With ‘shelter in place’ and ‘stay at home’ orders firmly in place around the globe now, all of us are challenged to literally build resilience, from the inside – We will need to build emotional self-care skills, for when stress gets high, and emotions strong. The underlying elements of mindfulness can help us do just that.
As we all cope with the uncertainty of the coming months, mindfulness skills can help us to ride through the difficult emotions, step back from scary thoughts, and increase self-control in our behavior. These are the evidence-based mindfulness skills I teach to help build up distress tolerance and emotional mastery.
Uncertainty and Mental Health
We humans have always despised uncertainty. But, even before coronavirus, there was evidence of increasing degrees of intolerance to not knowing, which may be undermining our mental health resilience. ‘Intolerance of Uncertainty’ (IU) is a fundamental process underlying mental health. IU is defined as an “incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of […] sufficient information” (Carleton, 2016b; p. 31), and may be a key underlying vulnerability to psychopathology.
Dr. R. Nicholas Carleton, Ph.D. is a leader in the research focusing on the effects of uncertainty on mental health. He speculates that recent upticks in IU, even before coronavirus, were due to the intersection of unparalleled access to information, compounding uncertainty by creating a sense of powerlessness. In other words, tolerance of uncertainty is decreasing, as we are faced with unsolvable problems globally.
When our leaders and law makers, experts and news sources can’t get on the same page about what to expect from the pandemic, and how to protect ourselves, the natural effects of uncertainty are going to start taking their toll. So, as we forge ahead, into what is predicted to be a prolonged period of stress and uncertainty, we will each have to take on the onerous responsibility of maintaining our psychological and emotional self-care.
Mindfulness as Psychological Self-Care
Mindfulness is of course, setting one’s intention to pay attention to the present moment, without judgement. It has been found helpful in several areas of self-improvement, from anxiety and mood disorders, to leadership and sports performance.
But what is it about mindfulness that makes it so helpful? And more interestingly, what are the practices that can help you get through this exceedingly challenging time of stress and uncertainty? In my research, I have explored the common elements within the most effective mindfulness trainings and therapies: Those which have had two or more randomized control trials showing success.
Here I’d like to share four of those elements, and some practices you can begin integrating into your emotional self-care regime.
Mindfulness Skill I: Self-Awareness: The Relationship Between Events
A solid self-awareness will be the foundation of building up your resilience and emotional mastery. We all think we’re super self-aware of course. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Yeah, I’m not that self-aware.”? Nope, everyone thinks they’re self-aware. But here, we’re aiming to reduce some of your natural biases and or blind spots. We’re aiming at getting you objectively self-aware.
Inherent in all the scientifically supported mindfulness protocols, is the process of evaluating the functional relationship between events in your life, and your internal experience. That means, getting good at noticing ‘When I do/don’t do this, this happens.’ Or ‘When others do/don’t do that, I tend to react like this.’ In each moment there is an ongoing back and forth relationship between five elements of the present moment:
- The facts of the situation (the what, who, and when that everyone would agree upon)
- Uniquely perceived thoughts or interpretations of events (Images, memories, predictions, stories, etc. [which are biased by past experience])
- Emotional experience (e.g. sadness, anxiety, anger, shame, fear, etc.)
- Bodily sensations (physical identifiable changes related to particular body parts).
- Action impulses (reactive inclinations, usually aimed at reducing discomfort or increasing pleasure in attempt to avoid or control distress)
When the triggering fact is uncertainty, you’ll want to look at what happens in the other components of your experience. When we get emotionally triggered, very often this sets off some automatic emotional habit patterns. That’s what you want to identify here.
This is how mindfulness helps build your objective self-awareness: It helps you to start recognizing your unique patterns of reactivity, your emotional habit patterns. We all have these patterns. They get programed early in life because, at some point, they totally worked to get your needs met, or avoid a difficult experience.
Your job as a self-aware grown up is to start recognizing where what once worked no longer does. A couple of clues that your reaction is an emotional habit pattern are; 1. Your reaction is stronger than other people might respond to the facts. 2. It’s familiar to you and those you love. It has happened repeatedly in your life.
The Practice: The practice here is to start recording those 5 components of your experience whenever you notice you’re starting to feel the stress building up. Keep a notebook or journal as record. Over time, you’ll be amazed at the patterns that show up!
Practice Tip: As best you can, let go of judging yourself for your patterns. We all have them.
Mindfulness Skill 2: Experiential Willingness
Sitting with discomfort and listening to the wisdom of our emotions is another essential element of mindfulness. Humans, like all animals, will naturally and automatically react to discomfort with an attempt to avoid or minimize. Avoidance as default usually serves us short term, but at a cost long term.
Uncertainty causes us a lot of discomfort! Feeling certain about how things are, or should be, gives us a sense of stable ground, or relief. It’s inherently reinforcing. One study ironically found, when given a choice between sitting in a room waiting for something unknown, versus being certain of getting an electrical shock, participants overwhelmingly chose to get shocked (De Berker, et al., 2016)!
