by Emily Smith, MPH, CHES, Health Promotion Manager, Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America
Epidemics and pandemics are highly traumatic events, adding to the stress we’re already experiencing in our lives. Regardless of how small your list of stressors was pre-COVID-19, it’s probably grown immensely in the past two years.
How do we cope with these worries? As wellness professionals, we often are expected to be role models for our clients and communities even when we too are struggling and don’t have the answers.
We know that choosing unhealthy outlets, like an increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, are not going to be an effective, long-term solution. We may try to take a more positive approach, like getting energy out through physical activity or relaxing with a warm shower. These activities are healthier outlets for releasing stress and tension and will result in an improved mental state.
As we have turned another corner with Dr. Fauci stating that the pandemic stage has ended, perhaps you have run out of effective ways to manage your own hardships. With all of this accumulated and ongoing stress in our lives, now may be the perfect time to learn and develop a new coping technique.
Turning inward to mindfulness
Mindfulness is the state of being aware, specifically it is focusing on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment without interpretation or judgment. It is being in the present moment wherever you are and not thinking about the past or anticipating something in the future. It is focusing only on where you are, who you are with and what you are doing in a particular moment.
If you’re not one to regularly practice mindful meditation, the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word ”meditation” may be sitting cross-legged in a field with flowers and the breeze flowing through the grass. This is one setting where mindful meditation could be practiced, but it’s far from realistic for most of us. There are many formal exercises which can be used to practice mindfulness, such as breath work, guided imagery, and meditation. However, mindful meditation doesn’t always need to be done in a formal way to be effective.
Make mindfulness work for you
Give yourself permission to step away from to-do lists and struggles that are out of your control by dropping into your mind and body. How to do this can vary from person to person. One way to start is finding a quiet place, stopping, closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, slowly exhaling, and asking yourself, “What feelings or sensations – pleasant or painful – do I notice?” Doing this regularly can help with your decision-making, focus, communication and energy level. It even has the potential to slow down changes in the brain that are part of the aging process. Getting comfortable with mindfulness will give you another tool in your toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms.
- Find a time that works for you. Experiment with this technique at different times of the day to see what works best. When are you able to sit or stand quietly for a few minutes? Perhaps it’s when you first wake up or right after a meal.
- Practice makes perfect. Although it might be uncomfortable at first, keep trying until it feels natural. Think back to the first time you tried to ride a bike. You probably fell down many times, but you probably got back on that bike. The same can be said for practicing mindfulness if you approach it with an open mind. Try it for as few as 30 seconds at a time and work your way up.
- Don’t go it alone. Download a free mindfulness app (Headspace, Calm, InsightTimer), pop in your earbuds and enjoy the experience. Whether it’s through music or words, the calming sounds in these apps can be accessed at home or on the go.
Mindfulness also may be adopted into everyday tasks such as walking and eating. Feel the sun shining on your face, grass or sidewalk beneath your feet, and birds chirping in your ears. Take in the flavors, aromas, and textures of the foods you eat and beverages you drink.
Still not convinced that mindfulness may be a healthy coping mechanism worth trying? Researchers have found “individuals with higher mindfulness have greater resilience, thereby increasing their life satisfaction.” As the pandemic evolves, more may be asked of you as wellness professionals. Try mindfulness today and your body and mind will thank you tomorrow. Handling stress as it comes, whether it’s through mindfulness or other healthy coping mechanisms, can help you thrive in the tough times and even find a silver lining or two. You might even consider recommending it to your clients, family and friends!