Turning Fear into Resilience in the Time of the Coronavirus

Rick Hanson recently produced a Being Well Podcast focused on Fear in the Time of the Coronavirus.  He provided strategies to deal with fear (both rational and irrational) and to convert fear to resilience by drawing on our inner resources – determination, true grit, courage and creativity.  Rick is the author of Resilient: Find your inner Strength and provides numerous resources on his website to help us develop resilience, wisdom, happiness and mindful relationships.  

His emphasis is on building personal agency.  With the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives and reducing our sense of control over our home and work environment, we are experiencing a loss of our “sense of agency”.   We often try to redress this lack of a sense of agency by adopting ineffective ways to regain control over our environments, e.g. panic buying of water, toilet paper and sanitisers.  We can feel helpless and, in consequence, resort to ways of coping that result in misplaced and unproductive effort.

Anxiety can operate on a number of dimensions – e.g. unhelpful or useful anxiety.  At the extreme, we can be too anxious (disabled by our fear) which is unhelpful and harmful to our mental health, overall wellness and our relationships.  Useful anxiety, the mind’s warning system, can create a sense of urgency/intense focus and stimulate constructive action and a strong sense of agency which, in turn, cultivates resilience.  Alternatively, we can be consumed by our sense of helplessness and end up “marinating in it” – to the point where we experience depression and the associated inertia.

Turning fear into resilience

Rick suggest three processes you can adopt to move from helplessness to a sense of agency and personal resilience.  The basic steps involve:

  1. Being fully with your current experience – facing your difficult thoughts and emotions and the reality of the challenges both present and ahead.  This means naming your feelings (such as anxiety, pain, fear, frustration) and being with them, not denying them out of a need to appear totally in control.  It means not giving into your “shoulds” that come with your absolutes.  It is human and normal to be anxious and fearful when confronted with the reality of the Coronavirus.  The choice lies in deciding whether to maintain a sense of helplessness or to move towards a sense of agency and control.
  2. Release thoughts and emotions that are harmful – This includes letting go of obsessive thinking and the endless cycle of “what if” (catastrophising).  It means to treat our emotions as data informing us about a threat to our wellbeing.  We are more than our thoughts and emotions.  It means avoiding absorption with the latest media posts and news, when we cannot do anything about the reported information, or the situations involved.   The reporting is typically sensationalist, alarmist and distorted and is designed to induce fear and dependence.  Don’t sweat the news for your own personal welfare and mental health.
  3. Shift your attention to what would be beneficial for you and others you interact with or service – this means focusing on what you can do in the situation, given all the constraints that you are experiencing.  It means moving from inertness to being creative in the way you spend your time – finding things to focus on and do that are helpful to yourself, your family and those you interact with.  This could involve rethinking your workday, using online communication technology (such as Zoom) or reengineering your business (adopting take-away options, providing delivery services, or switching manufacturing to a much-needed resource in the current crisis, e.g. rum and gin distilleries producing bottles of sanitisers).  The oft-spoken saying – “necessity is the mother of invention” – is particularly true at this time.  The opportunity exists to use this time of social isolation, social distancing and business lockdown to develop new horizons and new skills.  Adopting activities that promote a positive mindset can be helpful here.

Tools to overcome unhelpful anxiety

Rick offered a range of suggestions that can enable you to overcome harmful anxiety and move to proactive action to do things that are beneficial for yourself and others.

  1. Use your breathing to calm your body – Rick suggests taking three breaths (exhalation longer than inhalation, giving a resting state of the body).  There are multiple ways you can use your breath to calm yourself and restore your equanimity, e.g. the somatic awareness approach recommended by Jill Satterfield or “breathing in time” suggested by Richard Wolf.
  2. Tune into your inner strength – revisit your determination, courage, and resilience to strengthen your inner reserves.  It can be helpful here to visualise success in your adaptive endeavours and/or reflect on past experiences where you have drawn on these personal strengths to overcome adversity or seemingly impossible challenges.
  3. Social support – appreciating the care and support that others show towards you, including your partner, family, friends and colleagues.   It also extends to caring for others and engaging others in the process of caring and providing social support to the less fortunate.
  4. Plan and act – appraise the situation and plan some action, however small, that will move you forward.  Rick reinforces the view that “action forces out anxiety”.  Positive action can change our mental state.
  5. When you feel okay, internalize the feeling – we tend to take it for granted that we will feel okay.  However, in times of stress and uncertainty, it is important to notice when you are feeling okay and internalise this feeling of coping well to strengthen it.  This positive self-feedback builds self-efficacy which means that you are building up your belief in your capacity to manage stressful situations.

