If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. -Thich Nhat Hanh
Clearly Thich has had more training in crisis management than most people. Fortunately one of his methods is readily available to those of us ready to learn.
In the midst of anxiety and uncertainty a trend based on thousands of years of study is emerging; the practice of mindfulness.
In scientific terms, mindfulness is defined as a series of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being (resulting in such benefits) as calmness, clarity and concentration (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).
In approachable terms, mindfulness practices span from meditation to gratitude, or any activity that allows you to tune out and tune in. In other words, taking a break from the noise and confusion as you focus on your breath, or the things in life you’re grateful for.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to put aside judgment or drama and focus on the present, allowing us to step back and objectively observe. Ultimately the practice of redirecting our attention allows us to access calm amidst chaos, even when we’re not engaged in practice.
The reality is, most of the time (up to 90%) we’re operating on auto-pilot, simply falling back into old habits that no longer serve us. Developing a mindfulness practice teaches us to step back and calmly assess a situation before we react, giving us space to rethink our automated responses. And it works! As a former emotional eater, I ran the exact same pattern when I came home from a stressful day at work – self-soothing with food.
But after years of developing these simple practices, I’m able to give myself the option of another choice. I can head to my meditation cushion and breathe myself into a state of calm in a few short minutes. Then I no longer feel the need to self-medicate with a sweet treat, a glass of wine, or whatever the go-to distraction happens to be.
Meditation is scientifically proven to help practitioners to resolve addictions, lower stress and maintain a positive outlook, as this practice helps build a natural defense against the lure of addictive habits.
Here are 4 Sanity-Saving Mindfulness Strategies for Dealing with Times of Crisis
Develop a Short Morning Meditation Ritual
Establish a readily accessible space at home where you can set up a cushion and sit comfortably, keeping your spine upright. Begin your day with a simple breathing exercise, like deep breathing (see below) or basic breath awareness.
Sit comfortably in a chair, or cross-legged on a cushion. Rest your hands lightly on your knees with your palms facing up. Touch the tips of your index fingers to the pads of your thumbs as you create a circle of unity within. Straighten your arms and feel the energy radiating from your heart to your hands.
Gently close your eyes and take a normal breath. Now begin taking slow deep breaths, known as Ujjayi breath. From the Chopra Center, here is how:
- Take an inhalation that is slightly deeper than normal. With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose while constricting your throat muscles. If you are doing this correctly, you should sound like Darth Vader from Star Wars.
- Another way to get the hang of this practice is to try exhaling the sound “haaaaah” with your mouth open. Now make a similar sound with your mouth closed, feeling the outflow of air through your nasal passages. Once you have mastered this on the outflow, use the same method for the inflow breath, gently constricting your throat as you inhale.
Practice this style of breathing as you make every effort to focus on your breath, ignoring the thoughts that will insistently try to distract you. Every time you feel caught up in a thought, a feeling, or anything other than the present moment, just take your attention back the breath. And you’ll do this many times, this is the practice. Sit for 5-10 minutes each morning and discover the benefits throughout your whole day.
Engage in a Deep Breathing Practice (from the Harvard School of Public Health):
When your anxiety peaks or becomes difficult to manage, breathwork is a useful tool for slowing your autonomic nervous system and regaining a calmer state.
To practice this technique, begin by finding a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
Start by observing your breath. First, take a normal breath. Next try taking a slow, deep breath. Feel the air coming in through your nose as it moves downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully as it does.
Now slowly breathe out through nose, if possible, being sure to exhale all the air by pulling in your abdomen.
Continue this for several minutes. Feel your hand rise about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale. Your chest will rise slightly, too, in concert with your abdomen. Remember to relax your belly so that each inhalation expands it fully.
Try to practice this breathing technique for 10-15 minutes every day. You might also try shorter bouts lasting a few minutes when anxiety begins to build, to see if this feels calming.
Start a Gratitude Journal
By taking some uninterrupted time each day to really reflect on what you’re grateful for, you actually help your brain to reframe the rest of your day in a more positive light. It can be as simple as recording 5 things you feel grateful for in a journal, which you update on a daily basis, or a deeper reflection on one of your gifts, where you really ruminate on all of your reasons for appreciation.
If you really feel inspired to embrace this practice, try the challenge below:
10-Day Gratitude Challenge
- Day 0: Start a gratitude journal
- Day 1: List 10 things in your life you’re grateful for
- Day 2: Write a gratitude not to someone
- Day 3: Give thanks for life and the hardships you’ve overcome. Celebrate your strength.
- Day 4: Give thanks to all of your mentors and teachers, from childhood through to today.
- Day 5: Reframe a challenge by transforming an ungrateful thought
- Day 6: Share something you are grateful for with someone
- Day 7: List 3 things you tend to take for granted, and how you can shift that tendency
- Day 8: Take action on your plan from Day 7
- Day 9: Do a gratitude meditation
- Day 10: Give thanks for your mistakes, and how they’ve helped you to build resilience
Try a Body Scan Meditation: (based on the work of John Kabat-Zinn)
Find a quiet space where you can close your eyes for 5-10 minutes to engage in this simple practice, designed to reduce reactivity and stress in everyday interactions.
Steady your breath by slowly and consciously breathing in and holding at the peak of the inhale for a second or two. Repeat on the out breath, holding briefly at the peak of the exhale before repeating. Take a few minutes to slowly scan your entire body, starting at your toes. Notice any sensations in your body without trying to change them.
If you’re new to the concept of mindfulness, you may try adopting the practice that sounds easiest to incorporate into your day. Personally, I keep my meditation cushion at the foot of my bed, so if I don’t stop and sit first thing in the morning, I’ll trip over it.
Learning to slow down and live more mindfully will affect every aspect of your being. Wherever the future takes you, using meditation to improve the quality of your mental state is a practice to help you get there. One day at a time, by focusing on the present, you will find your way through this.