3 Steps to Greater Peace of Mind During the Current Crisis

Powerful insights from research by psychologist Shauna Shapiro

Posted Apr 08, 2020

Shauna Shapiro, used with permission
Source: Shauna Shapiro, used with permission

What can we do to deal with the stress of the COVID-19? I interviewed psychologist Shauna Shapiro, who's done extensive research on mindfulness. Her recent book Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy shows us how calm, clarity, and joy can be useful right now.

How can mindfulness help us deal with the current crisis? 

Mindfulness helps us see clearly so we can respond effectively. In fact, the word mindfulness means to see clearly. I think a lot of our stress right now is coming from the anxiety that's clouding our minds.

There's so much uncertainty, and there's so much overwhelm, that it's hard to see clearly. If we can't see clearly, we can't respond effectively, wisely, and compassionately. The first step of mindfulness is really just to calm our nervous system, and take off the blinders of stress and anxiety from our eyes so that we can really look at the situation clearly, and then decide how to respond.

This creates a pause between the stimulus and the response, where we can actually come back into choice, come back into reason, and use all of our resources. Stress shuts down our immune systems, which is what we do not need right now, and it keeps us from making wise decisions, because when we're reacting, and we're acting out of the fight-or-flight response, we're losing access to our prefrontal cortex, we're losing access to our higher-order reasoning and intelligence.

What is the second way that mindfulness can help?     

The second way mindfulness helps us deal with the overwhelm, uncertainty, and fear is by simply naming it. When we're not mindful, we react. We try to fix and control it. Or we ignore and deny it by distracting ourselves eating or drinking or binge-watching or yelling at the kids. But mindfulness teaches us another way—to acknowledge what we feel. We can say: 'Sweetheart, you're scared right now. This is hard. You feel overwhelmed.'

When you name an emotion, it actually puts the brakes on your reactivity. It actually down-regulates the nervous system. One research study was called 'name it to tame it. That by simply naming what we're feeling, we're actually starting to heal ourselves. We're actually helping calm down and resolve the emotion.

How do kindness and compassion help?

The third way mindfulness can be helpful is by infusing the attitudes of kindness and compassion into our feelings of fear and overwhelm. Instead of judging ourselves or beating ourselves for being anxious or scared, we treat ourselves as we would a dear friend, or someone we love, who's also suffering. I like to put my hand on my heart, I've been doing it multiple times a day, and just calm myself down. Saying: 'Sweetheart, I'm here with you. I care about your pain. You're not alone.'

As I'm doing this, I reflect on the fact that I'm not alone in my fear right now, that many, many other people are also afraid and overwhelmed. And I begin to send my kindness and my compassion out to each of them. I recognize that we're all in this together. And there's a sense of the isolation and the loneliness falling away and my sense of connection that's born out of my wisdom, my mindfulness, and my clarity.

These very simple steps: just being present, clearly naming what's happening, bringing kindness, and then extending out to the larger common humanity are so important. This is what the University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff has defined in her model of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness.

I find myself cycling through these three steps continually through the day, that it doesn't just have to be in a meditation practice. Just name your emotions, put your hand on your heart, bring kindness, and send this out to everyone else who's suffering.

It's not about doing all of these perfectly. It's about practice. Even if you can do this 5 percent more than you already are, you're supporting your immune system, you're healthier, you're supporting your well-being and those around you just by beginning, even if you just do 5 percent more mindfulness or 5 percent more compassion. The key is lots of compassion and lots of patience.

Small steps lead to big change.

___________________________

This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

Shauna Shapiro, used with permission
Source: Shauna Shapiro, used with permission

References

Cresswell, J.D. (2007, July-August). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(6), 560-565.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-101.

Neff, K. D. (2004). Self-compassion and psychological well-being. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 9(2), 27-37.

Shapiro, S. L. (2020a). Good morning, I love you: Mindfulness and self-compassion practices to rewire your brain for calm, clarity, and joy. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Shapiro, S.L. (2019b). Personal communication, March 19, 2020. For more information on Dr. Shapiro and her work, see https://drshaunashapiro.com.