Mindful practices shared by Foundations counselor, Kate Bellingar, MA, LPC, NCC
As many of us can feel, the world is an unprecedented time of adjustment, stress, and uncertainty. You may already be doing some things to take care of yourself. If you’re looking for more, here are some of my favorite mindfulness and self-care strategies for coping with additional stress.
I encourage you to find creative ways to integrate these strategies into what you’re already doing at work, at home, and in your various roles and relationships. Rather than trying to carve out big chunks of additional time, think of these practices as resting in motion, continuing to do what you need to do with all of the hats you’re having to wear at once while still taking care of you.
Some of this information may seem basic or obvious. I think that’s important because, in times of high stress when we’re doing all we can to take care of other people, our own basic needs may be the first to go. I hope to draw attention and appreciation to the things you’re already doing, and that you take away at least one additional idea to add to your toolbox.
In times of high stress and uncertainty, we can forget to breathe, and especially forget to exhale. So take a second, notice how you’re breathing, and be sure exhale. This content is experiential, meaning I hope you will practice along with me in the videos or text as I go through various exercises. It might feel silly, but these practices are much more useful if you try them now rather than watch or read about them now and maybe try them later.
The Green Dot Exercise
The green dot exercise helps us recognize when we’re forgetting to breathe. It comes from the story of a man who was feeling stressed and burned out at work. Someone advised him to put a green dot sticker on the receiver of his office phone. Each time he saw the sticker, it reminded him to take a full breath. After a few weeks of consistently doing so, he noticed a massive shift in his energy, focus, and overall well-being.
Look around your workspace and pick something you might use as your own green dot, something you look at often like your clock or phone or computer monitor. Each time you see it, use it as a cue to remind you to exhale while you continue doing whatever you’re doing. You can also use a task cue as a green dot, like every time you refresh your email or enter your password.
The Folding Paper Exercise
Take a second to grab a scrap piece of paper. We’re not going to ruin it, we’re just going to fold it. When you have your piece of paper ready, watch the following video:
What did you notice about the difference between the first and second times? Most people find the second time to be easier and quicker.
This is the same thing that happens in our brains when we practice mindfulness. It’s called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change over time. If our response to stress is to get more stressed and feel a sense of urgency, that is a pathway in our brain that has been folded over and over.
Each time we practice mindfulness, we crease down a new fold, like walking a new path through a field of grass. Although it takes effort and practice in the beginning, if we walk that same path over and over it will become like a well-worn dirt path in the grass or a firmly creased fold. It will be easier and quicker to use when we need it, and new grass will begin to grow across the old path.
These aren’t instant miracle solutions. We’re all still probably going to feel stressed and overwhelmed, but we’ll have more options and ways to check in with ourselves and manage stress. Even if you don’t start practicing these things regularly, they’re good to have in your toolbox for later use.
Psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer of Harvard University said, “Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it either mindfully or mindlessly. The consequences of being in one state of mind or the other are enormous.”
There are many beneficial ways to practice mindfulness, some of which involve meditation, but many of which do not. Mindfulness also isn’t about feeling calm and good and zen, although that can be a powerful outcome of practicing regularly. My favorite definition of mindfulness is the simple act of actively noticing things. Another common definition is paying attention to the present moment without judgement.
Disclaimer: this can be difficult. It may involve sitting with and being curious about things we don’t like feeling, like the self-doubt and uncertainty we might feel when we’re trying to figure out how to do our jobs well while working from home, separated from our coworkers, and taking care of others. If you try these exercises and don’t feel calm and zen, you’re not doing it wrong. Actively noticing the present moment can be uncomfortable. And lastly, like in the paper folding exercise, mindfulness is a skill. It can be learned and practiced.
Ideas for Actively Noticing
Next time you go for a walk, notice the sky or the plants or the animals. What sounds do you hear? What does the air feel like against your skin? At your next meal, notice the color, smell, taste, and texture of your food. What is the lighting like in your workspace? What is the temperature? What can you hear? At home or over video conference, pay attention to a loved one’s facial expression and body language, notice the color of their eyes. Do the same with a pet. Challenge yourself to notice something new about the people and places you see every day.
When you commit to noticing things in your daily life, you become more creative in finding solutions and seeing multiple options. Actively noticing also helps identify and eliminate solutions that used to work well but no longer apply because of how the situation has changed. As a result, you’ll experience less frustration, more confidence, better outcomes, a greater sense of accomplishment.
This happens because as you begin to notice your daily experiences more closely, you become aware that you may not know them as well as you originally thought. You start to notice things you didn’t notice before, which naturally draws your attention to new ways of understanding and responding.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise
In this exercise, we use our five senses to practice actively notice our surroundings.
What did you notice? Did you notice anything you hadn’t before? How did you feel? What was happening in your mind? Do you feel differently now than before you started the exercise?
Breathing Changes How We Feel
A quick way to be mindful of our body is to pay attention to how we are breathing. The way we breathe impacts the way we feel. Our breath can actually change our physiological state, change what is happening in our bodies. By intentionally changing the way we breath, we can make ourselves more stressed with a higher sense of urgency, or we can lessen our body’s stress response to induce a sense of calm.
The autonomic nervous system regulates our body’s unconscious processes like digestion, heart rate, and dilating our pupils. It’s divided into two branches, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system gets our body ready for action. It’s responsible for our fight and flight response, our body’s reactions to stress and threat. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest,” system, our body’s response to safety. To maintain balance, our body goes back and forth between these two systems as we breathe. When we breathe in, we activate our sympathetic nervous system and when we breathe out, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. A long, slow exhale calms our nervous system, lowers our reactivity to stress, and decreases anxiety.
Can you guess when we naturally have the longest exhales? Watch the video to find out.
The following breathing exercises can be done pretty discreetly without those around you noticing. They’re good to practice while you heat up your lunch, when you’re watching a webinar, or between calls or meetings to help you reset your nervous system and manage stress.
Belly Breathing vs. Chest Breathing
There are generally two ways we can breathe: into our chests or into our bellies. Many of us learned to breathe into our chests because that’s where our lungs are. Our chests expand when we breathe in, and go back down when we breathe out. It makes sense, but chest breathing is also known as shallow or anxious breathing. The goal is to take full, deep breaths into your diaphragm, which is located just below your lungs and heart. You want your belly to expand with each inhale instead of your chest.
Place one hand on your belly just above your belly button. Place your other hand on your upper chest. Relax your abdomen, get comfortable. Breathe in through your nose, imagine breathing into the bottom of your lungs, filling them downward and expanding your belly. It may be helpful to imagine having a balloon in your stomach. Blow up the balloon with each inhale. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth like you’re blowing a bubble. Feel your belly move inward on the exhale, pushing all the air back out of the balloon. This is a full belly breath.
Your diaphragm is a muscle and may take some time to strengthen. When we start using a muscle in a new way, we might overcompensate with other ones. Often when we start belly breathing, we’ll pull our shoulders up. Try to relax your shoulders. It may take some practice.
The Box Breathing Exercise
Box breathing is a breathing technique used by the navy seals before and after intense combat. You breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four, and then hold for four before breathing in again. Do that four times in a row. Practice along with the video below:
The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
Another breathing technique is called 4-7-8. You inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and exhale slowly to a count of 8. Do that four times in a row. To avoid getting light-headed, it may be helpful to start with 2-5-6 or 3-6-7. When you’re comfortable breathing in that way, build up to 4-7-8.