Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion. New York: William Morrow.