How Staying in the Moment Can Help Us Fight Stress During a Pandemic

It’s easy to catastrophize, but taking inspiration from Stoic philosophy can lower our anxiety and fear.

wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock
wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

With the heightened stress we’re all experiencing around coronavirus, it’s tempting to let our minds race forward and envision worst-case scenarios. 

But the practice of mindfulness — immersing ourselves in whatever activity we’re engaged in, rather than falling prey to distractions or dwelling on what might happen in the future — can go a long way to liberate us from stress and anxiety. It’s hard to do all the time, because fears about COVID-19 are real. But we can do it some of the time. 

Turning to the wisdom of ancient philosophers — the Stoics in particular, including Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca — can remind us of how we tend to fill up our time with distractions, and instead how valuable it is to live in the moment. Stoicism has never been more relevant than it is today. As Thrive Founder and CEO Arianna Huffington, has said, “Stoic philosophy is actually supremely practical. It helps us step outside of our thoughts and be aware of them instead of being imprisoned by them.” 

Here are five ways to stay present in order to boost our sense of calm, reduce stress, and improve our well-being:

Breathe

Before you embark on something, whether that’s drinking a cup of coffee, doing the dishes, making the bed, bathing your child, or taking a shower, breathe deeply and remind yourself of the single activity you are about to engage in.

Slow down

We often rush through meals and work projects, moving right into the next thing. Before moving on, take a few minutes to reset and refocus on what you’re about to do next.

Focus on your senses

If you are outside, feel the sun and breeze, inhale the scent of the spring blossoms. If you are in the shower, enjoy the rush of warm water and the experience of massaging the shampoo into your hair and scalp. Paying attention to every sensation cultivates what mindfulness researchers call somatic attention, shifting your focus away from racing thoughts and spiraling stress so you can appreciate how your body feels in the present moment.

Tap into the power of gratitude

Gratitude has been shown to improve our mood and happiness by helping us reframe our stressors. An easy way to tap into the effects is by practicing this Microstep: When washing your hands, take those 20 seconds to think of three things you are grateful for. Stacking gratitude on top of an existing (and important) habit can reinforce a mindfulness practice and encourage a more positive mindset.

Choose where your mind goes — but be patient with yourself

It’s useful to remember that we have a choice over where our thoughts go. We can master our time and attention to ignore distractions, and focus on the task at hand, moving through everything calmly. Of course, it does take discipline and practice. So when your mind wanders to a negative place or scenario, just accept it without any judgment — self compassion is another Stoic principle from Seneca. Then gently bring your awareness back to the present and return to what you are doing or to more positive thoughts. At a time when so much is outside our control, it is helpful to emphasize what we do have control over: our reactions and our thoughts.

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