Reflection

Fear can be disabling if we let it grow unabated.  It is natural to feel anxiety and fear when things are so uncertain, and everything associated with our normal life seems out of our control.  Fear, however, can be harmful unless we look at it fully in the face and understand what it is telling us about the situation we find ourselves in.  There are ways to calm our mind, emotions and our body if we choose.  There are also constructive things that we can do to manage our situation and our emotional response.  As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can turn fear into resilience by being able to regulate our response and draw on our inner strength to meet the challenges with determination, courage and creativity.

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Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

In the very early stages of this blog I discussed Tai Chi as a pathway to mindfulness.  I also highlighted the challenges I experienced in maintaining daily practice of Tai Chi along with meditation and writing this blog, when I still had a range of professional and personal  commitments to fulfill on a regular basis.   I concluded then that keeping the benefits of Tai Chi at the forefront of my mind, aligning my Tai Chi practice with the timing of my highest energy levels (I’m a morning person) and continuously reading and writing about Tai Chi would build my motivation for daily practice.

In 2018, I explored the benefits of Tai Chi for the mind-body connection based mainly on research that had been conducted at various centres of research at UCLA such as those focused on psychoneuroimmunology and East-West Medicine. This current post highlights the work of Dr. Peter Wayne who is associated with the Harvard Medical School.

Peter Wayne, who has spent decades practising, studying and researching Tai Chi, stresses the power of Tai Chi to deepen the mind-body connection.  Peter is the Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the founder of The Tree of Life Tai Chi Center

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

In 2013, Peter published a book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, summarizing the research around Tai Chi and highlighting what he calls the “eight active ingredients of Tai Chi” which he had developed through his own research and the teaching of Tai Chi Masters.   These ingredients focus on the “biological mechanisms” that contribute to the wide-ranging benefits of Tai Chi including those related to cognition, breathing and neuromuscular control.  Peter points out that this focus on active ingredients helps him in multiple ways – in shaping a curriculum for teaching Tai Chi, in communicating with members of the medical profession and in establishing clinical trials.

In an interview with Dan Kleiman about his research and teaching, Peter explained that his early study of evolutionary biology and ecological modelling helped him to develop a systems perspective that is holistic in orientation and strongly akin to Chinese Medicine.  His orientation to integrative medicine and his mind-body perspective on Tai Chi flow from this early academic training and related research experience.  In a technical presentation Neuroscience in the Body: Perspectives at the Periphery, Peter highlights the downside of having multiple medical specialisations that contribute to “reductionist thinking” and blind us to the whole-body benefits of interventions such as Tai Chi.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi identified in his book highlight his integrative, systems perspective:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Intention
  3. Structural integration
  4. Relaxation (of the mind and body)
  5. Strengthening and building flexibility
  6. Freer breathing
  7. Social interaction and community (if done in a group)
  8. Embodied philosophy and ritual.

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

Peter explained in his interview with Dan Kleiman that the integrative nature of Tai Chi and its capacity to deepen the mind-body connection is demonstrated in the focus on mindful breathing (which is common to all martial arts).  He pointed out that mindful breathing requires improved posture; positively impacts your nervous system, cardiovascular system and mood; and stills what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” through enhancing the power of focus.  In Peter’s view, an ecological perspective on health recognises that all these processes of body and mind are intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In his neuroscience presentation mentioned above, Peter described Tai Chi as a “multi-component mind-body exercise”.  He stressed the interaction of mind-body through Tai Chi by stating that it “integrates slow intentional movement with breathing and multiple cognitive skills”. The cognitive skills he refers to include body awareness, focus and visioning using imagery.

