Mindfulness-Based Tools for Coping during Difficult Times

Mental health professionals often speak about mindfulness, or non-judgmental attention to the present-moment experience. I also like to think of mindfulness as an invitation to engage with ourselves and our environment just a bit differently from what might be our norm. Mindfulness is about cultivating awareness and welcoming the full range of what shows up for us in any given moment. For many of us, this slowing down and disengaging from automatic thoughts and patterns of behavior can be incredibly difficult and sometimes a little scary. Mindfulness practice may call for some bravery.

We can apply mindful awareness to pretty much anything. We can practice even when we just have a moment. Whether we are struggling to carve out five minutes to decompress or find ourselves with more unfilled time on our hands than we are used to, a brief mindfulness practice can be something to keep in our back pocket. The practices below can also serve as a template for your own mindfulness exploration: feel free to re-name the categories, change the order of the instructions, do just a portion of the exercise. I invite you to engage with these practices with curiosity, an intention of non-judgment, a deep breath in, and a deep breath out.

Ground: What do I mean by grounding? Coming back to earth, coming back to self, coming back to present. One quick way to ground is through our senses.

Wherever you are, right at this moment, put both feet on the ground (if possible), wiggle your toes around, and notice the feeling of your socks, shoes, or the ground under your bare feet, just for a moment. Notice the sole of your foot meeting the ground and see if you can press down just a little more firmly. Imagine what you are rooting down into. Imagine the ground underneath you is holding and supporting you.

Now we will move through the senses. Use your eyes to take in the space around you, let your head and neck move around, try to notice something in your space that you do not typically pay attention to. Now let your nose lead, take a moment to notice anything you can smell in your environment. Notice what your fingers are touching, right in this moment, and take in the texture, the temperature, the shape. Tune into your ears, what can you hear in the environment around you? Lastly, is there anything you can taste, just in this moment? Take one or two deep breaths to finish your sensory exploration.

Space: Many of us are experiencing space as a limited resource at this time. This may be literal or figurative. We may be craving more space in our homes, we may be craving more space from our thoughts or worries, we may be craving more space from our roles (at work, as a partner, as a parent, as a friend). Though our resources for creating external space may be limited, we can work to create internal space through our breath.

Breath Exercise 1
Square breathing (an oldie but a goodie). This involves an inhale, holding the breath, an exhale, and holding the belly empty for an equal amount of time. Begin with a 3 to 4 count for each action (inhale for 3 to 4 counts, hold your breath at the top of your inhale for 3 to 4 counts, exhale for 3 to 4 counts, hold your belly empty for 3 to 4 counts). Repeat a few times with this count and then see if you can increase the count to 5 or 6. Repeat a few times with a longer count. When you are ready to be done, let your body return to its natural rhythm. Let your body breathe by itself.

Breath Exercise 2
Three Dimensional Breathing. Imagine your torso as a box with the ability to expand up and down, side to side, and front and back. Imagine that you could breathe in just your vertical space (up and down). As you inhale, imagine length, see the top and bottom of the box expanding away from one another. As you exhale allow for the top and bottom of the box to come closer together. Take a few breaths this way. Now imagine that you could breathe just in your side to side space. On your inhale, imagine the sides of the box moving away from one another and as you exhale the sides return. Take a few breaths here. Now imagine you could breathe just in your front and back space. See the front and back of the box expand away from one another as you inhale, and come back towards one another as you exhale. Take a few breaths here. Lastly, imagine breathing in all three dimensions. As you inhale, you lengthen, open up side to side, and expand forward and back. As you exhale, soften and let all the sides come closer together. Repeat a few times and then let your breath return to its natural home in your torso. Again, let the body breathe by itself.

Shift: We may be experiencing a feeling of stuckness or immobility right now. This might look like ruminative or cyclical thoughts, muscle tension, a feeling of being trapped; we may feel overwhelmed or depleted. We may feel disconnected from ourselves and others. We may feel hopeless. To remind ourselves that we are not stuck, one thing we can do is find some movement in our bodies. In doing so, we give our brains the signal that we are not immobile.

Movement of any kind can be helpful for this. One way to start is to pick a verb (i.e.; shake, wiggle, roll, bounce, sway, bend, lengthen, open/close) and a part of your body (i.e.; hands/fingers, feet/toes, ankles, wrists, knees, neck, shoulders) and put them together. Try wiggling your fingers or popping your knuckles, reach both arms overhead and find a stretch, find a twist in your spine (go in both directions), flex and point your feet and roll your ankles around. See if you can move a part of your body you do not typically attend to.

Another tool is WHOMMP. This practice attends to patterns of connectivity in our body and can be a reset for mood and focus.

W – Water, take a sip of water
H – Head/Tail, think of moving your spine from the top of your head to your tailbone, maybe arch and round, take a big stretch reaching arms overhead, or twist
O – Oxygen, take a deep breath, in and out
M – Midline, imagine dividing yourself in half vertically; that line down the middle is your midline. For this step, we cross our midline by maybe reaching our left arm across our body to the right or stretching our right leg across to the left. Let both sides of the body cross the midline in some way.
M – March, take a moment to activate left and right sides by marching in place a few times (standing or seated and you can also “march” with your arms, lifting them up and down)
P – Pretzel, give yourself a bear hug, with one arm crossed over the other, then switch the arm that is on top.

Allow: I saw a social media post the other day of a cartoon character with his head in his hands. The caption was, “I’m trying this new thing of letting myself be sad.” It is a true testament to our strength as humans that we are able to temporarily disconnect from difficult feelings. However, what we resist persists, as they say. It is no easy thing to take time to be present with feelings we would prefer to avoid. One way in can be to give ourselves a boundaried time to practice sitting with and expressing the hard things. And then also taking a moment to validate our efforts: it’s hard to sit with hard things, and we can do hard things. Try the following for just a few minutes. Maybe even set a timer. The intention is to allow what is present to be there.

Free Write or Free Scribble
Find a writing implement (if helpful you can find a color to represent your mood state) and either free write or free scribble for 1-3 minutes. If free writing, try to let yourself record a stream of consciousness, try not lifting your pen from the page. If nothing is coming up, try writing exactly that. If free scribbling, let yourself cover the page with scribbles of any shape or size and press as hard or as light as feels right. Notice the feeling of the pen, pencil, marker, etc. in your hand, notice the sound it makes on the paper, notice the feeling in your arm as you write or scribble. When time is up, take a few deep breaths and notice what you notice. You can keep, discard, or destroy what you have created.

During times of uncertainty and unease, mindfulness practice can be a powerful source of grounding, support, and perspective. I encourage you to give it a try. Should you like to engage in guided practice, I also invite you to make use of the following recording I made of a body scan exercise.