3 Ways Mindfulness Can Help in Crisis Situations
These are challenging times for all of us. We each have a unique set of circumstances, depending on our family situation, the nature of our work, and the conditions in our local communities. On the other hand, there are a few themes that are pretty much universal at this point: confusion, distress, and lack of control.
In addition to all that we’re dealing with in our own work and in our own personal lives, every day the news brings us some new form of tragedy. The last straw for me is the locusts devastating crops in East Africa. A plague of locusts? During Passover? Seriously?!
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed.
At times like these, it’s crucial to practice mindfulness. It may not do anything to stop the locusts, but it can stop the swirl of anxious thoughts from getting more and more out of control. Rather than feeling like a mind-full mess, we can focus with full-mindedness on whatever is most important for us to deal with at the present time.
“Until we slow down enough to honestly feel how are are doing, we can’t assess our current state and what we need… When we are able to make ourselves as still within as an untouched mountain lake, we have an exquisite reflection of all that is in us and around us. When ripples do arise, we can recognize their source, whether it is the rain or the wind or the fish jumping. Without the stillness, all we know is that the waters are tumultuous, and we may want to do anything possible to escape the feeling of unease.” (Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky, Trauma Stewardship, p. 130-131; p. 134)
Here’s a bit more explanation of how mindfulness can help, along with a few of my favorite practices for mindfulness, stress reduction, and self-care.
1) Moving from Confusion to Clarity
In the past few weeks, we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people not responding calmly or not having a clear sense of priorities.
A friend told me some of the teachers at her school were arguing about how many points to take off if kids weren’t in uniform. When they appeared on camera. From their homes. After the entire curriculum was converted to online learning. In a single week. During an unprecedented global pandemic. Need I say more?
Not to mention all of the panic buying a few weeks ago. One woman filled a huge shopping cart with nothing but toilet paper, topped with a couple of enormous bags of Doritos. In her anxiety, she wasn’t thinking clearly about her own needs, the needs of her family, or the needs of other people in her community. (I’m hoping she was at least planning to share with her neighbors. Hey, leave some Doritos for the rest of us!)
If you’ve been feeling anxious and overwhelmed lately, there are a variety of ways to clear your head by focusing on the present moment. Meditation is one way, but there are a lot of other options. Here are a couple of my favorites:
You may be familiar with Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way and her practice of morning pages. I do something similar to this, but at different times of day, and I don’t keep it in a notebook.
I used to keep cute little journals until I realized I was filling them with “Blah blah blah. I’m having a bad day. Blah blah blah. I can’t believe So-and-So did that. I’m so annoyed. Blah blah blah.” Trust me, this is not how I want to be remembered by posterity.
So now I pull out a couple of sheets of loose-leaf paper, write whatever’s going through my mind, then crumple up the paper and toss it in the recycling bin.
“Our minds like to think. It thinks that if it is not thinking, it is failing at its job of guiding and protecting us. However, when the mind becomes overactive, the opposite occurs. Its guidance becomes shrill, even cruel, and its constant warnings fill us with anxiety. How can we put the thinking mind in its proper place and perspective? We shift the mind from thinking to awareness, beginning with full awareness of the body.” (Jan Chozen Bays, How to Train a Wild Elephant, p. 101)
Since so many of us are so sedentary during quarantine, this is a very good time to focus on body-based practices, like yoga and mindful movement.
My colleague Dr. Irene Kraegel suggests doing a “micro-practice as a way to dip your toes in before committing to a full movement practice.” Set a timer for one to five minutes, then do one particular type of movement. “perhaps walking, rocking, blinking, or stretching your arms up over your head or from side to side.” During that time, focus your attention on your physical sensations while doing the movement you’ve chosen. Whenever your mind starts to wander, “gently shift your attention back to the sensations of the body moving through space.” (The Mindful Christian, p. 70)
You might also want to try one of the video playlists at MindfulTeachers.org:
Or you could try Dr. Dzung Vo’s audio recordings of walking meditation and mindful movement at MindfulnessforTeens.com.
(These practices are also useful for adults; this is the site I use personally when I’m looking for guided meditations.)
2) Acceptance of What We Can and Can’t Control
Mindfulness teachers often talk about acceptance, but this term is sometimes misunderstood by the general public. Acceptance doesn’t mean ‘anything goes,’ or feeling particularly happy about what’s happening. It means acknowledging the reality of what’s happening.
“[Mindfulness] is based on the understanding that reaction and resistance to what is happening merely add another level of confusion and suffering on top of what is already afflicting us. So reaction and resistance are like adding fuel to a fire… We need to come to terms with what is actually going on so we can intelligently appraise what we are going to do next. If we react to our inner experiences or resist what is going on, this merely confuses the issue.” (Paul Gilbert and Choden, Mindful Compassion, p. 218-219)
Dr. Sam Himelstein, the director of the Center for Adolescent Studies, developed a practice called TAP that can help us quickly tap into what’s happening, both internally and externally.