He illustrated the benefits of the mind-body connection involved in Tai Chi by mentioning several research studies that show two key outcomes (1) the primary risk factor in falls of people over 65 is “fear of falling” and (2) Tai Chi has been shown to reduce the fear of falling by 35%.  Tai Chi achieves this result not only by strengthening muscles and improving coordination and sensation (especially in the feet), but also by reducing falling anxiety, increasing exercise self-efficacy and improving the “executive function” of the brain.  Peter suggests that Tai Chi is a “gateway exercise” – increasing people’s confidence to try other things that lead to overall wellbeing.

Reflection

Research into the impacts of Tai Chi reinforce its power to improve our mind and body and the mind-body connection that is so critical for daily functioning, quality of life and longevity.  I have already identified the personal benefits that motivate me to practise Tai Chi.  However, Peter’s research and presentation has increased my desire to improve the frequency of my Tai Chi practice. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection, the impacts of our thinking and self-stories on our intentions and the blockages that impede putting our resolutions into effect, particularly at this time of the year (with the start of 2020).  I can look forward to improved Tai Chi practice and the multiple personal benefits that can accrue (not the least of these being to improve my tennis game!).

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Image by Antonika Chanel from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Naomi Osaka – Mindfulness in Action

Naomi Osaka won the Women’s Singles Championship at the 2019 Australian Open on Saturday 26th January, beating Petra Kvitová (winner of two Grand Slam titles). In winning the championship, Naomi became the first Japanese tennis player to win the Australian Open and the first Japanese player to become No.1 in the world. In reflecting on her mindful approach to her recent matches and her achievements, I have become very conscious of the level of mindfulness she has attained at such a young age (21 at this tournament). Her advanced level of mindfulness is reflected in her resilience, capacity to handle negative thoughts and emotions and her strong sense of gratitude which enables her to stay grounded.

Resilience – capacity to bounce back in the face of setbacks or adversity

Naomi was serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, having won the first set. Despite three match points in that game, she was unable to win the second set. Her disappointment was palpable – she left the court after the set with a towel over her head to hide her tears. However, she was able to settle herself in the break before the third set and to to resume the match with a new resolve and focus that enabled her to lift her game and go on to win the match and the Championship.

In overcoming the setback when she served-for-the-match at the end of the second set, Naomi had to deal with two conflicting challenges that beset the best champions in these circumstances – (1) anticipating the result (she so wanted to be No. 1 in the world that she could almost see and feel what it would be like) and (2) her negative thoughts and emotions resulting from missing her opportunity to close out the second set.

Her capacity to bounce back shows her resilience when having to deal with disappointment following a setback. This resilience was also in evidence when she was able to win the US Open five months earlier, despite the bad behaviour of her tennis idol and opponent, Sarina Williams – behaviour which was both unsettling and distracted attention from Naomi’s wonderful achievement.

Overcoming negative thoughts and emotions

Naomi was distressed at not being able to serve out the match at the end of the second set. It would have been easy to continue to entertain the negative thoughts that were going through her head, “I was so close and missed my opportunity”; “Why did I serve so poorly?”; and “I’m not going to win now or be No.1 in the world”.

Naomi took time to get centred again and to control her negative thoughts and emotions. She reminded herself that she had come back from being behind and that she could regain her ascendency (building on a very strong sense of self-efficacy).

It is so easy to entertain negative thoughts and emotions to a point where they disable us. However, Naomi reported that in the third set she put her emotions aside (self-regulation) and focused on playing each point. Even when she made mistakes in the third set, she used one of her anchors to shake free of her negative thoughts and emotions – she could be observed shaking her head from side to side, taking a temporary pause or a few deep breaths.

Naomi revealed in an earlier interview that she is an avid online gamer, a passion she enjoys with her sister. She described gaming not only as an alternative pursuit for up to four hours a day, but also as a way to reframe her tennis matches. She describes this unique anchor as follows:

I just feel like I know [tennis] is sort of my job and, like, if I were to say it, like, in a gaming term, then it’s sort of a mission that I have to complete. Um, so yeah. I just sort of tune everything out and just try my best to complete the mission.

Naomi demonstrated what it takes to be a mindful tennis champion through her demeanour, her self-awareness and self-regulation and her capacity to manage her inner dialogue. Her sense of gratitude is another trait that belies her youthful age and demonstrates her advanced level of mindfulness.

Gratitude – a way to stay grounded

Naomi mentioned in one of her interviews that she had visited Haiti, the homeland of her father. This visit had a significant effect on her, not so much for her treatment as a hero and a publicly acclaimed sports ambassador for Haiti, but more for the profound sense of gratitude she experienced after seeing the abject poverty of the Haitian people.

This strong sense of the deprivation of others in her father’s homeland, made her appreciate how much she herself had – not only her natural talent as a tennis player and the opportunity to develop it, but also having the basic things in her life (a home, loving and supportive family, food to eat and water on tap).

Naomi reported that her sense of gratitude helped to ground her and enable her to stay in-the-moment, to really appreciate everything she had and to be able to absorb losses. She indicated in an interview that her sense of gratitude helped her to deal with the disappointment of losing the second set. She reminded herself that she was playing a final against a champion tennis player in Petra Kvitová and told herself:

I can’t let myself act immature in a way. I should be grateful to be here and that is what I tried to be.

As we grow in mindfulness, through developing self-awareness and self-regulation, we can build the resilience to handle the stresses in our life, manage our negative thoughts and emotions and be truly grateful for what we have in life. Having simple mindfulness anchors can help us to be more in-the-moment and less controlled by our emotions that can sometimes blind and disable us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Savoring Your Achievements and Rewards

In his recent article on savoring practices, Barry Bryce, editor of mindful.org, suggests that we could savour our achievements and associated rewards to develop our mindfulness.

So often we move from one form of achievement to another – we might be writing, developing, creating, encouraging, inspiring or contributing on an ongoing basis.  These achievements can be in any arena of our lives – work, home or community.  We become so busy “doing” that we fail to savor the moment and the achievement involved.

According to the living Oxford Dictionary, an achievement is:

A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

So an achievement is no mean feat – it is something requiring effort, skill and/or courage that has a successful outcome.  It is interesting that many people when asked to share an achievement have difficulty identifying one.  However, when helped to explore their work and life, they are sometimes able to list a number of achievements.  This indicates that personal achievements are not “top of mind” and are rarely savored.

Savoring your achievements

Part of the problem is that people often think that acknowledging and/or sharing achievements is boasting – a term that has many negative connotations and a very strong association with stereotypes.  While this perspective may prevent you from sharing your achievements publicly, it should not stop you from savoring them privately.

Savoring an achievement develops appreciation and gratitude for the gifts, skills, opportunities, resources and support that we so often take for granted.  It can build self-confidence and self-efficacy (the belief in our capacity to successfully undertake a specific task).  It enables us to grow in mindfulness as we increase our awareness in-the-moment of how we have used our skills, effort and/or courage to accomplish some outcome.  If the intent of savoring the achievement is to express appreciation and gratitude, this deepens our mindful practice.

Savoring our own achievements builds a positive perspective, reduces the possibility of envy and helps us to  acknowledge and appreciate the achievements of others.

Savoring your rewards

We can savor the rewards associated with our achievements by firstly identifying them and then appreciating them.  Rewards may take the form of intrinsic satisfaction, external recognition, a sense of purpose and contribution, physical or monetary outcomes, positive emotions, or increased connection with other people and/or our community.

Rewards are reinforcing – they strengthen our self-belief, encourage us to further achievements and increase the likelihood that we will be successful again.  Savoring rewards keeps these outcomes at the forefront of our minds and provides motivation for further achievement.

A personal reflection on savoring

In reflecting on what I have written above, I suddenly realised that I have been savoring achievement in one area of my life for many years – in playing tennis.  During a game of tennis, I try to remember at least one shot that I executed very well and achieved what I set out to achieve.  I now have a video archive in my head of numerous shots that I value as achievements – they involved the successful exercise of effort and skill, and sometimes, courage.  I learnt early on in playing tennis that part of the mental game of tennis is to focus on what you do right, not what you do wrong.  For me, one of the consistent rewards of these achievements, that I truly savor, is the sense of competence that I experience.  Another reward that I savor is reinforcement of my ability to execute a specific shot very well, e.g. a half-volley, a topspin lob or a drive volley.

If you practice savoring your achievements and the associated rewards, you will grow in mindfulness and increase your ability to be fully present in the moment. The development of mindfulness brings its own rewards of calm, clarity, creativity and consideration of others.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Pezibear on Pixabay