Whatever our particular situation, these past few months have been a whirlwind for us all. Feelings of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety can easily overwhelm us, and it can be difficult to know what to do to alleviate them.
While there are a number of mental health resources for those who are struggling, mindfulness—the ability to focus on the present and resist distraction—is another powerful tool. Much like exercise strengthens our bodies, mindfulness strengthens our minds, allowing us to approach stress with a valuable equanimity. Here’s how you can practice mindfulness by employing some simple techniques and utilizing a few online resources.
What is mindfulness?
Picture yourself watching a movie in the dark, completely engrossed. What if you suddenly paused for a moment and shifted your focus instead to the edges of the screen? What if you reminded yourself in that moment that what you’re really looking at are flickers of light on a wall? This story isn’t really happening. Those characters aren’t really there. For most of us, this would break the spell the movie is designed to cast on us. We would be unable to be captivated—or sucked in—in the same way.
Of course, when we’re watching a movie, we don’t want to break the spell. Part of the pleasure is getting lost in the story. Getting lost in our own unpleasant thoughts, however, is not so fun. Our feelings have a way of sucking us in, overwhelming us, and negatively affecting our mood and behavior. The truth is, we spend much of our lives this way—distracted by our thoughts, and seemingly at their mercy. We’d all love to break that spell, and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness is the ability to view our thoughts and feelings with a similar shift of focus to the screen rather than the movie. It allows us to avoid being sucked in by offering a strategy for paying closer attention. When we’re mindful, it’s easier to exhale away our fear and anxiety—controlling it before it can control you.
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness comes in many forms, often tied to different meditation practices and philosophies, but at its core, it consists of three basic steps.
- Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths.
- Pay close attention to the sensation of breathing—the rising and falling of your abdomen, for example.
- Whenever you realize you’ve been distracted by a thought, gently return your focus to the breath.
The challenge, you’ll find, is that it is very difficult not to get lost in thought. In fact, it might be difficult to even realize you’ve drifted off. Don’t let this discourage you. Instead, remind yourself that every time you catch yourself, you’re successfully being mindful.
As you practice, you’ll continue to develop this skill and eventually, rather than being sucked into the movie of your anxious thoughts at any given moment, you will have the ability to pause, observe the thoughts as they appear, and watch them pass away before you become captivated by them.
Although it's simple in principle, the practice can be challenging—especially in the beginning. Luckily, there are a number of resources to help guide you through.
Waking Up features guided daily meditations, podcast conversations with teachers and experts, lessons delving into the concepts behind consciousness and the nature of mind, and even a section of guided meditations for children. I’m a subscriber, and the link provided here grants you access to a free month of the app, on me! The team’s policy is that money should never be the reason people can’t access their service, so if you’re having a tough time and want more than a month’s worth, email them and they’ll give you a year for free, no questions asked.
Insight Timer is the world’s largest library of free guided meditations, with thousands of sessions dedicated to managing stress, coping with anxiety, and improving your sleep.
YouTube is also home to countless guided meditation sessions, ranging from just a few minutes to a full hour or more.
WNYC’s Free Meditation Minute, hosted by director of listener services Lorraine Mattox, is the perfect pause for those with just a moment to spare.
Headspace offers a variety of guided mindfulness meditations, complete with animated visual aids to help drive concepts home. It features a robust library of tailor-made mindfulness courses, covering everything from managing anxiety to expanding creativity. Right now, Headspace is offering a free year of the app to anyone unemployed as a result of COVID-19.
Calm focuses on mindfulness practices to relieve anxiety, get you better sleep, increase productivity, and build self-esteem. It also features nature scenes and sounds for background ambience, video lessons on mindful movement, and music tailor-made to help you focus, relax, and get some rest. Calm offers a free trial, so you can take it for a spin with no added pressure.
Inner Kids uses Zoom to host mindfulness meditations for children, parents, and teens as well as caregivers and educators. Their 30-minute sessions happen three times a day, five days a week, and are free to all for the first two weeks. After that, they switch to a “pay what you can” model, making this the go-to mindfulness source for anyone of any age.
Annaka Harris, an author and volunteer mindfulness teacher with Inner Kids, also has a library of guided meditations for children on her own website. The sessions cover everything from soothing uncomfortable feelings to friendly wishes and nighttime meditations for easy sleeping.
With all that's happening in the world, things can be difficult, uncertain, and stressful for many of us. That’s why peace of mind, and the tools with which we attain it, are more valuable than ever. Whether you’re looking for ways to mitigate anxiety or just give yourself a moment to refresh, a little mindfulness goes a long way.
Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.