I woke up at dawn this morning, hearing birds singing. It was just beautiful. For a moment, that is all I felt – birds singing. I was not aware of where I am, who I am. The thinking mind was still quiet, and worriless awareness of the present moment was awake. It lasted just for a second or two before it hit me like a cold bucket: I recently experienced loss in my personal life, and there is another day of global COVID-19.
Going back to birds singing.
But the mind is already spinning. Time to wake up. I have to stand strong through the demands and circumstances of the day ahead. Do my very best.
Birds singing. Isn’t life beautiful?
Birds singing worked as a micro-meditation, reminding me to start the day with a gentle tone. How can we get more of such moments of mental and physical rest, recovery and clarity, to balance out and even co-create reality?
Personal growth towards resilience
In the adverse times of COVID-19 virus, we are all experiencing painful disruptive change affecting different parts of our lives. We are collectively facing the fear of uncertainty, the unease of social isolation, lost livelihoods, disruption of schooling and work, and for many people - loss of dear ones due to the virus.
Bounded to stay still and at home, in uncertainty, many people are looking for ways to ease anxiety, manage stress, deal with depression or simple boredom, and find a focus to stay strong and healthy. Like in a retreat, many people are taking this opportunity to turn the gaze inward and look for the resources to adapt to change and bounce back with endurance and strength into this new life-changing reality. Resilience is our ability to adapt well to change in the face of adversity such as distress, trauma, natural catastrophe or tragedy. Resilience is not only a personality trait that just lucky ones possess, but it can be evolved if we have the willingness to learn and adapt. We usually respond to threats and stress in fight-or-flight or freeze mode, that instantly causes hormonal and physiological changes well felt in the body; typical reactions can for example be:
Fight – we gear ourselves to a fighting mode, feeling angry, ready to punch
Flight – we feel restless, trapped, ready to run, anxious and experiencing shallow breathing
Freeze – we feel numb, holding breath, feel stuck, feeling stiff or heavy, unable to move
In a search of ease, we risk leaning on different unhelpful coping strategies of self-regulation, adopting behavior such as taking drugs, drinking alcohol or indulging in comfort foods; those are not evolving resilience, but are spinning our system out into more disbalance. When in disbalance, it is even more demanding to bounce back and cope with challenging circumstances.
Based on research on resilience, as well as on scientific knowledge about yoga and meditation, here are 12 tips on how to evolve resilience that can help you cope with the challenging times we are collectively facing, and empower you to adapt as well as see opportunity in new now. Perhaps pick 3 of those that resonate with you and try them out already today.
1. Accept pain as the catalyst of change
Yoga and meditation practices are traditionally thought of as austerities (tapasya). By restricting behavior (rigid yoga poses, or codex of behavior) and cognition (such as concentrating and meditating) practitioner experiences different levels of (painful) resistance - such as stiffness in the body, or boredom while meditating. The idea behind austerities is to bring forth individual tendencies or reaction patterns due to restraining - anger, irritability, sadness, euphoria, boredom. Pain or unease becomes a trigger for what yogis would call “purification”, as a necessary step of self-inquiry according to yoga psychology. Research on trauma also indicates that painful and traumatic experiences can under certain circumstances lead to self-insight and shift of awareness towards expanded world view - a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.
2. Practice self-inquiry by gentle non-judgmental observation
Once our tendencies of the mind and body are present, meditation practices advice to observe those without judgment or reaction. It means, if you are angry and frustrated, instead of moving into the beaten track of reaction pattern, simply observe your sensations in the moment of anger or restlessness– observe your breathing, bodily sensations, your thoughts. Most probably you will end up reacting as you are used to (and whatever worked before) but mindfulness will add a new dimension in the process, and with sincere and consistent practice, it might create a shift in awareness and behavior towards a mindful reaction to aroused emotion.
3. Accept the reality as it is right now, not as you want it to be
This practice is especially popular in yoga and Buddhism where one is encouraged to “awaken” into reality from the dreams, projections or illusions (maya). This means, embracing your moods, your life situation, and your gains and losses as part of the life experience. It also means not to take your own mood swings too seriously, as they are impermanent.
4. Nourish companion of like-minded
In eastern thought, one is encouraged to endure self-discipline towards the awakening with the help of sangha or companion of people who understand and encourage you to continue with your efforts. Being heard, encouraged and belong to a circle of like-minded people is an important social support in times of challenge.
5. Make your own retreat routine
Any adversity is disrupting the routine of everyday life. Make a schedule of how your day will look, plan, and stick to it. Make a good balance between work and rest, exercise and healthy meals. Routine is important support not to slip into depression or hopelessness.
6. Cultivate gratitude for what you have at the moment
When there was COVID-19 recent lockdown in Zagreb, no one could imagine that any worse can happen – like an earthquake. Our perception of what we have, changes once we lose - again. In unpredictable times, gratitude is, therefore, a quality that gives a certain peace of mind. On the opposite, neediness is a recipe for restlessness and frustration.
7. Choose well what you use your time on – be creative
You are processing a rapid change, and your capacity will limit itself by the amount of information and experiences. To avoid exhaustion, choose well what you spend your time on, including news, social networks, and talks. You might benefit more from a good book, an online art gallery, beautiful music or learning an instrument.
8. Deal with one challenge at the time
Although the overwhelm of the situation will make you feel that you have to run around the clock to save the boat, have trust in your resources and help around you, and deal with one challenge at the time. Make sure you prioritize well and take care of those who need you most.
9. Have a mentor or a dialog partner to share your concerns with
Talking to many people about the same problem does not solve that problem - it probably confuses you even more. But having a good dialogue partner, such as a therapist, mentor, good friend, coach or teacher, helps to paint a bigger picture, understand the context and come to optimal solutions through self-reflection.
10. Exercise – both dynamic practices that stimulate you and relaxing ones that calm you down
Running, weight lifting, walking, skiing, or any dynamic training will uplift you; yoga, meditation, chi-gong and other calm practices will activate the parasympathetic nervous system that calms you down and balances out stress reactions.
11. Explore cold-therapy Wim Hof practices
Medical research has recently suggested that cold showers in combination with deep breathing have a positive effect on the immune system and physical and mental resilience.
12. Practice breathing techniques
Breath is our gateway to the autonomous nerve system where we can in a great degree self-regulate our emotions. Yoga advises especially two breathing techniques that are especially beneficial for self-regulation: alternate nostril breathing and deep yogic breathing.
What does not kill you makes you stronger
Resilience, like any other quality, builds over time and the more we repeat a healthy attitude and behavior that supports us, the more we fuel our resilience.
We are going to make it; what will be different are the stories we will tell our children and grandchildren about how we dealt through adverse times. Actually, you can be a hero of your own story, and pass important knowledge to the next generation. Now is the time for writing that story :)
Lea Loncar is doing a Ph.D. research on resilience and trauma at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Besides her research work, she also provides training for yoga teachers and educators in Scandinavia and Europe. More about Lea and her work at www.samvidyoga.com