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Managing stress through mindfulness

Woman drinking tea and writing in journal looking out window.

Stress is all around us. It is a reaction to anything that disturbs our physical or mental balance. A near-miss accident, a distressing phone call from a client, a forgotten item at the grocery store, a child’s crying—all of these things can cause stress. A little stress, “acute stress,” can be exciting—think of riding a roller coaster, planning a wedding or big trip, or skydiving. Acute stress keeps us active and alert.

Unmanaged stress can lead to poor health, addictive behaviors, relationship distress, emotional and behavioral consequences, and burnout—a condition all too familiar to child welfare professionals.

Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, resentful, and alone. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give. In short, burnout prevents you from doing your job. Because you cannot help children feel a sense of calm and safety when you are not feeling it yourself.

One way to address the effects of stress: live in the present

Mindfulness is a fairly simple way to practice daily living in the present.
Being present changes the way we think, what we think about, and even our very capacity to think. Fretting about the past—“shoulda, coulda, woulda”—is not useful and doesn’t change anything. Worrying about the future doesn’t solve today’s problems. When we are in the present moment, we can act with integrity to right our past mistakes and missteps and take time to plan for the future in a more thoughtful, positive, and productive way.

10 tips to help keep calm and centered in the present moment

  1. Breathe. The breath is a beautiful tool: no equipment necessary and it’s with you wherever you go. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system—the brakes of our nervous system. Deep breaths lower your heart rate and blood pressure.

    Try this quick breathing “time out”: Take a moment to feel your feet on the floor, steady, grounded. Inhale through your nose, slowly, to a count of four. Fill your lungs and your belly with your breath and hold that breath to a count of four. Exhale gently, slowly, through your nose, to a count of eight, completely emptying your lungs. Repeat two or three times. Notice the feeling in your body. Are you breathing more evenly? Do you feel a little calmer? You can find more deep breathing exercises on meditation apps, including Insight Timer, HeadSpace, and Calm.
  2. Flip the script. Our thoughts often pull us out of the present moment. Sadly, few of us have a steady inner dialogue of peace and affirmation. That inner dialogue is more often evaluating, judging, disapproving, and regretting. Take action on those things you can: apologize, repair relationships, right a past wrong if you can. Then let go of the rest. Worry and regret do not solve problems or change the world; it is not helpful to hold onto that stress.
  3. Focus on facts. There is a great deal of uncertainty in the world today, which only adds to our feelings of unease and anxiety. Get real, accurate information, and act accordingly. Check multiple sources, then verify through a reliable fact-checking resource.
  4. Social distancing is smart and healthy; social isolation is not. Isolation can increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Find ways to keep in contact with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. FaceTime, Zoom, and What’sApp are just a few free online platforms that help to bring people together. Set up a virtual group breakfast, lunch date, or happy hour. A simple phone call works, too.
  5. Stay active. Find ways to move your body and engage your mind. Join a group activity challenge or challenge yourself: stand up and stretch once an hour; go up and down your stairs five times per hour; or count how many times you can do the stairs in five minutes. Take a quick tour around the outside of your house. If you need more challenge, time how fast you do it. But it’s not just about an active body – keep your mind active, too. Play word search or number puzzles, Scrabble or Words with Friends online—you’ll engage with friends and engage your brain.
  6. Try meditation or yoga. These practices focus on quieting the mind and integrating mind, body, and spirit. The goal is to center and calm. Many people think they can’t meditate. The truth is, you can begin with a very simple practice, such as the simple “time out” meditation in my first tip. Don’t pressure yourself to be good at meditation. Simply try it for five minutes. Yoga is another meditative practice. Contrary to what most people think, there is no need to be flexible or stretchy—the poses are merely a way to feel present in your body. Do what feels useful and accessible for your body. You can find myriad free yoga videos online.
  7. Eat healthy. Nourish your body. Certain foods and beverages can increase anxiety, stress the body, and dull the brain. Be aware of your intake and try to limit caffeine, fats, sugars, and alcohol. Drink more water and eat fruits and vegetables of all colors.
  8. Get quality sleep. That’s not always easy. Being stressed often makes it more difficult to sleep peacefully. Lack of sleep can lead to mental and physical health issues, and leaves us feeling tired, grumpy, and stressed. It’s a tough cycle to break. Integrating one or more of the previous practices could help to improve the quality of your sleep. In addition: evaluate your room for temperature, light, and noise; invest in a quality mattress and pillows; and avoid electronics before bed.
  9. Accentuate the positive. All too often we focus on how we’ve fallen short or failed. Change your frame—focus on the positive things in your life. Acknowledge and celebrate a goal you’ve reached, a loving interaction you’ve had, or a tough task completed.
  10. Be creative:
    • Coloring has been shown to calm the mind much as meditation does. Search online for free coloring pages for adults, or simply let your-self doodle and play with colors, shapes and lines.
    • Cooking can be calming and meditative.Use all of your senses to fully experience the foods you are cooking: feel the fuzziness of a peach in your hand, notice the slight sting in your eye when chopping an onion, inhale the aroma of spices.
    • Gardening is literally grounding. Sketch out a plan on paper while waiting for the weather to cooperate. Play with colors, textures, and a variety of sizes and shapes.

These simple techniques will not give you 40 more hours in the week or bring every child permanency. However, practicing mindfulness can help you reduce the stress and anxiety you may feel watching the news and interacting with clients who themselves have heightened anxiety and stress, and ultimately better serve and support children and families.

I hope that you will give mindfulness a try! I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Maynard is an implementation specialist for the National Adoption Competence Mental Health Training Initiative (NTI) at the Center for Adoption Support and Education. She is also a certified yoga and meditation teacher.