One of the most common emotional responses to the COVID 19 pandemic has been an increase in anxiety. This week’s column is the second of a two-part series with suggestions you can use to manage the anxiety, stress and tension in your current life. Last week’s response focused on some of the physical aspects of stress management. This week’s response addresses the role of the mind in producing and reducing stress.
When it comes to the experience of peace and serenity, the mind is the primary distraction. One of the most important tools we have for combating anxiety is the mind. Ironically, it is the mind that has created the anxiety in the first place! It is our thoughts that trigger our emotions, which then trigger a physiological response. If you want to reduce the anxiety and stress in your life, you must practice disciplining your mind.
Start by observing your thoughts. What kind of a mental diet are you feeding yourself? Do you have a habit of focusing on thoughts that create fear, anxiety, worry or anger? Get to know your mental habits, for it is your mental habits that create your experience of yourself and the world. We are largely creatures of habits of all kinds. Habitual beliefs, perceptions, and thought patterns are formed in childhood, and then continue to be unconsciously exercised long after we are capable of more accurate and in-depth understandings of ourselves and the world. We also have habitual verbal and behavioral responses that stem from, and reinforce, our customary experience of ourselves.
The beauty of human life comes into play, however, when we use our free will to consciously reconsider a habitual response and create a new response that is more attuned with what we would like to create in reaction to the circumstance at hand. We are only imprisoned by our habitual responses and mental associations when we are unconscious of them. Once we are conscious of something we’d like to change or create, we have the power to so. To do so requires consistent effort and self-discipline.
During the day, observe your thoughts and consciously practice directing your mind toward positive, uplifting ways of perceiving whatever situation you encounter. See the highest in others. If you focus on the lowest in others, you are bringing yourself down. Instead of fixating on what’s wrong in yourself or another, look for the miracles and the blessings around you. Look for what is right. Cultivate a state of mind that is uplifting to you and others and you will attract positive experiences.
Often, we carry a delusion that worrying about something will make it better. We practice worry and tension, rather than peace and relaxation! Worrying only adds power to what is being worried about. When you find yourself polluting your mind through focusing on negative thoughts and worries, just drop it. Let it go. Pick up a lofty or reassuring thought instead. Use your free will to cultivate serenity and you will find anxiety, worries and tensions occupy less and less space in your emotional life. Practice giving yourself positive messages, such as “relax, calm down, breathe, be still, listen.”
Can you be content doing nothing? In our Western culture there is a premium placed on doing and accomplishing. It is common to get our self-esteem from doing, achieving and accomplishing. It is hard for someone to relax if her self-esteem comes from accomplishing. If this is you, then consider relaxation and doing nothing as an accomplishment and build time into your day to give yourself a rest from the outside world. Take time to become quiet.
I recommend practicing the following short exercise to give yourself a break from COVID 19 anxiety and stress. I call it the “present moment experience.” Start in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Now take a few deep breaths, then take a moment to scan your body for any areas that are tense. Consciously relax this tension, then focus solely on your senses. Because the senses exist only in the present moment, bringing your awareness to your senses brings you into the present moment. Feel the weight of your body on the chair, and the weight of your feet on the floor. Watch your body breath. Feel the air on your skin. Focus on the scents in the air. Listen to the sounds around you. Listen to the sounds as far away as you can hear. If you find yourself thinking, just let the thoughts go and return your focus to your senses. Do this for 3 – 5 minutes, then take several long, slow, deep breaths, open your eyes, and return to your everyday world. The more often you do this exercise, the easier it will be for you to access a place of inner centeredness and serenity while you go about your daily activities.
Relaxation and serenity are hard won inner achievements. They do not just automatically appear in our lives. When we are peaceful and relaxed, we can be aware of deeper, more subtle aspects of our inner experience and of the world around us. In this way, we can choose to use the difficulties of this current pandemic to improve the quality and richness of our daily lives.
Check out Dr. Norquist’s new blog GrowingThroughParenting.com
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanyacounseling.com or by e-mail at email@example.com. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. Ó 2020 Chaitanya Counseling Services