“It’s just not the same,” a friend said to me the other day about an activity her kids were doing online instead of in-person. Not the same. That pretty much captures every aspect of our lives right now, doesn’t it? The concept of adaptation has taken on a whole new flavor. If it were an ice cream, we might call it "Monkey Mind Swirl" or "Upheavals-n-Scream." [Yes, you may roll your eyes at these – and I dare you to come up with your own flavor]. We are living new lives, with limited certainty and stability. We are making choices the likes of which few on our planet are equipped to make with ease or competency. Our options often feel less than optimal. We are on unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground, expectations recalibrating by the minute. Not the same. What can we do when life is up in the air, and feels like a shadow of what it was? When it’s hard to breathe, the pressure heavy, the loneliness palpable, the anxiety and worry thick? When “planning” has become a moving target? Outside of the basics like taking good and compassionate care of ourselves, reaching out for help and connection, and screaming up to the heavens?
Here’s one essential action: WE CAN HIT PAUSE. We need to hit pause. To interrupt the freaking-out brain, the frantic heart. To stop feeding our negative thoughts & emotions as soon as we are aware we’re experiencing them. Here’s the deal: While our initial negative reactions are often valid – fear and anxiety around COVID, anyone? -- their purpose of making us aware that something big is afoot is complete within seconds.
Outside of grief, do not give any negative thoughts and feelings extra airtime or attempt to negotiate or problem solve with them in the mix. Instead, interrupt and disempower them by taking a mini mental fitness break (15 seconds or longer, if luxury allows), several times throughout your day. While you’re still in bed or going to bed. While you’re having your morning coffee or tea. Just before hopping on a work call or starting your day with energetic kids. While washing your hands (lots of opportunities here).
Image attributed to Frontiers for Young Minds
What do I mean by a mental fitness break?
A break filled with one or more exercises designed to
build your brain’s self-command muscles,
so you come to be in control of your mind and
not the other way around.
Aligned with but distinct from meditation,
these exercises are about purposefully
shifting your brain’s focus,
rerouting its familiar neural pathways, and
training it to go somewhere else on command…
somewhere better for handling life’s challenges.
Sample Mental Fitness Exercises:
1. Take conscious breaths with total awareness placed on labeling or counting each breath, or on listening only to the sound of your breath.
2. If breathing isn’t your thing, any exercise that has you train your awareness on a single sense or sensation can do this for you. For example, focus ONLY on:
One thing you can see, noticing every detail, color, texture, light, or shadow
The farthest or closest sound you can hear (I like to focus on bird sounds)
The feel of your palms rubbing against one another or just your thumb and forefinger doing the same, noticing the sensation of touch
Do these exercises when your mind is a-swirl and also when it isn’t so you can build up your brain’s capacity to exit a negative mindset on demand. When we’re in a “nothing is the same” perspective, comparing how life used to be to how it is now; when we’re anxiously ruminating over the what-ifs of the future; then we’re not actually here in the moment. It’s like an out of body experience. The invitation is to come back to now. These times demand the best of us, so the best of us must be on hand. When we allow ourselves to look at this time, any time, through a continual filter of disappointment, comparison, anxiety, negative future projection, avoidance, or other fear-based ‘survival brain’ reaction, we literally cannot access our best-self qualities like resourcefulness, curiosity, empathy, creativity, purpose, and laser focus…all found in an entirely different part of our brain. And we can’t live well or fulfilled in the now, the only real time we have with ourselves, with any loved ones, where life is happening. Getting ourselves out of the muck zone, out of overdrive, and into neutral can be hard, but it starts with something as simple as taking micro mental fitness breaks as soon as we notice we’re in the swirl of negativity. You can feel the swirl in your body if you pay attention – for me, it’s usually tightness in my stomach and heart and pain behind my eyes. You can also hear it in redundant monkey mind thoughts and in language you use that makes you feel bad or worse. Pepper these breaks throughout your day and work up to 15 minutes total.You deserve these peaceful moments, and your mind needs them to build up powerful gray matter.
We’re climbing a proverbial Mt. Everest when it comes to the challenges of our times and our brains need training to handle it. Most of us are undoubtedly hard-pressed right now to keep our minds in a positive, resilient, creative mindset. Mental fitness exercises are a solid, research-backed way to get us up and over this mountain of a life challenge.
Let's make our next life ice cream flavor something like “Butter Peak-ON.” [I heard that groan].