Editor’s Note: The following is a guest article from film & television editor Debby Germino (Fargo, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Smallville, Genius) who is also the author of the blog Happiness In Training. She will be providing regular content to help us all become more ‘Mindful Editors.’ Click here if you’d like to submit a question for Debby (or me) to answer in a future Podcast Q&A session.
So…I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels blindsided from the Mack truck that crashed through life as we know it in the last couple of weeks?
Not even two weeks ago my greatest concern was getting through producer notes editing the latest episode of Fargo.
Then less than a week later I was put into self-quarantine having worked from a potentially contaminated office.
And just like that…I’ve been laid off after production was shut down (along with the rest of Hollywood).
To put it mildly…fear, stress, and anxiety are in the driver’s seat and running rampant in my brain.
Luckily when things in our industry took a turn for the worst, Zack provided us with 5 practical steps to take back control of our mental health.
As NYT bestselling author and ‘Happiness Expert’ Gretchen Rubin says:
“Action is the antidote to anxiety.”
With Zack’s easily laid out steps, I was ready to take action!
Or at least I thought I was….
Step #1: Over Prepare
This step proved difficult for me. Being in self-quarantine meant I couldn’t do any shopping at stores. And online shopping was becoming increasingly difficult. Most of the items I would stock up on were sold out, and delivery times were impossible to book.
Hmmm….at least I have a decent supply of toilet paper right now.
Step #2: Re-prioritize My Finances
As someone who gets physically ill at the thought of doing my taxes every year, this was not a step I was looking forward to. This was further exacerbated by a phone call from my producer telling me that I had one more week of pay and then they were laying me off. With all productions being shut down, there is no certainty as to when another job will come up.
Maybe I’ll skip this step for now.
Step #3: Disconnect from the ‘Doomsday News Cycle’
This one I’ve got! I have already been curating my news consumption for several years and I have my trusted resources that I go to for reliable, informed, and factual information (with the much-needed addition of hope). This keeps me grounded and productive. I’ve also had practice in letting go of the need to feel up to date and the fear of missing out.
What I do not usually have to contend with is others in my household being sucked into the news cycle. Now that my boyfriend is working from home, he constantly has the news on and feels compelled to share the latest death tolls as they come through his Twitter feed.
Maybe step 4 will be the winner for me?
Step #4: Prioritize Sleep and Exercise
Normally this is a piece of cake for me. Having spent the last 10 years training for various endurance events, including marathons and triathlons, I know how to maintain my healthy habits (even during hiatus).
But part of what keeps me motivated is the social interaction I get through my training. I have friends that I meet up with on the weekends to do long training runs or rides. I swim with a team once a week…in a pool that is now closed. I practice yoga…at a studio that is also closed.
Social distancing requirements are making it impossible to train in the ways that keep me motivated and accountable.
And despite my best efforts to maintain my regular sleep schedule, I’m finding it challenging given this is my first time living through a global pandemic.
What is happening? This was supposed to make me feel better.
Step #5: Build Your At-Home Professional Network
I love this idea and I want to make it happen, but I’ve spent my days talking to family, figuring out how to get food delivered, and feeling overwhelmed with all the dramatic shifts in schedule, lifestyle, and simple day-to-day logistics of survival.
Everyone is talking about how much time we’re supposed to have on our hands now. We should be:
- reading books
- learning a new language
- brushing up on editing techniques
- learning new software programs to broaden our professional skills
- trying out new hobbies and interests and a whole host of self improvement and relationship skills that we should dive into
These are all great ideas. I love every one of them.
But maybe we’re forgetting one important piece of all of this: Our humanity.
Has anyone taken a moment to stop and recognize the gravity of what is happening?
Has anyone taken a moment to process all the feelings and emotions that are being churned up amidst this crisis?
Has anyone acknowledged the fear, loss of control, instability, and complete paradigm shift that is occurring literally minute-by-minute?
We’re treating ourselves like robots. We’re acting as if all we need to do is reprogram ourselves with a new set of rules and conditions, and the new order should resume without a hitch.
Rebooting and reprogramming may work for robots, but that does not work for human beings.
As Americans, we are wired to overcome, conquer and achieve. We don’t want anyone or anything to stand in our way. So we have quickly reacted to this crisis by taking charge and shifting into a new version of overdoing, overachieving, and overreaching.
Charging forward with new orders may seem necessary to maintain some semblance of status quo, but all it is really doing is grasping for control of situations we have no control over.
Until we can acknowledge our humanity among this dramatic shift of life as we know it, we will continue to falter and struggle regardless of how many different ways we have to occupy our time.
