Many of us are now engaged in school work from home and may feel derailed by negative thoughts, strained focus, and feelings of loneliness. Knowing that these challenges are normal and that we are not alone in experiencing them can comfort us. With some mindset tweaks and practices, we can overcome these challenges and discomforts. Mindfulness practice is defined as paying attention to a particular purpose without any judgement. For example, when we do an activity we really enjoy, we feel completely immersed in it and nothing else matters. Even if we make a mistake, we keep on going without being critical. When we are engaged in the present moment in this manner, we avoid dwelling on the past or feeling anxious about the future. It is important to note that the goal of mindfulness is not to suppress, deny, or avoid feelings that come up, but to help us navigate them. Some practices are outlined below.
Managing negative thoughts can be tricky, because our minds are easily overtaken with the strong emotions that emerge from these thoughts. Negative thoughts can leave us spiraling away from reality into assumptions and irrational thoughts and behaviours. This means that we are acting from the emotional centre of our brain instead of the rational, thinking part. Staying present in the current moment prevents us from getting carried away. Below are some techniques that can help manage negative thoughts.
When we notice a negative thought:
1) become aware and acknowledge it
2) refrain from judging this thought or labeling it as good or bad (or anything in-between)
3) avoid getting on the train of that thought — don’t go any further
4) take a few deep breaths as this will activate the rational-thinking part of the brain
5) let this thought go and choose a different thought
Additionally, it can be helpful to notice if certain activities or media streams that we engage in are triggering these negative thoughts. There may be an opportunity here to distance ourselves from these triggers and to choose different activities and media to expose ourselves to. For example, limit watching the news on TV and choose to watch an inspiring TED talk or read a book instead.
A wavering level of focus is natural as we are now studying from home. Different environments bring different distractions and being aware of this can help us be kinder to ourselves as we adjust. Mindfulness practices can strengthen our focus and build concentration as we work to keep our attention in the current moment.
How to improve focus:
Short micropractice - Seize the moment. This practice can re-ground us instantly and shift our attention to the present moment. Here's how to do it: (three seconds inhale and three seconds exhale for each breath)
First breath: Bring awareness to the breath (notice how the breath feels and where in your body you feel it)
Second breath: Relax the body (release your jaw, drop your shoulders, and relax your forehead)
Third breath: Ask yourself "what's important now?"
During this time, experiencing moments of deep loneliness is normal. This can be uncomfortable because, simply put, we are living in a very different time right now. Supporting ourselves with self-compassion at this time is vital. Scientific studies have demonstrated that practicing self-compassion is highly beneficial when we are faced with setbacks and challenges. How do you practice self-compassion? Think of how you would speak to a close friend who is going through a challenging time. Often, we speak more harshly to ourselves and more kindly to others, so it’s important that we don’t judge ourselves for feeling however we may be feeling.
Strategies to try:
1. Self-Compassion Journaling. With a pen and paper, set a timer for five minutes and write what comes to mind based on this prompt:
“Imagine writing a letter to yourself from the perspective of a close friend or loved one. They know you very well and want the best for you. What would they say to you about the challenges you are facing?”
Take a minute to read what you wrote to yourself. How does this change the way you view your current challenges? Perhaps you wrote yourself a mini-pep talk here that you can tape to your mirror and re-read when needed.
2. Supportive Touch. Touch activates the parasympathetic nervous system in our body. This is the system which allows us to feel calm, safe, and comforted. Physical gestures of warmth and care can be extended to ourselves with supportive touch.
To do this:
Step 1: Put your hands on your heart or stomach
Step 2: Take 2-3 deep satisfying breaths
Step 3: Feel the touch, pay attention to the sensations you are experiencing (maybe warmth, tingling, softness, etc.)
Continue to do this as long as you need and note that this can be especially helpful when trying to sleep. Additionally, although we are encouraged to refrain from in-person social interactions, we are still able to engage virtually. Feel free to phone a family member, or set up a video call with friends. You can cook together, play board games online, or even watch a movie together!
Keep in mind that the situation we are facing is different and new, so allowing more time to acknowledge any emotions, feelings, and thoughts that arise can be beneficial. It is okay if your levels of productivity change. If we continuously jam pack our days, we may end up emotionally and physically burnt out. In other words, create more time to ‘be’ instead of ‘do’. Managing negative thoughts prevent us from spiraling into ‘what if’ scenarios and allow us to stay focused on what we can control. Building our focus can support better concentration to continue accomplishing tasks and managing distractions. Lastly, feeling lonely is absolutely normal. Practicing self-compassion as well as reaching out to friends and family can help ease this discomfort. The present moment carries a lot of power. From this moment we can engage with others and ourselves with more kindness, compassion, and courage.