T: Take a Breath. A quick little pause can help us respond calmly rather than reacting out of stress or anxiety.
A: Acknowledge. Focus on what’s happening in the situation itself and in your reaction to it.
P: Proceed. Do whatever is appropriate and necessary in the present circumstances.
You can read more about TAP in the following posts:
- 4 Ways to Help Teens Cope with Strong Emotions
- How Our Own ACEs Impact Trauma Work with Youth
- 6 Tips for Building Authentic Relationships with Adolescents
3) Increasing Our Tolerance of Distress
Distress tolerance is the least discussed but most important benefit of practicing mindfulness. As Dr. Sam Himelstein says, “The goal [of mindfulness] isn’t to go to a ‘happy place.’ It is to be with yourself in the present moment, no matter how difficult that might be.” (‘5 Mindfulness Myths’).
Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion can help us
“develop our capacity to stay present with difficult feelings in a warm and inclusive way… This is in contrast to the feeling that we ‘cannot hold it together,’ in which we feel that we cannot contain the turbulent movement of our emotions and then end up dumping them on others or looking for external sources of relief like alcohol or drugs.” (Paul Gilbert and Choden, Mindful Compassion, p. 203)
Not all of us turn to alcohol or drugs (or other substances, like Doritos). But we all tend to have a particular way that we push away uncomfortable thoughts and feelings: denial, over-focusing on unimportant matters, and so on. (See ‘Restless Mind: Typical Strategies for Denying Stress’)
If you can tolerate your own distress, it’s much easier to accept the reality of the situation. If you accept the reality of the situation, you can much more clearly see what you need to do.
You can gradually decrease your reliance on these coping mechanisms, and increase your distress tolerance, through concentration practices and compassion practices.
It’s helpful to have an anchor, or point of focus, to stabilize your attention when you feel distracted or overwhelmed. This could be your breath, but it could also be something in your field of visual awareness. I once made it through an entire funeral by staring at the little green light on the sound system in the church sanctuary.
Compassion and Self-Compassion
When I feel distressed because I can’t do anything to help, I try either lovingkindness meditation or a practice I call ‘human filter.’
- If you’re not familiar with lovingkindness meditation, see Three Different Approaches to Lovingkindness Meditation
- Human filter is a simplified version of a traditional Tibetan practice called tonglen meditation. I focus on my breath, breathing in suffering and breathing out peace. You can read a more detailed explanation of tonglen meditation by Pema Chodron at https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/
These practices help me feel connected with and empathetic toward others rather than overwhelmed by their distress. This means I have more energy to help when it’s my turn to do so.
Conclusion: Greater Insight = Greater Capacity to Help
Mindfulness is important because it can help us stay calm and compassionate, which means we can more effectively help others. I like to think about the bodhisattva Chenrezig. He has a thousand arms, since there are so many who need help. And he has an eye in the palm of each hand, so he can see clearly what needs to be done.
The problems in the world may seem overwhelming, but there is plenty we can do to help our families and neighbors, as well as our students, patients, or clients.
My sister, Rev. Deborah Sunoo, is a pastor with clergy friends of different faiths. She taught me about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which is usually translated as repairing or mending the world.
“The verb for “repair” there is the same verb used in modern Hebrew for fixing a broken bicycle or a broken table, repairing a computer that’s stopped functioning, or mending a torn shirt. So while the concept of a whole world in need of repair is a broad one, with far-reaching implications, it brings with it a verb we often use to talk about fixable problems. What might it mean to understand repairing the world in that sense? … Presumably it comes down to listening in whatever ways we can for God’s invitation to take up our own particular set of tools. And trusting that God’s got lots of other good folks on the job too, playing their respective parts… We could pick up a hammer, or a needle and thread, and find a piece of the repair work that can be our piece. Even if all we can do is pound a few nails back into place or stitch a handful of stitches.” (See ‘An Interfaith Perspective on Compassion and Service.’)
Sister Simone Campbell echoes this idea:
“Just do one thing. That’s all we have to do… We think we have to do it all. And then we get overwhelmed… ‘I can’t do everything. And so I don’t do anything.’ But that’s a mistake. Community is about just doing my part.” (quoted in Becoming Wise, p. 128-129)
I hope that these suggestions are useful as you do your part to help during this difficult time.
There are hundreds more posts on mindfulness and self-care at MindfulTeachers.org, including:
- Growing Stronger Even in a Crisis Situation: Mindful Practices to Use Throughout the Day
- 4 Tips for Coping with Anxiety and Cabin Fever
- Quiz: How Mindful Am I?
- What Does It Really Mean to Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First?
- Realistic Self-Care: 12 Key Questions to Figure Out What Works for YOU
You can also read more about mindfulness and self-care in the following posts here at CAS: