Dealing mindfully with uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic
Dr Inmaculada Adarves-Yorno, Senior Lecturer in Leadership Studies, discusses how COVID-19 has provided the whole world with unprecedented uncertainty. Government and companies have their own way of dealing with national and industrial uncertainty. But what about individuals? How can each of us deal with uncertainty?
Over the last five years, colleagues and I have undertaken research exploring the relationship between mindfulness and psychological uncertainty, and the extent to which mindfulness helps individuals deal with stressful, uncertain and worrying situations.
All our studies show a significant and positive relationship between mindfulness and better dealing with uncertainty. The more mindful we are the better equipped we are to deal with uncertainty.
Mindfulness is defined as being fully engaged with whatever is happening in the present moment, while free from distraction or judgement. It requires you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.
I am sharing three mindfulness practices for you to try at home. These techniques have been used in our research in a situation with high degrees of uncertainty and stress—overcrowded maximum-security prisons in Kenya. Despite this extreme context, many of the men and women we spoke to have embarked on transformative journeys using mindfulness. I have tremendous admiration for them, and hope you find the techniques similarly useful.
Practice 1: Pay attention to your judgements and reactions
It is not ‘reality itself’ but our interpretation of it which leads us to either joy or suffering. The first practice is to pay attention to how you evaluate and react to different situations. We can separate our construction of reality in four phases: first, there is a stimulus, followed by a sensory perception. Then we evaluate it, and according to that evaluation we have a reaction.
Let’s use a simple example to illustrate this sequence. Think of a warm and sunny day (rays of sunshine are the stimuli); you can feel warmth on your skin (sensory perception), this is the objective experience. However, people can evaluate this experience differently. One evaluation could be ‘this is so relaxing and I am getting Vitamin D’ – accordingly we feel an increase in wellbeing. Conversely another assessment could be ‘this is dangerous as I am exposed to UV rays’ – causing us to feel worried and experience a decrease in wellbeing.
In this first practice we are only paying attention to our evaluations and reactions. We do not judge them, but instead we are like an investigator – curious and attentive as to how we evaluate different experiences.
You can consider how what you are consuming (reading, hearing, watching, thinking) day to day affects your evaluations. How is news and information affecting how I evaluate and react to the world outside and therefore inside me?
Practice 2: Do not resist, do not give in, just notice and let go
It is important to acknowledge that some thoughts and feelings may be “negative”, but we may choose to invest in them. For instance, anger is often labelled as a negative emotion, but we may want to have angry thoughts and feed anger as an engine to change something.
The idea is to ask yourself two questions. “Is this thought or emotion useful?” and “What impact is it having on me?”. If you decide it is not useful and it’s having a negative impact, there are three options.
First, you can try and resist it. In my experience, resisting does not work because we are giving attention, through resistance to the thought or feeling. Second, you can give in – when the sense of uncertainty comes to us, we may, for different reasons, engage with it. Consequently, the sense of uncertainty becomes stronger.
Instead, a mindful option of dealing with it is to acknowledge it clearly, but simply let it go. We focus our attention on something else, for instance, our sensory experience which brings us to the present.
Practice 3: coming back to the present
A sense of uncertainty typically emerges when we think of the future. One of the practices that can help counterbalance this is to focus on the present moment.
There are various ways to do this. different ways to come back to the present. You might want to try the exercises below and explore which one is more useful, feels more comfortable or is more fun to do. I have added a playful element at the end to compensate from the seriousness currently surrounding us:
How is my breathing? How does it feel when the air goes in? How does it feel when the air goes out? You can concentrate on the temperature, sound and speed.
What am I seeing? What colours? Patterns? Shapes? Ideally, it is best to observe the objects without labelling them. That is, without naming them in your mind (e.g. flower, tree, table) just observing (e.g. yellow, red, curve, angle).
What am I sensing on my skin? How do my clothes feel on me? If I touch my skin with my fingers, how does it feel? (Here you can play with different parts of your body: face, belly, shoulders, you can even use some oils to see how it feels). Be loving, be playful, enjoy the practice.
What am I hearing? Identify sounds from inside your house, outside, inside your body, play some songs and try to identify the different beats, again, play with it. Have fun!
What can I smell? Why don’t you become a sensory detective, take things from the fridge, your wardrobe, wherever you want and smell them. You can even give an award to the most delightful or strongest smell you find.
What can I taste? Do your own tasting party; choose food and drink that are very different and give your taste buds an adventure.