In the era of COVID-19 when things are uncertain and feel out of control, it’s natural that our stress levels are on the rise. We are hard-wired for anxiety to keep us safe when faced with uncertainty. Anxiety is our protector, a doozy of a safety scanner, warning us of potential danger when driving in heavy traffic, walking to the car in a dark parking garage, or we’re too far behind on a deadline. The key is to make our anxiety work for us instead of against us in unpredictable times.
It helps to know what we can change or control and what we can’t. Your greatest power is your perspective. It can victimize you or empower you. When you look for the upside in a downside situation and figure out what you can control and what you can't, it’s easier to accept whatever is beyond your control. Your best ally is to find the opportunity in the difficulty during an uncontrollable situation instead of the difficulty in the opportunity. This is a good time to take advantage of social distancing, self-quarantining and other restrictive measures to learn to meditate or deepen your meditation practices.
Scientists have shown that mindfulness meditation is an antidote to worry, fear, and anxiety, which can compromise our immune systems and prevent us from being our best selves. This nonjudgmental, compassionate acceptance of whatever is happening in the present moment strengthens our natural defenses, calms the nervous system, and provides clarity on next steps, best practices, and decisions during this uncertain time. Through regular micro-mindfulness practices or Microchillers, as I call them, you can become more in charge of your anxious mind instead of it being in charge of you. The starting point is learning to cultivate present-moment awareness. There’s always time for five minutes of micro self-care to refresh your mind. The practice of these simple exercises at your desk, in your car, or in bed can enhance your health, well-being, and productivity:
Sit in a comfortable place with your eyes open or shut for one minute. Focus on all the different sounds you hear around you, and see how many you can identify: the heating/air conditioning unit, a ticking clock, the click of a keyboard, voices in the background, your own gurgling stomach, traffic outside your office, a siren, an airplane overhead or someone using a leaf blower. After one minute, instead of trying to remember the sounds, go inside and notice how much more calm, relaxed and clear-minded you feel. Why? Because you’re fully in the present moment.
Close your eyes for three to five minutes and focus on each thought streaming through your mind without attempting to change anything. Simply observe the thought the way you might notice a blemish on your hand—with curiosity, not judgment. After completing the exercise, go inside and pay attention to your body sensations. Perhaps your muscles are looser, heartbeat slower and breathing softer. Don’t be surprised if you gain aha moments that can help you respond to daily challenges and hard-hitting stressors in more effective ways.
You can recharge your batteries with yoga right at your desk in the very chair you’re in or any other chair as long as it has a back. Place your left hand over on your right knee. Place your right arm on the back of the chair. Stretch lightly with eyes open or closed. Notice the stretch and what happens inside. After 60 seconds, bring your body back to center. Then reverse the stretch. Place your right hand over your left knee. Put your left arm on the back of the chair. Stretch lightly again with eyes open or closed. Pay attention to the stretch, and notice what happens inside. After 60 seconds, bring your body back to center. If you want to continue, you can repeat the cycle.
Identify a disappointment or dissatisfaction that pops up regularly or one that has stuck with you lately. Instead of avoiding or ignoring it as many busy people do, go inward and welcome it then sit with it in nonjudgmental awareness just as you might provide bedside company for a sick friend. Get to know this part of you with as much compassion as you can. Don’t try to get rid of it or fix it. Simply be present with as much awareness as possible and discover what you can learn about the feeling. Every time a thought or body sensation pulls you away, gently bring your attention back to the feeling again. After a few minutes, you might notice that the bothersome feeling isn’t as strong as before.
Close your eyes and breathe in and out, focusing on each in-breath and each out-breath. Follow your breath through to a full cycle from the beginning of an inhalation where the lungs are full then back down to where they’re empty. Then start over again. As you stay with this cycle for five minutes, thoughts usually arise. You might wonder if you’re doing the exercise right, worry about an unfinished project or question if it’s worth your time with everything on your to-do list. Accept anything that arises with open-hardheartedness. Each time your mind wanders off and gets caught in a chain of thought (that’s part of the meditation process), simply step out of the thought stream and gently come back to the sensations of your breath. After five minutes, slowly open your eyelids and take in the colors and textures around you. Then stretch and breathe into your vivid awareness and notice how much more connected you feel to the moment and how calm, clear-minded, and recharged you feel.
The pendulum exercise refers to the natural swing of your nervous system between sensations of well-being and body stress. With your eyes closed, notice a place in your body where you feel stress. It can show up as pain, an ache or a constriction. Then swing your attention to a place inside where you feel less stress or no stress. Focus there on the absence of stress, noticing your bodily sensations: steady heartbeat, softened jaw or relaxed muscles. Remain focused there and note the sensation for 10 seconds. Then visualize that sensation spreading to other parts of your body for another 10 seconds. Now shift back to the place where you originally felt stress. If it has changed, focus on the sensation of the change. Continue moving your attention back and forth between what is left of the stress and the relaxed parts of your body. As you shift, notice where stress has lessened and savor the lessening so it can spread to other parts of your body. When you have unpleasant body sensations, get in the habit of pendulating to the parts of your body where you have pleasant sensations and spend time there to offset the unpleasantness.
An activity known as “resourcing” harnesses your innate ability to override reactivity. A resource is anything that helps you feel better, calms your nerves or provides comfort. An internal resource is something positive inside such as a talent, trait or ability. An external resource is something outside of you such as a loved one, place, spiritual figure, memory, or pet. Resourcing pumps the brakes on your fight-or-flight response and shifts you into your rest-and-digest response. The first step is to bring to mind something that sustains and nurtures you–a positive memory, person, place, pet or spiritual guide. Or a talent or trait inside that you value about yourself. Bring the resource up as vividly as you can for several minutes. Then redirect your attention to the accompanying pleasant or calming sensations inside. Focus on those sensations for another minute or two. Savor the felt sense of calm for as long as possible and acknowledge how your breathing and heart rate slow down and your muscles loosen.
A Final Word
During these uncertain times when you get overwhelmed, anxious, or frustrated or things don’t turn out the way you hoped, get in the habit of bringing your awareness to the present moment. After regular practice, these Microchillers inhibit your automatic negative reactions and give you the space to feel calm, clarity, confidence, compassion, and connection to yourself and others. The mindfulness with which you walk that line between anxiety, worry, and fear and peace of mind and personal well-being determines your ability to thrive.