As we move forward on this unpaved road, it’s imperative that we make self-care an important necessity and stop viewing it as a luxury for which there’s never any time. My work focuses on the reduction of stress and anxiety through the practice of 10 techniques, or keys, that are enjoyable, contributing to the success in using them.
For the original statistical research on the use of the keys, 350 preschool teachers became my subjects for more than six months. The efficacy of the keys, if even one of the keys is used, was shown to be statistically significant in the reduction of stress and anxiety in the short and long term.
The 10 keys are: mindfulness, altered perceptions, journaling, sensory experiences, reduced clutter, humor, movement, art, nature, and meditation.
For decades, I’ve offered workshops to professionals and the general public, and taught clients how to use the keys. I don’t go anywhere without my own imaginary keyring.
The premise is that life is intended to be an enchanted journey but there are Dragons of Stress teeming just beneath the bridge that we must cross each day. We need to keep the keyring handy so we don’t get pulled down into the Pit of Negativity or the Dungeon of Doom. We don’t slay the dragons because then there would just be dead dragons everywhere. We need to chart our course, redirect the dragons, harness their energy and use their power to pull our chariots in the direction of our dreams. The Land of Enchantment becomes the attainment of a healthy, happy perspective on life in spite of its challenges.
Practicing use of the keys becomes self-nourishing and even fun. I’ll share the basic information about how to use the keys in these trying times in a few separate articles on the topic to give you a chance to experiment with them.
Mindfulness is awareness in the present moment, being where you are right now, noticing your breath, tension, physical sensations, thoughts and emotions. Observe them with neutrality or love, but without judgment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh are two of the pioneering teachers of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn is an American professor emeritus of medicine who found that mindfulness can be applied to a wide range of areas that cause people significant stress, including medical symptoms, physical and emotional pain, anxiety, panic, time pressures, relationships, work, food and events in the outside world. We can check the box on each of these issues in our current times.
Nhat Hanh, the 93-year old peace-seeking Vietnamese Buddhist monk, often called “Thay,” meaning teacher, is a Zen master. The “Father of Mindfulness” suffered a stroke in 2014 and lost the ability to speak the seven languages he did prior to the stroke, yet he still is a spiritual teacher, currently on the state of mindfulness during the transition out of earthly life.
He teaches that, “We could all find happiness in the simple things — in mindfully peeling an orange or sipping tea.” His definition of mindfulness is “the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united.”
How to practice mindfulness?
You’re not required to sit in pretzel position and practice mindfulness in combination with meditation. You can simply turn your attention inward to focus on what’s present for you in your mind, body or spirit. As you observe yourself, you can decide if you’d like to act on something that would serve you and others or keep it unexpressed.
Mindfulness can be used with regard to eating, by slowing down and tasting the food, experiencing it with all of the senses. Maybe you’d like to have a mindful meal in which you do nothing but eat, without conversation or technology. See, smell, hear, taste and appreciate the textures of your food.
Observe your breath. Do you breathe evenly on the in and out breaths? Do you breathe shallowly or hold your breath? Notice when your emotions are triggered, put your hand to heart, send compassion to yourself, and breathe rhythmically.
Take a mindful walk, not focusing as much on the destination as the details along the way. Is the pavement smooth or gravelly? Do you notice a dandelion or a penny on the path?
In the wake of COVID-19, mindfully assess your stress and energy levels, quality of nutrition and sleep. Check in with yourself a few times each day and stay present to signals of imbalance so they’re not overlooked.
Select one area in your life in which to practice mindfulness for one week.
Altered Perceptions flip the way you view things from your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in style, work, relationships and what matters to you. It requires being open-minded as you consider energy that “is,” without putting it in the categories of “good” and “bad.”
Things are not always as they seem. “Bad” things may bring you insight, teach you by contrast, and allow you to create change. “Good” things may have been good at one point but no longer serve you. You get to review them with fresh eyes and decide which thoughts and actions continue and which get discarded or transformed.
How to practice altered perceptions:
Combining your mindfulness practice with altered perceptions, imagine a world in which everyone communicated mindfully, aware of feelings and the impact of words before speaking them. Instead of words that are hateful, destructive, punitive and agitating, choose words that are loving, healing, compassionate and comforting.
Take a stance of open curiosity to understand the reason someone feels the way they do or believes what they do, whether it involves politics or mask wearing, without it threatening your beliefs.
Pick an issue or behavior to consider and alter. See where you’ve become stagnant and try on an altered perception.
Dr. Terry Segal is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctorate in energy medicine. She is the author of “The Enchanted Journey: Finding the Key that Unlocks You.”