The collective events of 2020 thus far have been enough to send even the strongest individual into a tailspin; quarantine, economic uncertainty, widespread demonstrations, navigating one’s place in the shifting societal ecosystem and determining your role in affecting change…it’s a lot to process.
It’s no surprise that regression in the form of gravitating to childhood music, television shows and comfort food has become a common coping mechanism, and while many psychologists believe that regression is simply an avoidance response, it has been my experience that with a small dose of mindful guidance, that instinct to go back has actually helped me move forward.
In addition to being in the biopharmaceutical industry, my training as a yoga instructor (and my creative spiritual views) give me an integrated outlook that combines evidence-based scientific knowledge with a strong focus on mindfulness. As a mother to a young son, weathering the changes that COVID-19 has inflicted on daily life, I’m also always trying to find new ways to apply what I believe about the power of health and wellness practices and mindfulness in my own family.
The psychological premise of regression is complex–it can be as simple as wanting to feel the comfort of a favorite food or as intense as the re-adoption of old behaviors– but the urge to evoke the feeling of childhood can be explained by a number of common-sense inferences.
I’ve felt this pull myself, and instead of simply viewing this inclination as a tendency towards regression, I have found that when I take a moment to mindfully reconnect with my childhood, I can often find inspiration for moving forward in a constructive way.
For me, turning to childhood has its merits as a strengthening mechanism, especially if it comes through a modality of mindfulness, and includes the whole childhood experience, not just the first thoughts.
What exactly does that mean? I have found three examples that I would like to share, where I was able to transform my regression to reconnection:
Reconnecting with Food. Not only was I craving comfort foods from childhood as a stress response, I was prone to yearning for calorie-dense, nutrient-poor carbohydrates. My first instinct is to reach for the Indian desserts that were reserved for special occasions when I was growing up dairy based desserts, with lots of sugar and spices blended into creamy goodness.
I convinced myself that if I made one of these recipes from scratch at home, I would be reconnecting with my childhood! So, I reached for this old recipe notebook that my mother had given me when I came to the US from India for college, which I hadn’t opened in several years, ready to make my first dessert. However, as I opened the book, I found recipes for lentils and simple sautéed vegetables – I remember feeling that those dishes were boring because they were on the house menu all the time. I never liked lentils as a child, but we ate them often. And when I arrived in the US, lentils were low on my priority; I certainly did not feel the need to cook them. However, in that moment when I opened the book, I made the choice to cook my mother’s lentil recipes. Now, I experience these dishes in a different way; they are constructive, and I understand the wisdom behind the choices.
There’s a very real connection between culture, values, and food; my family is from India, my husband is from China, and the foods we’re making are what we call “village food”– food rooted in ancestral practices, tied to place. There’s a primal contentment we receive from making nourishing food that has generational wisdom behind it… it’s deeper than “comfort food”.
Reconnecting with stories. One of the explanations for the wide-spread trend towards rewatching old favorite television shows or movies–or even binging on new series–is the comfort to be had in listening to a story. Our propensity for loving a good story doesn’t end in childhood, and the power of storytelling to teach doesn’t stop when we turn 18, either.
As a child I watched endless Bollywood movies–a wonderful, colorful, entertaining form of escape. Recently, the passing of one of my uncles reminded me of some very different childhood stories, the ones my grandmother would tell me. Real ones, of the time they spent fighting for India’s independence. I could envision my grandfather going to prison for his activism, and the protestors from the underground movement that my grandparents housed in their tiny apartment. One story in particular stands out; when the police showed up on one occasion, they hid in the bathroom, on top of a fake wall they built. These stories are not only vibrant childhood memories that comfort me, they strengthen and inspire me during times of unrest, when I wonder about my part in the societal change that’s happening. As I tell these stories to my son, we’re encouraged, and feel a connection through this mindfulness to our past and also to our part in building the future. This connection has inspired us to take a more active role in the current issues and challenges of social justice.
One important caveat, in a time when ideas of the past are harmful to society or others, it’s important to distinguish between what is nourishing and good in ideas and values, just as we do with food, and put the past through the filter of the present.
While I’m very proud of the heroic aspects of my heritage, at the same time my parents grew up in a very conservative India–one rife with classism, that wasn’t a good environment for LGBTQ+ individuals. I’m not taking that forward with me.
I also make sure that I know that the fears I had when I was young do not serve me anymore.
Reconnecting with boredom. Just like so many other parents, my husband and I have had to resort to removal of screens with our young son at one point…with ultimately positive results.
Those of us who grew up in decades past were afforded many more opportunities to be bored; 21st century kids don’t get bored because they have so much to do. When you get bored you become creative. Inspired by Manoush Zomorodi’s book, Bored and Brilliant, we decided to allow my son to get bored. After having his screen time taken away, my son actually came up with a test for my husband and myself about WWII! He was angry at first about having his amusement limited, but after getting past the annoyance, his creativity was sparked.
Even those of us who grew up in a more austere amusement environment may have become like children in 2020 with our abundance of screens…and we may benefit from taking them away from ourselves.
I have put Manoush Zomorodi’s examples into practice and found that they actually work. I am now a believer that we need to let ourselves get bored. In the beginning of COVID-19, many of us were lost, not knowing what to do with ourselves. Then we threw ourselves into work, Netflix, and a host of amusements and extended hours…maybe it’s time to allow some boredom back in. I found myself experimenting as a child when I was bored. There was some guilt associated with temporarily shutting off a screen since it implies inaction, especially in a climate when following updates is important, but as I navigated the phases of change that COVID-19 and social justice actions have wrought, it was worthwhile to give ourselves a break, if for no other reason than to refresh in order to continue the navigation of the “new normal”. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Continued connection through news and other means is important, especially in the times we’re facing. It may seem like an odd choice for self-care, redirecting the impulse to connect with your inner child, but as Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “To know and understand the five-year-old within yourself is to be able to know and understand the five-year-old within another”.
Reconnecting with–and nourishing, through food, stories, and gentle discipline–my inner child has helped me stay mindful during these trying times, and it’s my hope that these ideas can be of benefit to others as well. I invite you to share your stories as well, of how your mindful reconnection has inspired positive action.