If looking at the headlines these days causes your blood pressure to spike and your heart rate to increase, you’re not alone. But if the stress is taking a toll on your wellbeing, you might consider setting aside time to practice a new skill: mindfulness.
In essence, mindfulness is the learned ability to experience the present moment with openness and curiosity. Evidence has shown that practicing mindfulness can improve emotional regulation and reduce stress. It’s one tool in the contemplative practices toolbox, which also includes a range of creative and meditative actions like meditation, journaling, and yoga.
Tish Jennings is a developmental psychologist and a professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development. She became a meditation practitioner at 17 and has taught mindful awareness practices to children and adults for over 40 years.
If you find yourself struggling to cope with the emotional impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Jennings says, now might be the perfect time to learn about mindfulness. Here, she shares why mindfulness is a useful tool during a crisis, and how practicing it can help you navigate the stressors of life – now and in the future.
1. Better understand and regulate your emotions
The pandemic has created a lot of fear and anxiety. While these are normal, understandable responses to a scary situation, Jennings says that our biological response to a threat can override our rational thoughts and cause us to react without thinking.
“When your stress response is triggered, the part of your brain that you use to make thoughtful decisions – the prefrontal cortex – just kind of goes offline,” Jennings said.
Practicing mindfulness teaches you how to pause and tune into how your body is feeling. In stressful situations, it works by helping you notice the biological signals that your fear and stress responses are in control: you start to feel hot, or your shoulders get tense. Then, you can apply calming strategies, like taking a couple of deep breaths.
“The contemplative practices – mindfulness-based and compassionate practices – help us recognize our stress, recognize how we’re feeling in any given moment,” said Jennings. “Once I recognize that and understand it, then I can use tools to calm myself down, to reflect on what habits from my mind are creating this feeling of anxiety, and also see things more clearly.”
2. Be more empowered to take action
It can be easy to succumb to a sense of powerlessness when a situation feels out of your control. Mindfulness is one tool that can help you see that you’re not as powerless as you think.
“Mindfulness definitely helps you see more clearly what agency you do have,” Jennings said. “If I’m all wrapped up in my own victim mentality and sense of helplessness, then not only do I not think I have any agency, but I have no idea what I can do or where to turn. But being able to become aware of that – my thinking is reinforcing this feeling of powerlessness – I start to understand, maybe there are little things I can do.”
Even amongst the uncertainty of an outbreak that changes by the day, there’s lots we can do to help – like practicing physical distancing, checking in with neighbors and friends by phone or apps like FaceTime, and supporting healthcare workers and small businesses.
What about the large-scale regulations and policy decisions that are out of your reach? Mindfulness, Jennings said, can help with that, too – by helping us see our role in advocating for long-term, systemic change.
“Mindfulness can help us overcome the limitations of our habitual thinking processes that interfere with our ability to make change in systems,” she said. “This pandemic is making it so much more clear that our systems are outmoded and need to change to address this crisis and those yet to come.”
3. Feel more connected to your community
“We know enough about human nature to know that feeling part of a community is really critical to our well-being,” said Jennings. “I think we’re just starting to realize that if we don’t help people feel connected to their communities, the results are really disastrous.”
Right now, when we’re forced to stay home and avoid all contact with others, feeling a sense of connection and community matters more than ever. But fear also has a tendency to make us want to circle the wagons and shut others out.
“This virus is actually a perfect example of why we're all in the same boat,” Jennings said. “Compassionate practices help us recognize that those people over there are human beings too, and they’re in our boat with us. In fact, everyone on the planet is facing the exact same threat simultaneously.”
Contemplative practices, like mindfulness, are one way to nourish your connection to others. They help you understand the emotions behind others’ reactions and the importance of helping one another during difficult times.
“Humans have always had tribal tendencies. We’ve never been able to see humankind as one entity or as one common humanity,” she said. “So this is a really new idea, but it’s important to our survival.”
4. Cultivate resilience and creativity
Unprecedented times call for creative problem-solving and resilience.
“When you’re dealing with rapid change, being really adaptable and resilient is the thing you want to learn,” Jennings said. Unfortunately, our default emotional responses to uncertainty tend to push us in the opposite direction.
“The normal human reaction to ambiguity is fear,” she said. “And when you’re afraid, you tend to resort to what has worked in the past – which don’t always work at all.”
In order to find thoughtful and creative solutions to new problems, you first have to get past the fear and stress. That’s where mindfulness comes in. By helping you move past fear and manage stress, mindfulness can help you cultivate resilience in the face of uncertainty.
5. Help friends and family manage stress
Jennings has focused her career on mindfulness in classrooms. One of the most important lessons she’s learned, she said, is that you can’t help others regulate their emotions if you can’t do it yourself.
“To teach social-emotional skills, you have to embody them yourself,” she said. “That’s something that other subject areas don't have to the same degree. When you're teaching a way of behaving and a way of being, you have to be that way. You can’t talk about it and then be a different way. And that’s where the mindfulness becomes really valuable.”
So if you’re stuck indoors with family or roommates who could all benefit from lower stress levels, mindfulness is a valuable tool for everyone. And the best place to start? With yourself.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated for accuracy.