It was the second client I’d coached that day who was frustrated and angry about the latest school decision for young kids. She had just received the school board notification that they would keep the elementary classes on remote learning. “I am so stressed out, Gail, I’ve been beside myself. This whole school thing is driving me crazy,“ she lamented. “What on earth are they doing? Can’t they see that this is going to be terrible!”
The second client lived in a different state and was equally upset, in this case, because the kids would be returning to in-person class. Telling me that she had been so upset that she hadn’t slept well in a week, she said with vehemence, “They have got to be kidding! Putting the kids and all of us at risk. How can they possibly be doing this?”
Although the school decisions differed, what concerned me as their coach was how much stress they were each experiencing. Without a doubt, the impact of the pandemic on parents of young kids has been formidable. So I’m not trying to say that this situation is easy. It is not!
Let me be clear: These parents have a right to their opinion. I’m not suggesting that we abandon our view and become the equivalent of some sort of passive doormat.
What I do want to draw attention to is that I see client after client, and myself, so frustrated and upset about something in our lives that we escalate our stress by how our mind relates to the challenge. At the same time, I’ve seen the incredible impact a little mindfulness can have.
Let’s look at this more closely and at three ways mindfulness can build our resilience to the difficulties we face.
Resilience involves seeing that the human mind is a judging machine
Our minds are very busy places, producing upwards of 50,000 thoughts a day. If we’re awake for 16 of those hours, that means approximately 3,000 thoughts every hour or over 50 per minute. Kind of scary when we parse this out, isn’t it!
Of course, many of these thoughts are helpful. But, how many are not? When we pay attention to what our mind is up to, we begin to see just how many of our thoughts are not just unhelpful, but are downright problematic.
We see that many of our thoughts are judgments. Our mind tells us if something is ‘good’ or ‘bad, ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ While sometimes helpful, how this trips us up is where this labeling takes us–sometimes to a place of significant suffering. Once we label something as bad or wrong, it’s as if our mind grabs the ball and runs with that story. “This cannot stand!” our mind tells us. Or “this has to change!” Pretty rapidly, the thought about something being bad gains momentum, much like the proverbial snowball, growing in speed and mass as it rolls downhill. Before we know it, we’ve lost hours of sleep due to our mind, in overdrive, carrying out a loud one-sided internal tirade.
For these two clients, yes they were upset about the school decisions. Perfectly legit. But then their minds went into overdrive, spinning the “this is bad” storyline. As one put it, it was almost like being on a tear.
With mindfulness, we heighten our ability to see things clearly, just as they are. We develop the ability to step out of the thoughts we have about a situation or person, and step into the reality. As we sit in meditation, we begin to see that our mind is busy creating story upon story about our experience. We realize that we don’t have to engage with the story. We see that we have a choice. And once we see this choice, we begin the process of becoming the master, rather than the slave, of our own mind.
Resilience involves cultivating ‘not-knowing’ mind
Pay attention to your thoughts today. See how many of them involve a fixed view of the future, particularly a negative one. Perhaps you know exactly what I mean. If not, let me share a personal example:
As I’m writing this post, my mind is moving to my son heading back to college this week. He has Crohn’s and is on a pretty heavy-hitting medication to keep the disease at bay. The medication works by suppressing his immune system. At times, I find myself fixating on a cascade of thoughts. What if he gets COVID and isn’t able to fight it off? What if he gets really sick and has to be hospitalized? What if I have to get on a plane to see him, and what if I get COVID too? What if, what if, what if. Without realizing it, in the blink of an eye, my mind is off on a story, and it’s not a pretty one at that. When I pause and pay attention, I’m aware that my heart is racing, my jaw is clenched, and my mood has plummeted well over 100%. You may be experiencing similar sympathetic activation just reading about this mother’s crazy-making mind.
You can readily see that while part of my stress is simply the normal wear and tear of parental concern, a much larger part is the story of gloom and doom my mind has fixed upon. I think you can see the same for these two clients.
Now, I can’t really know what’s going to happen in my son’s life, can I? None of us can know what the future will bring, yet our minds are very good at telling us otherwise.
One helpful alternative is cultivating not-knowing mind, also known as beginner’s mind. In other words, stepping out of the myth of certainty my mind has generated.
Once I tune my awareness to the story my mind has spun, the action step is challenging myself to inquire:
How would this situation look if I accept that I cannot know what the future will bring?
What’s a more resourceful story I can suggest to my mind?
This takes practice yet it is worth every bit of it.
Build resilience by letting go
One of the most important foundational principles of mindfulness is letting go. Letting go of judgments, letting go of worries, letting go of self-defeating beliefs. Letting go of the stories our minds generate. Letting go of the foolish idea that we can know what the future will bring.
One practice I’ve found helpful is simply using my breath to help me in letting go. Once we’ve noticed what our mind is up to and challenged ourselves to consider an alternative storyline, we can use this type of mantra:
Breathing in, I’m anxious about the future
Breathing out, I let it go
Breathing in, my mind is off in a story
Breathing out, I let it go
Our minds are such amazing places, capable of so much greatness. Yet, our minds are also capable of creating much distress. But don’t take my word for this. This week, try these strategies:
Pay attention to your judging mind.
Shift to not-knowing mind.
Recent COVID-19 related well-being and resilience posts and resources
If you’ve missed any previous posts in our popular Mindfulness In Medicine Series, here’s a list of them for your convenience.
- Managing the difficult co-worker
- Patient satisfaction in healthcare and mindfulness
- Mindful parenting
- Self compassion mindfulness for physicians
- Mindfulness and non-physician healthcare administrators
- The top 10 common myths about meditation
- Doctor stress, overwhelm and physician burnout
- Being present with patients
- Mindfulness leadership for physicians
- How to prevent medical errors causes and physician burnout
- Beat imposter syndrome anxiety symptoms with mindfulness
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