Mindful Stress Management in Times of Uncertainty and Challenges
Part 1 of a 3-part Crow Wing Energized series on mindfulness and ways to manage stress.
With all the challenges and uncertainty we are currently experiencing, it is easy to become overwhelmed and experience high degrees of stress.
We are being bombarded daily with information, stories and what feels like restrictions to the point that we feel as though we have been uprooted from our lives. Unless we are proactive this can lead us to feel as though we have less and less control. However, we need to recognize that in all the challenges we face in life, we can always choose how we wish to respond.
While there are many things we simply cannot control, we do have the capacity to choose how we act versus react to life. There are strategies and practices we can engage in that allow us to not only take control over ourselves, but also provide for our mental, physical and emotional health in times of change and uncertainty. Toward this end, I have compiled a number of strategies that can be used to mindfully manage stress during these times. Not all of these are best for everyone.
However, in working with individuals across the lifespan, I have found that everyone can find some of these effective. Additionally, one thing we know from the research on stress is that the more we feel that we have control over a situation, the less stress we feel. Most of these strategies are things we can actually do, and being proactive rather than reactive helps all of us to feel more in charge of those things we can control.
Employ Mindful Moments
Mindful moments are brief, intentional breaks during the day in which you: 1) Stop what you are during; 2) Breathe deeply and slowly for minute; 3) Center your awareness by either focusing on your breath or on a pleasant object or place; 4) Return to your previous activity. These mindful moments should, initially, be scheduled — such as at the top of every hour, or between appointments, etc. Otherwise, we find that the “day gets in the way.”
These mindful moments can also be combined with a brief (or longer) body scan.
Brief Body Scan
A body scan allows us to bring our attention to what we are experiencing in our bodies. A substantial amount of recent research has confirmed what we have known for a long time — the body carries stress, even when we may not be aware of it. A body scan can be easily done by beginning with the first three steps above: Stop, Breathe, Center, then begin by bringing your attention to your feet and simply notice what you are sensing.
Gradually, you move up your body from your feet to legs to hips, back, stomach shoulders head and face. Take your time as you do this to check in to notice what you are experiencing in each section of your body. The key to a successful body scan is to be aware not only of the sensations, but also what you make of the sensations. Sensations are nothing more than what we are experiencing in the here and now.
However, we often turn sensations into perceptions and with these comes a story and narrative that pulls us away from being present. For instance, I may notice a sensation in my stomach, label it “butterflies” and then realize I am anxious because I have a number of things to get done today — and, I’m off to the races.
A major part of mindfulness is recognizing when we are being pulled away from being present and return (sometimes over and over) to being present for what is happening right now. A brief body scan can be done in almost any situation (not while driving), especially when we feel some tension or anxiety coming on, such as when standing in line or waiting. There are many free apps now available to provide guided body scans.
These are useful for someone who is new to the practice. However, once you have the basics down, I would recommend moving away from them so that you do not become dependent on someone else’s directions. I developed two guided meditations which are available on the St. Cloud State University website. They can be found by searching for Meditations St. Cloud State University.
Be mindful of the information you consume
Anxiety, like the virus, is contagious.
We want, and need, to know what is happening and what we can do. However, we also need to be mindful of the sources and reliability of information that comes to us. Further, we need to be mindful of what we share as well as what we hear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health are providing daily updates and information.
For the most part the media is also recognizing how their messaging can address the needs people have for important and actionable information. Additionally, you can start your day with a daily dose of positivity. I get mine through the Good News Network which highlights stories that provide positive news.
Steven Hoover retired after 29 years from St. Cloud State University as an emeritus professor. He served as a professor in the Community Psychology, Counseling and Family Therapy Department. Hoover directed the SCSU Employee Mediation Program and as interim associate provost for Faculty and Student Affairs, interim dean of the School of Education and interim director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. He teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, serves on the St. Cloud ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Collaborative and presents often on trauma-informed practices. He has a Wellness Coaching Certificate from the Mayo Clinic and consults with schools and businesses on stress management and life balance.