Uncertainty is a feeling many of us have experienced in recent months. It’s been a fixture in news headlines, driven by the political upheaval that has followed last November’s election. This kind of macro-level uncertainty can absolutely affect how we feel in our everyday lives. And of course there are numerous personal examples — a job loss, a break-up, a move — where a sense of uncertainty about the future can create real anxiety that impacts our mental and physical health in a tangible way.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “The one constant in life is change.” It describes a beautiful and sometimes frustrating paradox about life. While uncertainty can produce feelings of anxiety in many of us, one of the lessons I’ve learned through the study and practice of mindfulness is that paying close attention to the things that are changing around us — even as they are changing — can help us find stability.
Think about the way surfers pay close attention to the rhythm of waves: noticing subtle changes and making micro-adjustments in order to stay upright. It’s not easy to begin with — they fall down a lot. It takes practice learning how to pay attention. And as they do, they learn to stay stable and upright even while experiencing the constant changes in the waves.
We can practice the same principles in our daily lives. We can learn to get used to change and uncertainty, and in the process, learn how to make micro-adjustments to our behavior or thinking that will help us navigate life with a greater feeling of stability and calm.
Being calm does not mean that we’re being complacent. It simply means that, when a change comes unexpectedly, we can respond from a more focused and thoughtful state of being. This helps us take action that is more likely to be effective and may be better for our well-being than if we react from a state of stress.
Step one is about managing the stress of major changes. Start by paying attention to the symptoms of your stress, breaking them down into three areas: body, mind and heart. What physical sensations are you noticing? What thoughts are coming through your mind? What emotions are you having?
Depending on which area feels most prominent to you, you can take steps to address it. If your body feels most impacted by stress, try standing up and stretching, going for a walk or breathing slightly deeper than usual for 10 breaths. Breathe in for a count of four, pause for a count of two and exhale for a count of four, then repeat this five to 10 times.
If you’re carrying stress in your mind, notice whether your thoughts are about the future (these are often what stress us). Remind yourself that these are ideas that are not real. Use your mind to tell yourself what’s real in the moment. Keep it simple, for example: “I’m sitting. I feel the chair cushion. I see people going about their day.”
If your emotions and your heart feel most troubled, find someone you can share these feelings with and connect with them. It could be a call or a text exchange with a friend. Look for a support or recovery group. If the situation is serious, contact a crisis hotline, such as 215-686-4420. Writing down what you are feeling in a journal or notebook is another effective way to manage emotions.
What I’ve just described are simple mindfulness practices intended to build your capacity to focus on what’s happening in the present moment. Step two would be to make this into a practice, so it becomes second nature. A more focused mind is more nimble in responding to change and challenge, meaning that it’s easier to do and takes less time and energy to respond in a healthy way.
Much like strengthening muscles, repeating these exercises will build results over time. So consider doing one of these practices for a few minutes each day. Set a timer for two or five minutes, or try an app like Headspace that will guide you through similar practices.
To practice body awareness, focus your attention on sensations in the body starting at your feet and working your way up to your head. For example: feet, knees, back of legs against a chair, lower back and abdomen, upper back and chest, shoulders, hands, jaw, eyes and top of head. Just move attention through the body like you are shining a spotlight on different areas. Notice sensations for a few moments, such as tingling, warmth, pressure, etc., and then move on to the next area.
To practice breath awareness, notice the sensation of breathing in a particular area of the body. People typically start by noticing the sensations as the breath moves in and out of the nose. Each breath is different, so be curious about each one. Some folks find it easier to follow a wave of breath move into the nose, through the throat, into the lungs and chest and then back out again.
Practicing gratitude helps keep the mind focused on what you’re grateful for right now in the present moment, rather than on the past or future. Simply name things you are noticing in the moment for which you are grateful. For example: I’m breathing; I’m able to enjoy the taste of this food; I have friends, etc.
You’ll likely notice that whatever you’re focusing on is changing. So you get two major benefits out of these practices: You learn to focus the mind and you get more used to “being with” things that change. Both of these may make it easier to respond to sudden and/or significant changes in your life.
As you practice focusing the mind, you’ll notice that the mind tends to wander. It’s like falling off the surfboard – it happens to everyone, especially at first. Just get back on the board and keep practicing.
Robert Pileggi, MSS, LSW, is a psychotherapist at Mazzoni Center who also leads Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses, and is currently teaching mindfulness in two NIH-funded studies. For information on MBSR offerings at Mazzoni, visit www.mazzonicenter.org/mindfulness.