As you begin building your self-awareness of your unique emotional habit patterns, the best way to start overriding the autopilot is to start building your experiential willingness. Willingness is the active component of acceptance. It is not wanting or agreeing. It is choosing to open one’s self up, rather than close off from, the difficult.
- Label emotions: Build up your emotional vocabulary. Simply finding the emotion word to describe experience has been found improve self-regulation across clinical and neurological studies. (Torre & Lieberman, 2018)
- Taking Emotional Roll Call: This is a visualization practice I use to guide my clients to build a kinder, more accepting relationship with emotions.
Mindfulness Skill 3: Stepping Back from Thoughts
When faced with uncertainty, our minds, in an attempt to cling to certainty, will create a story: good or bad, we tend to prefer anything to the black hole of uncertainty. Mindfulness is seeing the stories we generate for what they are; thoughts, not facts, happening in the present moment. This skill has been called cognitive de-fusion, de-centering, observe skill, or meta awareness.
- Verbal Cue Defusion: Once you’ve identified your thoughts in the self-awareness exercise above, use the verbal precursor, “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that….” This will help you to get just enough space between you and the thought, so it doesn’t have so much emotional pull on you.
- Thought Repetition: If you notice particular thoughts showing up repeatedly in your self-awareness practice, try this. Come up with the most succinct version of the thought, so it’s just a short sound bite. Next, turn on your timer for 2 minutes. Say the thought over and over again, out loud, for the entire two minutes! This age old de-fusion exercise has been shown to reduce both the believability and the ability of sticky thoughts to evoke related emotions ( See Masuda et al, 2009).
Mindfulness Skill 4: Using the Wisdom of the Body – Non-Reactivity-Being Effective
Not knowing what to expect from our world impacts our mind and our body. The cascade of worry thoughts and related stressful emotions create physical changes, which can make maintaining our commitments to what matters more difficult. The stress of uncertainty may evoke physical sensations of jitteriness, heaviness and fatigue, or agitation and tension. In any case, the body is pulling us in a reactive, rather than responsive way.
Mindfulness practice makes use of the body as tool for anchoring in the present moment and practicing non-reactivity. Most of us live in the heady problem-solving machine of our minds when we’re anxious, thus ignoring important cues from our bodies. Building body sensation awareness serves two functions:
- Moving attention into the body also moves attention into the present moment, thus reducing the impact of time traveling mind.
- The body serves an excellent, concrete, entry point and gives biofeedback on the above noted relationship between events.
- Willingness Hands: This practice is a simple, open body posture, which sends a message to the mind, that we are shifting from willfulness, to willingness to stay committed.
- Body Scan: Attending and listening to your body, in a nonreactive way, creates a safe space in which you can anchor in the observer place. This practice has specifically been related to improvements in psychological well-being, including decreases in anxiety, physiological reactivity, and interpersonal sensitivity (Camrody and Baer 2008).
- Behavioral Commitments: Identify small, doable commitments towards your goals and values.
- Avoid all or none pass/fail outcomes. Set levels of performance to optimal, acceptable, and pass, to increase likelihood of success.
- Explore barriers to completing your commitments within the relationship between events.
The very genesis of the word uncertainty is to imply something dangerous or problematic is looming. And, if we listen to the news reports these days, that prediction is certainly being made. Sadly, it seems like, for many, it will be true. AND, right now, in this moment, can you practice? As you read these words, from behind your own face, can you train your attention, just on this moment?
What if we changed our relationship to the uncertain feelings? What if we let go of certainty and confidence as some holy grail? Maybe the certainty we seek and clinging to the ‘need to know’, is exactly what keeps us stuck?
The practice of mindfulness is sitting in the not knowing – choosing to sit back and observe the movie of our life, with curiosity – without fast forwarding to be sure of what happens at the end.
Dr. Lara Fielding is a Los Angeles based, clinical psychologist, and author of Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become and Emotional Grownup. She specializes in teaching science-based mindfulness skills to young adults, who are working through the challenges of the transitioning roles of adulthood.
American Psychological Association. 2017. “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation,” November 1. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2017/state-nation.pdf.
American Psychological Association. 2018. “Stress in America: Uncertainty about Health Care,” January 24. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2017/uncertainty-health-care.pdf.
Carleton, R. N. 2016. “Fear of the Unknown: One Fear to Rule Them All.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 31: 5–21.
Carleton, R. N. (2016b). Into the unknown: A review and synthesis of contemporary models involving uncertainty. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 39, 30–43.
Carleton, R. N. 2018, January 8. Personal Interview.
De Berker, A. O., R. B. Rutledge, C. Mathys, L. Marshal, G. F. Cross, R. J. Dolan, and S. Bestmann. 2016. “Computations of Uncertainty Mediate Acute Stress Responses in Humans.” Nature Communications, http://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10966.
Masuda, A., S. C. Hayes, M. P Twohig, C. Drossel, J. Lillis, and Y. Washio. 2009. “A Parametric Study of Cognitive Defusion and the Believability and Discomfort of Negative Self-Relevant Thoughts.” Behavior Modification 33: 250–262.
Torre, J. B., and M. D. Lieberman. 2018. “Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation.” Emotion Review 1–9, http://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917742706.