If, like me, you find yourself anxious and unable to focus on productive work, here are five practices I have learned from 10 years of mindfulness training that will help you better acknowledge your feelings, face your fears, develop acceptance of our new reality, as well as build resilience to weather the greatest challenge of our lifetimes.
1. Acknowledge That Anxiety is Helpful
First, it’s important to acknowledge that anxiety serves a purpose. It increases our performance and motivates us to take action. It is appropriate to feel anxious right now. But there is a tipping point in anxiety when it overloads the brain and we go into “fight or flight.”
How do you know if your anxiety level is healthy or pushed beyond the limits?
Some classic signs are:
- Having trouble sleeping
- Not eating enough or eating too much (a.k.a. Stress eating)
- Feeling edgy and irritable
- Having a short temper
It’s probably safe to say most of us can check off one or all of these boxes right now. And you may have your own tell-tale signs that occur when you are overstressed and anxious. Tune into those signals and try to catch them before they hit the red zone. Remember that these signals have a right to be there. They are trying to protect us from danger.
One important step to take after recognizing the anxiety is simply to say “thank you for trying to take care of me.” Mindfulness teacher and psychologist Tara Brach uses this as part of her R.A.I.N. practice as a way to nurture the feelings rather than pushing them away or judging them. It might sound trivial, but this is a key step towards acceptance.
I have a tendency to be critical of myself when anxiety triggers a craving for comfort foods. By taking a moment to recognize and express gratitude for my body’s need to keep me safe, I redirect that harsh criticism into something more wholesome and healing.
Work with your own stress signals and patterns around anxiety. Notice where you feel it in your body.
What feels tight, clenched or stuck?
What habits are you falling into for self soothing, pushing away, or avoiding?
Once you recognize these feelings and habits, show gratitude and compassion for them. No need to add resistance or increase the stress by inflicting self-punishment and criticism.
As you begin this practice, you might notice it’s challenging just to remember to do it. I often get halfway through the day before I’ve realized that my upper back is clenched or that I’ve just devoured half a jar of almond butter because I’m in need of comfort.
To remind myself to stay present I will often set a timer throughout the day to check in with my body and state of mind. Every hour or so I do a quick body scan and assess my state of mind. This is a way to bring the mind back to a more wholesome state and acknowledge the presence of the anxiety before I get identified with it and lost in the story.
This leads to my next practice that can help you dig a little deeper into the negative stories we create and the habits of mind that consume us.
2. Take Notes to Reduce Overwhelm & Increase Awareness
Taking notes is an effective way to keep my spinning mind under control. I have found that writing down patterns and habits makes me more aware of them in the moment when they arise. It’s like when you buy a new car and suddenly you begin to notice how many people have that same car. You didn’t notice before you bought the car because your brain wasn’t keyed into it. But then all of a sudden you think that the car you just bought is everywhere! Scientists call this the frequency illusion.
The more notes you take of your current thoughts and behaviors, the more you will become aware of your negative thought patterns.
Taking notes, keeping a journal, or doing free form writing can also be a therapeutic way to release your negative feelings and emotions. It can uncover trigger points or sources of trauma that may be affecting your behavior unconsciously. Putting them down on paper reduces anxiety and clears the mind.
Another practical benefit to taking notes is using it to stay on top of your health. Note any changes in how you feel or symptoms that arise. Doing so can provide insight into where or when you may have contracted something. It can also be nice to keep a record of events for accuracy and posterity in the future.
Taking notes or journaling can be done digitally or the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. The best option is the one that you actually do consistently. Take the path of least resistance and be flexible. Allow yourself to explore what works best for you.
I like to use Evernote where I can create notebooks and organize notes by category and tags for easy reference later. But I also write a daily gratitude journal that I keep by my bed and hand write with a pen every night.
For more detail on creating this habit, check out my article How Note Taking Will Make You Better at Life.
3. Calm The Body & Mind With Simple Yoga Poses
Whether you are a seasoned yogi or have never practiced yoga in your life, there are some simple poses that anyone can do to release emotions, relieve stress and boost the immune system.
For every feeling we experience there is a corresponding response in the body. We may not recognize it or associate it at the time, but it is happening nonetheless.
I still remember the yoga class I went to after my dog died many years ago. The class was focused on hip openers (which releases a lot of emotions). When we got to the final meditation at the end of class, I felt tears streaming down my face. I hadn’t been able to release those tears before coming to class, but moving the energy through my hips provided the necessary release for my grief and loss. I felt safe and supported enough to finally let the emotions go.
The following simple yoga poses outlined below fall under the category of “Restorative yoga.” This is a form of yoga that uses props to support the body in different shapes. Poses are held for 5 to 10 minutes. It balances the nervous system, increases immunity and flexibility, and reduces stress. What I like most about restorative yoga is that it provides a gateway to meditation. The poses are meant to be comfortable and relaxing which in turn relaxes the mind and provides a doorway into seeing the mind and body connection.
1. Legs Up the Wall Inversion
Result: Strengthens the Immune system, Promotes Relaxation
My favorite restorative pose is called Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani in Sanskrit) which is considered a mild inversion pose suitable for all ages and ability levels. Inversions are excellent poses for the immune system so doing this pose for 10 minutes each day is a great practice to begin right now.
The pose is just as it sounds. You lay down on your back and put your feet up against the wall. For added support and relaxation, you can elevate your hips and butt with a bolster, pillow, or a stack of folded blankets. Lie there and focus on your breath as you try to allow your thoughts to dissolve into the background.
Note: This pose is AMAZING for calming your racing thoughts before bed.
2. Reclined Bound Angle Pose
Result: Reduces Anxiety, Opens the Heart
Another pose I like to practice is Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Bahhda Konasana in Sanskrit). The name does not evoke the feeling of total relaxation and luxury that the pose offers, but I promise it will be refreshing.
I’ve been experimenting with using this pose when the urge to stress eat comes up, and it’s been a nice antidote. It calms the nervous system and opens the heart and chest, which is often the first place we tighten and clench during anxious times.
The pose can be done on the floor with just blocks or pillows (pictured above). To get the full support, I recommend using blocks, blankets, and a bolster, or pillows and towels can work just as well.
- Gather a bolster (or long, firm pillow, or 2 long folded blankets), yoga blocks (or 2 small pillows) and 1 or 2 blankets.
- Place the bolster vertically and sit down in front of it. Lay a folded blanket horizontally across the top of the bolster. This is for your neck.
- Lie down with your back on the bolster and your legs flat on the floor. Bend your knees to the side and pull your feet to touch each other. Your legs will be in the shape of a diamond.
- Place the yoga blocks or two small pillows under your knees for support. You should feel a stretch in your groins, but it should be a gentle stretch. If it’s too intense, put more support under your knees until it feels comfortable.
- Lay back with your head on the blanket at the top of the bolster and release your arms to the sides so you feel an opening in your chest. You may like to lay a blanket across your stomach or over the front of your body for warmth.
- Now just relax and enjoy the gentle, supportive stretch of the pose. For more detail and photos, check out this link.
Looking for additional suggestions to help you calm your mind and body? Here’s FREE LIFETIME ACCESS to the ‘Move Yourself Activity Video Vault.’ Two specific routines I recommend are the ‘Technology Detox’ and ‘Letting Go.’
4. Reduce Anxiety With Breathing Exercises
Just as we can use the body to tap into emotions, working with the breath can be another powerful resource for reducing anxiety and making space for whatever is coming up in the moment. We take for granted this essential involuntary function for most of our waking moments. But when we slow down and pay attention to our breath, we’ll learn a lot of useful information.
We all know our emotions affect our breath. When we’re scared, the breath hastens and becomes shallow. When we’re relaxed, it slows and deepens. By performing intentional breath exercises, we can harness the power it has to regulate our blood pressure and ease our worries.
When I first began practicing meditation, I struggled to keep my concentration. I had a very strong negative critic who liked to berate me for getting distracted. I found that using breathing techniques was a nice way to increase my concentration while turning the volume down on my inner critic.
1. Box Breathing (or Square Breathing)
Result: Enhanced Concentration & Relaxation
The first breathing exercise I recommend is called Box Breathing or Square Breathing (Sama Vritti in Sanskrit). It’s a simple technique that can be varied for different effects once you learn the basic process. This technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system (sometimes referred to as “rest and digest”). It is the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system that we are trying to deactivate.
- Sit comfortably and inhale for 4 counts.
- Hold the inhale for 4 counts.
- Exhale through your mouth for 4 counts.
- Hold at the bottom of the exhale for 4 counts. Repeat.
You can do this for a few rounds, working your way up to 5 or 10 minutes at a time. For even greater stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, you can increase the count of the exhale to 6, 8, or 10. The longer exhale provides an enhanced calming effect by slowing the heart rate. Practice first with the 4 count version until you feel comfortable enough to increase the exhales.
If you feel yourself getting panicky or uncomfortable, you can skip the hold on the exhale or drop the counting all together and breath normally. The point is relaxation and if you don’t feel relaxed, don’t do it. Breathing exercises can take some time to get the hang of so be patient with yourself and listen to your instincts.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Result: Provides Grounding and Balance
Another great breathing exercise for relaxation is called Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana in Sanskrit). This technique clears toxins and strengthens the respiratory system and lungs (which is especially useful in the current situation).
- Sit comfortably with your back straight, either in a chair or on the floor.
- Take a few normal breaths in and out through the nose.
- Rest your hands in your lap and take your right hand up to your nose. Using your thumb, close the right side of your nostril and inhale through the left nostril.
- Using your ring finger close the left nostril, and pause briefly at the top of the inhale.
- Release your thumb from the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Pause at the bottom of the exhale and inhale through the right nostril.
- Pause at the top, release your left nostril and block your right nostril. Exhale through the left nostril.
- That completes one cycle. Repeat for 5-10 cycles.
Try to keep the length of the inhales and exhales even. Try to keep your mind focused on the breath and allow the thoughts to be in the background. (Here’s a short video demonstration of what it looks like.) This practice balances the right and left sides of the brain while also improving focus.
The finger and thumb placement can feel a little awkward at first. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If it’s too cumbersome with the fingers, it also can be effective to drop the hand to your lap and imagine the air being inhaled and exhaled through each nostril in the same pattern.
Looking for additional suggestions to help you calm your mind and body? Here’s FREE LIFETIME ACCESS to the ‘Move Yourself Activity Video Vault.’ Two specific breathing routines I recommend are the ‘Introduction to Yogic Breathing’ and the ‘Box Breathing Meditation.’
5. Practice Meditation and Embrace Compassion
While meditation is not a panacea for resolving anxiety and finding acceptance, it is definitely a gateway for working with difficult emotions and patterns. And the breathing exercises and yoga poses mentioned above will serve as gentle ways to prepare the mind for meditation.
Remember that meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. That is a misconception that hinders a lot of people from beginning or continuing a practice. They feel like they are failing because they can’t stop their thoughts from happening. The aim in meditation is to bring awareness to your thoughts so you can notice how they affect you, thus enabling you to be less yanked around by them.
For example, I am suddenly more aware of my fears around gaining weight and losing fitness now that I have lost access to my regular training groups. My mind is telling me that I can’t do it on my own and that what I’m doing isn’t good enough.
Meditation helps bring awareness to these thought patterns and creates space around them. It helps me understand that I can make a choice to follow that train of thought or just notice it as a story in the mind that I don’t have to buy into.
I use the following meditation practice anytime I’m getting caught up in my inner critic to help increase self compassion.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Result: Increases Self Compassion & Concentration
In mindfulness meditation, along with bringing awareness to the body and mind, another crucial component of the practice is compassion. We want to bring awareness in a non-judgemental way. We are not trying to be critical of our thoughts or the things we notice. We are observing with a sense of friendliness. To help cultivate this friendliness and compassion, try the following practice for a few minutes every day (or anytime your negative critic comes up).
Loving Kindness Meditation (or Metta in the Pali language) consists of the silent repetition of phrases. First, the phrases are directed at yourself. Then you choose a benefactor, followed by a friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person. You end the meditation with directing the phrases to all beings everywhere.
The phrases are as follows:
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be at peace.
After a few minutes of cultivating loving kindness towards yourself, you can move on to the benefactor, then continue down the list. Use the same phrases, just changing the “I” to “you” and holding that person in your mind as you repeat the phrases silently in your head.
The idea is to incline the mind toward compassion. It’s okay if you don’t feel anything especially compassionate or loving while doing this practice. You may not feel anything at all, or you may feel a lot of different emotions coming up. That’s okay. Remember this is not about judgement. This is a concentration practice.
Sharon Salzberg is one of the foremost loving kindness meditation teachers in the West. She writes in this article about why the intention, and not the feeling, is the important part of the practice.
“What’s important is to do it, is to form that intention in the mind because we’re uniting the power of loving-kindness and the power of intention and that is what will produce the effect of that free flow of loving-kindness.”
Sharon offers a free guided loving kindness meditation on Insight Timer app that is a nice introduction into the practice.
Once you begin a practice, the versatility of it becomes endless. I like to use it while walking and directing the phrases at the people I walk by. Another practical way I’ve adopted the practice is reciting the phrases while washing my hands for 20 seconds (a hundred times a day now!). The more often we repeat it throughout the day, the more we are watering those seeds of intention.
This is a flexible practice. You don’t have to go through the whole list of people each time. You can focus on just yourself for the entire practice or maybe just you and someone who is really struggling right now. Do what feels appropriate and meaningful in the moment.
Looking for additional suggestions to help you calm your mind and body? Here’s FREE LIFETIME ACCESS to the ‘Move Yourself Activity Video Vault.’
In the ‘Move Yourself Activity Video Vault’ Zack has a great beginner meditation, which is just 5 minutes long and helps release negative energy through breath focus and simple visualization. Another great option is the body scan meditation which is a way of bringing awareness to each part of the body and cultivating a connection between the body and mind.
1. Practice Voluntary Discomfort/Renunciation
Result: Cultivates Inner Peace
The fear we are all experiencing right now is based on uncertainty and loss of control. We don’t know when this pandemic will end and we are afraid that there will be a prolonged period of unemployment. Our usual routines of going to stores when we need something are being disrupted. We have lost control over the way we meet our basic needs. This brings a feeling of insecurity and groundlessness.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from studying contemplative practices and philosophies is that we cannot rely on external circumstances for happiness and well being. Though that seems like a tall order, there are ways to cultivate the inner strength and fortitude necessary to reduce our dependence on external things.
- We can practice dining on simpler fare and accepting that we can’t have ready access to all the options we’re used to enjoying
- We can practice conserving toilet paper and other essentials so we don’t create a shortage
- We can make do with the supplies we have and discover we don’t need as much as we think.
Yes, these things are being forced upon us right now, but we can work with our minds to find peace in the situation. When I learned I had to be on self-quarantine for 14 days, it was the day before I typically go to the farmer’s market to stock up for the week. Even though I had friends who offered to go to the grocery store for me, all I wanted was the food I usually get at my farmer’s market. My mind immediately clung to what I couldn’t have. That is the nature of the mind. By practicing letting go of these attachments, we are left with a sense of ease and courage that comes from not being reliant upon circumstances we cannot control.
2. Ask…“Is This Useful?”
Result: A Helpful Reality Check
This simple little question can be dropped into your meditation practice or anytime in daily life you find yourself ruminating and spinning out of control. In the article, 3 Things That Will Make You 10% Happier, Dan Harris, author and podcast host of 10 Percent Happier, talks about how using this simple question on himself has been effective in dealing with his anxiety and overrun thinking.
“At some point, you have thought it through sufficiently and it’s time to move on. What I have learned how to do as a result of meditation is to draw the line between what I call ‘constructive anguish’ and ‘unconstructive rumination’ and that’s made me a lot happier.”
So next time you find yourself on your 3rd hour straight of watching the news cycle or scrolling through the endless thread of your Twitter feed, maybe stop and ask, “Is this useful?”
3. Practice Generosity
Result: Creates a Sense of Connection
When we get overwhelmed with our own situations and internal worlds, it can be helpful to think of others and how we can be of service. Although we are practicing social distancing we can still use technology and other forms of communication to support and help out our loved ones and neighbors.
We can also remind ourselves when we feel inconvenienced by being asked to stay at home and reduce trips to the stores that we are doing this for the greater good.
This is about being part of a larger community and doing our small part to help reduce the burden on the health care system and the damage to the elderly and at-risk communities that live among us. Your sacrifice of limiting your activities and interactions is helping to block the pathways of contagion. The fewer avenues for the virus to pass through, the better off we will all be. And the sooner we will contain the virus and be able to return to normal living.
Focus On Human “Being” As Much As Human “Doing”
We are living in unprecedented times, and we need all hands on deck. We need to take care of ourselves and take care of each other. We need to hold ourselves accountable, and offer support where we can. We need to hold each other in compassion and be open and receptive to a new way of living for the greater good.
Anxieties are high. The circumstances are changing with monumental speed. We need to be aware of the latest recommendations while being equally aware of our own minds and behaviors as we adjust and adapt. We need patience and compassion toward ourselves and the situation we are dealing with. We need to acknowledge the feelings we are experiencing and give them the respect they deserve.
When you are having trouble focusing, or you find yourself catastrophizing about the state of the world, or you can’t peel yourself off the couch and away from Netflix, ask yourself: What emotions you are avoiding?
Take a deep breath and feel in your body where that anxiety is living.
Say “Thank you for trying to protect me.”
Then reassure it with “right now, everything is okay.”
These simple practices:
- Acknowledging That Anxiety Is Helpful
- Taking Notes to Reduce Overwhelm
- Calming the Mind & Body With Simple Yoga Poses
- Reducing Anxiety With Breathing Exercises
- Practicing Meditation (and Embracing Compassion)
will help you cultivate a deeper sense of inner-awareness. They will create resilience and inner peace to make you a valuable and enduring presence so you can weather any storm that arises.
Be well and be mindful.