Using Mindfulness to Rewire Your Brain
You’re feeling anxious and uneasy. You’re worried you or someone you know will be affected by the pandemic. What if you lose your job? What if both you and your spouse lose your jobs? Where would you go if you couldn’t pay the mortgage? Could you move in with your parents? Could you survive living with your parents again?
Does this mind chatter sound familiar?
We have more than 70,000 thoughts a day – about 80 percent of which are negative and 95 percent repetitive. We have a tendency to live in the past and future but not the present.
Mindfulness is a tool we all could use these days but what exactly is it? If the thought of you sitting cross-legged on the floor chanting “Om” comes to mind, then read on to understand how easily mindfulness can be incorporated into your life.
Simply stated, mindfulness means being more aware – of your thoughts, your feelings, your surroundings, even your senses. The purpose of mindfulness is to use it to live a happier and healthier life. In fact, research shows that mindfulness can help to reduce depression and anxiety, manage stress, cope with trauma and loss and increase focus and mental clarity.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Practicing mindfulness trains the brain to pay attention and regulate emotion. It allows us to engage in the present moment without attachment or judgement, giving us space between our emotions and our responses. In other words, mindfulness stops our thoughts and emotions from controlling us.
One way to begin incorporating mindfulness is to catch your thoughts, says mindfulness coach, Cindy Goldberg. “It’s about flipping your ‘what-if’ thoughts to ‘what is.’” Rather than thinking the worst (what if I get sick, what if I can’t provide for my family), stop at that moment and notice what is true. For example, my feet are on the ground, I am sitting on a chair, my family has food and shelter. Focusing on what is happening rather than what could happen begins to help you stay in the present moment. In fact, repeatedly practicing mindfulness rewires your brain to stay calm and be more positive when life gets tough.
Start with 60
These days, many of our households are in a state of managed chaos. Everything has to be done from home including work and school. Don’t set yourself up for failure by immediately thinking you can practice mindfulness for 20 uninterrupted minutes each day. Instead, meditation and yoga expert, Allison Sobel, recommends starting with just 60 seconds once or several times per day.
“People are significantly stressed right now which can be physical or emotional. Mindfulness is the anecdote.”
Close your eyes, take a deep breath (focus on filling your belly with the breath) and count to ten or higher. That is the beginning of mindfulness. Once you can do that several times a day, try doing it for five or ten minutes while focusing on your breath. Maybe you also focus on the birds chirping outside or repeating a word or phrase (a mantra) to yourself during this time. Whatever you choose, taking the time to pause and breathe deeply resets your nervous system so that you can reflect on your thoughts rather than react to them. Focusing on the breath is a great tool for children as well.
The 3 Ns
Sobel recommends practicing the 3 Ns as a way to begin mindfulness – notice, name and navigate. “When we stop and notice we change the synapsis of the brain’s response.”
For example, you notice that your mood has negatively shifted from earlier in the day. After you notice, you name the emotion as anger. Then, you decide how to navigate through that feeling (this can be done in the moment or afterward). Maybe you are angry that the kids interrupted a conference call earlier in the day. Instead of yelling, you decide to have a conversation with your kids about working from home.
Becoming grounded is about getting rid of excessive energy in the body that can cause anxiety. Goldberg recommends trying a 5,4,3,2,1 practice.
• Name five things you can see
• Name four things you can feel
• Name three things you can hear
• Name two things you can smell
• Name one thing you can taste
Similarly, you can go on a “rainbow walk” where you look for five things red and so on. Mindful walking is a great family activity as well. Check out this 10-minute walking meditation.
A grounding practice, as well as the other tools in this post, are all a form of self-care aimed at comforting and centering yourself.
“Instead of wishing for things you don’t have, practice gratitude,” recommends Goldberg. “Write down three good things that have happened today that you had control over.” This may be as simple as taking a shower or doing the dishes. Practicing gratitude is a great exercise to do with children who may be disappointed by all the change that has happened over the past month.
Another way to feel grounded is through touch, recommends health psychologist, Aviva Gaskil, PhD. Touch a family member, a pet or even a plant.
“There’s something about that touch – even if it’s just for a moment – that can be so grounding.”
She also recommends putting your left hand on your heart with your right on your stomach and focusing on your breath. “Your mind will wander but just continue to bring it back and focus on your breath.”
Create a Vision Board
Although mindfulness is about staying in the moment, we also have to have hope, says Goldberg. “How do you want to feel when this is over? What do you want that to look like?” Make a vision board of places you want to visit, people you want to see, activities you want to do as a family, etc. Notably, this is a great family project.
When you’re ready, you can begin to go more in-depth with mindfulness and include body scans, guided meditations, gentle yoga and more. Be patient with yourself if your mind wanders, remember to focus on your breath and above all, be gentle with yourself.