CDN’s Lead of Curriculum and Teaching Sandy MacLean is also a mindfulness meditation practitioner. In this blog she explains how mindfulness can help to reduce stress and help you cope during these uncertain times…
We are bombarded 24/7 with stimuli from multiple sources. Increased stress and mental health issues appear to be the result of this cognitive overload. Maintaining a sense of focus in this age of constant change and information abundance by effectively sorting and filtering information is essential. Honing this ability to focus on the present and deflect/avoid distractions can have a significant positive impact on wellbeing, combined with our ability to understand and manage emotions, the effects of these on behaviours and the way they impact on others.
At the end of 2019 things were ramping up with continuous political and economic uncertainty, concerns around climate change, followed swiftly by the arrival of storms and floods amongst other things. Before we had the chance to breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to the arrival of spring, Coronavirus arrived on our shores. In recent weeks and days this has, understandably, very much focused the attention. In addition to my background in learning and teaching I am also a committed mindfulness meditation practitioner and am trying to use this as an opportunity to explore what this current situation can reveal about fear and anxiety and how we can approach this in a helpful way.
If we were to contract Coronavirus we are more than likely to experience some physical discomfort (which will of course be much worse for some than others). But, listening to conversations with friends, family and colleagues and noticing my own ruminations, I am aware how easily it is to get caught up in anxiety at the prospect of contracting the virus or passing the virus on to vulnerable members of our families, friends and communities. Fear and anxiety lead to both physical tension and mental drama. This endless mental proliferation feeds on itself and perpetuates our anxiety.
Anxiety is always looking for the next thing to attach itself to. It likes an object to land on that can ‘justify’ the fear and now we have Coronavirus to stoke the anxiety/fear fire. In order to be free from unnecessary mental anguish we need to consider how to de-escalate these difficult emotions. This requires us to understand the power of attention. Mindfulness practice has helped me to notice where my mind fixates and the implications of this on both body and mind.
Putting Things in Perspective
We know that what we pay attention to or focus on can easily be influenced by numerous factors – including mainstream and social media. This typically feeds our threat biased messages. There is a very real opportunity to become more aware of how the media can manipulate our attention but also how our own minds can fixate on certain things and leave out others. For example, little attention has been paid to the almost 25,000 people who die daily from unnecessary starvation, or the 3,000 children who die daily from preventable malaria. This doesn’t mean that I’m not taking this pandemic seriously but it does help me put things in perspective.
Currently when I am doing a meditation practice my attention is more distracted than usual by thoughts focusing on the implications of this virus on the health of vulnerable people in my life, concerns about moving most of our working practices online for upcoming events/meetings/training, not to mention very important things like holiday plans! Before I know it I’m aware that my attention has got hooked on something other than what I had intended and disappeared down a rabbit warren of unhelpful thinking. When I notice this, I can ‘get out of my head’ and return to my practice which might be as simple as a focus on my breathing. This gives me some head-space that typically leads to a more expansive feeling in my mind and body. I am cultivating this meta cognitive perspective (being able to observe my own mind and attention) through a regular mindfulness practice. Of course, it is still a work in progress and there is lots to practice on right now!
What may help us respond more helpfully to Coronavirus?
When our mind is continuously landing on things that are stirring up our threat system (be it anxiety or anger) then we need to act. With Coronavirus we do of course need to take appropriate steps to try and protect our health and the health of others – whether that’s through hand washing, boosting our immune system, adapting our ‘meeting and greeting’ practices, or avoiding contact with people who have potentially been exposed to the virus. At work we are also looking at creative, virtual ways to deliver our service to the sector. However, if we want to reduce our emotional suffering so that we can ‘keep calm and carry on’ where possible we may find it useful to consider a few other approaches:
1) Start training our attention so we aren’t caught up so much in endless threat-focused mental proliferation, which is often the default state of the human brain if we haven’t developed some sort of mind stabilisation practice. Apps such as Headspace, Calm, or Buddhify may be a useful starting point if this is new to you.
2) Become aware of the relationship between the impact of how you feel and your exposure to both mainstream and social media. It’s important that we respond to expert health advice from authentic sources.
Is it helping or hindering our wellbeing to be continually scrolling through endless updates?
3) Resource ourselves with things we can draw on to calm our fears and anxieties. Being outside in nature, exercise, singing, connecting with family and friends are amongst my biggest resources, but there are a many and varied ways that people resource themselves so do more of what works for you.
To summarize, when something is pulling us into a state of fear we can try and wisely discern how real this threat is, take appropriate steps to ensure our safety and develop various mindfulness based practices to help calm our nervous system and de-escalate our anxiety. We can all help to reduce the impact of this virus by looking after our own physical and mental health, self-isolating if needed and being kind and considerate to others.
If you’d like to contact Sandy please email her: