As we head into winter, many Americans are poised to fall into a state of mental crisis. Our stress levels constantly are being elevated by worry about pandemic spikes, the strain of job loss or increased workload, the need to once again reschedule vacation plans, trying to figure out virtual learning, taking care of family, the divisive political environment, societal unrest, etc. These stressors trigger an alarm state, which puts us into fight, flight and freeze mode and basically shuts down the thinking part of our brains. When in this state, we tend to be reactive, impulsive, irritable, confrontational and anxious. And it could even compromise our immune systems.
This warning came from Kristen Race, PhD, best-selling author and mindfulness expert, who spoke at the recent IICF Inclusion in Insurance Forum. She offered several tips on ways to incorporate informal mindfulness practices into our daily lives to help us build resilience. These informal practices are simple routines and rituals that can be integrated into what we already do throughout the day, she said—for instance, taking a mindful breath or two to center yourself before opening your email.
Race began her panel with a three-breath micro practice, which she said is a “simple practice to help us leave mental baggage behind.” Begin by getting into a comfortable position, and you can close your eyes if it feels right. Take a deep inhalation, and as you exhale, simply relax your body. Take in a second inhalation and try to notice any tension in your body. As you exhale, let that tension go. As you take your third inhalation, ask yourself, “What is most important to me right now?”
Such mindfulness exercises can help train our brains the same way we train our bodies, Race said. We usually can’t just make our triggers go away, but we can learn how to respond to them intentionally, she said, so they don’t impact our thoughts, work, relationships, health and happiness in negative ways.
For example, she noted that how you wake up in the morning sets the tone for the rest of the day. If you wake up to the alarm on your smartphone and immediately begin checking email, texts, news, social media, then you’re setting yourself up to be triggered into the alarm state before you even get out of bed. Instead, Race said to consider starting the day with a mindful breathing practice while your coffee or tea brews by simply paying attention to each slow inhalation and exhalation.
Another mindfulness practice Race said is easy to incorporate throughout the day is one she calls PBR—pause, breathe and respond with intention. And it’s as simple as that: When you feel your stress levels being triggered, just hit the pause button, take one or two deep breaths, and choose the response that leads to the most positive outcome.
Race also spoke of the necessity of finding the good these days. She said that, as humans, we are hardwired with a negative bias—i.e., even if the majority of our day or project or meeting went well, it’s the negative that sticks with us. She noted that it’s also part of our survival instinct to forecast worst-case scenarios whenever the future seems uncertain. To combat this negative bias, we need to be intentional about finding the good every day.
Race recommended using a mindfulness practice she calls three good things. Each night think of three simple, good experiences from your day and share them with someone else. She said that doing this for just 14 days can help with burnout and depression, making us feel happier and more balanced and even helping us to sleep better.
Finally, Race emphasized the importance of self-compassion. She shared one of her favorite mantras: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of the human experience. May I be kind to myself in this moment.” She also advised taking a broader view of self-compassion in how you treat your body. Let yourself take a nap when you’re tired. Make time for exercise, reading for pleasure, spending time with friends and family. In other words, be kind to yourself.