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The mindful approach to managing stress during a pandemic

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

If you’re a planner aficionado like myself, you would have happily strutted your way into bookstores earlier this year and bought yourself plenty of journals, daily agendas, and life planners – only for the plans neatly jotted down to be striked out, with “stayed at home” replacing them for the majority of the year. As December rolls in, it is usually the time most of us give serious thought to our goals and what we would like to achieve in the next year.

However, what most of us are currently experiencing is fret over whether we would be able to follow through with our plans, given what we went through this year. Thinking about the future and the uncertainty this pandemic has brought about can lead anyone to feel stressed out and sense a lack of control. After all, the course of our lives changed just like that, in ways we could not have seen coming. Perhaps, the most important lesson this pandemic has taught us, besides maintaining better hygiene habits, is that it is important to remain grounded in the present moment.

Mindfulness is all about the present moment. To be more technical, it refers to an intentional and non-judgmental focus on the right here and right now. If you stop yourself for a moment, you would notice that your thoughts, much like a pendulum, swings you back and forth from past memories to future events. As such, we’re constantly living in the past and the future, instead of the present. Mindfulness attempts to bring you back to the present moment – to be fully aware of what is happening in the “now”. This means being tuned into all of your senses; perceiving the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and physical sensations. To simplify, it’s like eating a slice of pizza and noticing the crispiness of the dough, the taste of the melted cheese, and the tang of the tomato base, instead of thinking back to a better pizza you had from a pizzeria in Galle last year. Notice how I say “tune in” and “notice” when it comes to these sensations. It is important to become an observer of these sensations, and the thoughts and feelings which arise, rather than be carried away by them.

In a true form of non-attachment, mindfulness requires you to pay attention to these sensations as they arise and disappear much like waves of the ocean. Observing entails non-judgment; noticing these sensations instead of classifying them as good or bad, which is what we are so used to. For example, notice how long you would carry on thinking of a stench. Thoughts have a capacity to proliferate and before long, you are thinking of all the unpleasantness life has dumped on you in the past. And it all started from a smell. However, if you are remaining mindful of the present moment, you can tune into the sensations you are currently experiencing, acknowledge that you are perceiving a smell, and remain in a state of being an objective observer of the present moment.

You might be thinking that “focusing on here and now may be well and good, but how does it really help with stress management?”. Well, it serves to protect you from being led five different ways through your thoughts multiplying by the minute. Ruminations and distressing thoughts are the primary reason behind experiencing stress. For example, your thoughts may repeatedly remind you of what a catastrophe this year has been, and as such lead you to believe that perhaps next year will be the same even though the future is unknown.

These are the kinds of thoughts that would encourage you to fixate only on the negative experiences associated with the pandemic such as the rises in the numbers of those infected, instead of positive ones, such as the development of vaccinations which hold so much promise for the future. When you are immersed in a sea of such thoughts, your reactions to those thoughts will bring about even more distress, thereby affecting your mood. Your behaviours would get affected in that you will withdraw or lash out at others. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Mindfulness, in its encouragement with staying in touch with the present moment, allows you to pay attention to the present. Even if distressing thoughts arise, you would notice them as thoughts and, in being non-judgmental, allow them to pass through like a leaf floating down a stream. It lessens the likelihood of reacting to these thoughts. Even if you find yourself being carried away by the thoughts, if you’re committed to remain mindful, you can always bring your mind back to the here and now. Therefore, it helps to manage your mood and improves it over time. It enables you to cope better with distressing circumstances, and with practice acts as a protective barrier against stress. Since your mind and body are related, the reduction in stress can have health benefits such as stronger immune functioning.

So, let’s look at a few ways you could practise mindfulness, most of them as highlighted by expert in mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Mindful breathing

This entails paying attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale. You may focus on the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your nostrils, or the rise and fall of the chest as you continue to breathe. This doesn’t involve you trying to manipulate the breathing. Instead, you will be a mere observer of the way in which you breathe. If thoughts arise, which they undoubtedly will as part of the human condition, you can gently bring back your awareness to the breath.

Body scan

As a beginner, you can attempt this laying down. However, with practice, you can do it sitting as well. Close your eyes and gently focus your attention on your body, from your heels to your head, one part of the body at a time. Notice any physical sensations that may be present without judging or reacting to them. You can also grow an appreciation for the body structure and its functions, such as how our feet hold us up and how the chest holds our heart, both physically and metaphorically. If you do get thoughts, merely hold them in awareness as an objective observer.

Loving kindness meditation

This exercise begins with a focus on breathing, and as you do, picture in your mind someone who loves you unconditionally. In allowing you to bask in the feelings of being loved and cared for, you can attempt to become the source of those feelings. That is to say, you would be the person loving and caring, and you would be the person receiving that love and care as well. You may even use phrases such as “may I be happy and content”, “may I be healthy”, “may I experience wellbeing”. Once you practise this loving kindness towards yourself, you can extend this to your family, friends, and finally to all of humanity and the world which we occupy.

If you’re experiencing stress right now, try the technique of STOP

Stop and slow down,

Take a breath,

Observe what sensations, feelings, and thoughts are arising and sit with them as they arise. Next, with the gentle awareness of these,

Proceed. Mindfully consider how you would like to respond to these sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Think of one thing that is most important and most urgent.

PHOTOS Mindful, @worrywellbeing, Mindfulness Northwest, Mindfulmazing, IE