Written by: Carol Dawidowicz, LMFT
Pandemic. Racism. Violence. Economic hardship. These are troubled times. There is a universal sense of anxiety and uncertainty. We need others more than ever but are cautioned to keep our distance. When we most need to be greeted with a smile the expressions of neighbors are covered by masks. We know that this type of emotional stress and isolation are taking a toll.
How do we find relief?
I do not know of a clear and simple answer. However, if there is a silver lining to this crisis it could be that difficult times can help us change. Strong emotions such as anger and hurt can cause us to question the status quo and work on personal and social change. We can seek out new sources of emotional relief and comfort. We can also speak out for what we do and don’t believe it. We can join movements for social change. But we must act in a peaceful and caring way if we want to be effective.
In recent years I have found myself drawn to lessons from an ancient form of eastern spirituality, Buddhism. The teachings of Buddhism are compassionate and peace-oriented and can be helpful to anyone in difficult times.
Buddhism encourages us to fully experience what is real
The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that suffering exists as a part of life. In college when I heard this I thought that it sounded pessimistic. However, as a mental health professional 20 years later I find comfort in this teaching. All humans experience a good deal of emotional pain and it is possible to have a fulfilling life that includes a range of emotions- pleasant and painful. While it is natural to want to avoid or distract ourselves from emotions we do not like this is often counterproductive. Learning to navigate these emotions in a healthy way helps us avoid unhealthy habits such as overconsumption of substances (media, food, alcohol, etc.).
Here are some practices from Buddhism that many clients find helpful:
1.)Mindfulness- Mindfulness is the act of focusing one’s attention on the present moment in a non-judgmental way. This involves becoming more intentionally aware of your feelings and thoughts. Take a moment when you are not distracted and “check in”. Take a few deep breaths. How does your body feel? Are you tired? Hungry? Tense? Relaxed? What emotion(s) are present? What thoughts? Try not to label what you experience as “good” or “bad”. Just notice what is there. Pause. Repeat.
2.) Loving Kindness- This concept is rather self explanatory. It is striving to be caring and compassionate toward yourself and others. The Buddhists call this practice "metta" and believe it is a way to achieve a more healthy and peaceful world. Research has also shown that self compassion and altruism improve mental health. It has double benefits -- helping both the giver and the recipient.
Most of us are practicing kindness already and have noticed that it makes us feel better. If you offer a listening “ear” to a friend or take out the trash for an elderly neighbor you are practicing loving kindness. Notice opportunities to increase these acts of caring, even in small ways.
And do not forget about yourself! It is usually easier to be kind toward others than ourselves. One way to show loving kindness toward yourself is to pay attention to thoughts and judgements about yourself. The next time you “hear” the voice of your inner critic, replace it with something kind - i.e. “I am doing my best". "Even if I make a mistake, I can learn from it.”
The self compassion break is an exercise I have suggested to clients. It was developed by Dr. Kristin Neff who has done pioneering work in the field of self compassion research and practice development. Here is the exercise:
For more information on the research and teachings of Dr. Neff see her website
Meditation- In recent decades meditation has become more commonly practiced in the U.S. Research has shown that it can lower stress and even improve depression. (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/). There are many different styles of meditation. Several common types are mindfulness meditation, mantra (phrase repetition) meditation, guided meditation, walking meditation and loving kindness meditation.
Here are a few basic tips to get started.
Start with a short increment of time - 5 to 7 minutes is plenty. Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit down. If you are sitting in a chair rest your feet on the ground. Straight posture is recommended. However, it is also okay to lie down or sit cross legged on the floor.
The important part of any self care practice is that you take a moment to rest, to step back from the hectic pace of life and that you are kind to yourself. The Buddhists believe that by starting within ourselves we can build a more peaceful world. Thoughts and distractions will arise in your mind. This does not mean that you are doing it incorrectly. Some people like to repeat a phrase such as “I am calm” “Just be”.
Links to guided meditation exercises from UCSD:
The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness: How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life in Ten Minutes a Day by Andy Puddicombe
Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Every Day Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalia Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams.