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Cooped Up in the Time of COVID: A Two-Step Process to Tame Tension

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Is there even such a thing as work/life balance these days? This mindfulness hack can help your family stay calm – and even connected – in the coronavirus chaos.

By Elisa Boxer

Achieving work/life balance is tough enough without a global pandemic blurring the business/family line even further. When your video-conferencing colleagues can hear the dog barking in the background and the Fortnite shots firing from the playroom, tension can run high and patience can wear thin.

And that’s for those of us fortunate enough to still be employed.

Try as we might to re-frame COVID-19 as a chance for connection, let’s face it: Even in the tightest of families, the best-case scenario is that we’re going to get on each other’s nerves from time to time.

Enter mindfulness: The practice of being right here, right now. Because with colder weather coming, if you’re going to be cooped up with your kids, you might as well teach them a tool that can help save everyone’s sanity.

While this might seem like a terrible time to take on anything new, mindfulness is actually a way to decrease demands on your energy, since you’re not fretting about the future or perseverating on the past. When external forces feel out of control, going inward can give you the grounding to navigate whatever comes next.

Here’s a simple way that you and your family can put mindfulness to work. Bonus: It takes less than a minute.

1. Name it.

That’s it. That’s the first step. Just notice whatever you’re feeling, and say it out loud. As in, “I feel nervous about this call coming up.” Or, “I’m frustrated that I don’t have more privacy.”

Encourage your kids to name their stressors too. Theirs might go something like “I’m sad that I can’t play with my friends,” or “I’m worried that I’ll get sick.” Share your statements with each other. Mindfulness is about acknowledging everyone’s full range of emotions and experiences, without judging them as good or bad.

Putting your feelings into words is a form of mindfulness called affect labelling, and studies show it can make you calmer and more rational. It can even improve memory and productivity. By naming your feelings, you’re turning them into something concrete, rather than letting them fester unidentified in your subconscious, where they can accumulate and cause chaos.

It’s human nature to resist, rather than acknowledge, uncomfortable feelings. Who wants to be uncomfortable, right? But studies show that resisting emotions can literally raise your blood pressure. Putting your brain and body into resistance mode only creates more stress.

By getting clear on what you’re feeling and giving it a label, you’re letting go of that resistance.

You’re also giving yourself permission to be fully present just as you are. There’s plenty of pressure coming from the outside these days. The last thing we need is to heap on more from the inside.

So when you start to feel stressed, remember that a powerful tool for managing that stress is simply stating out loud the fact that it’s there, and that you’re feeling it…

Which brings us to step two:

2. Find it.

Once you have the hang of naming what’s going on in your head, it’s time to find out where that stress is showing up in your body.

Studies show that feelings and emotions actually do manifest as physical symptoms. Anger, for example, can show up as a tight jaw or clenched teeth. Sadness can cause hunched shoulders. Fear can cause shallow breathing or a racing heart, while grief can feel like a weight on your chest.

So after you’ve named what your feeling, simply ask yourself: "Where is this showing up in my body?"

Sometimes it’ll jump out at you. Other times you’ll have to go searching for it by starting at the top of your head and scanning down until you find the spot of tightness or tension. For example: “I’m nervous about this call coming up, and I feel a tightness in my stomach.”

For your kids, it might be something like: “I’m sad that school feels so different and my whole body feels heavy.” Train them to be a detective about where and how their feelings are showing up in their body.

Becoming aware of your physical feeling grounds you into the present moment. Since you can’t be fully tuned in to the feelings in your body and off in your ruminating “monkey mind” at the same time, getting curious about where and how your body is holding stress helps to get you out of overwhelm, and center you in the here and now.

From a scientific perspective, when you’re grounded in a present physical sensation instead of letting your mind run away with a mental trigger, you’re activating your prefrontal cortex. That’s the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, learning, and rational decision making. You’re also activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which brings calm and clarity.

Now here’s the key: Once you complete step one (name what you’re feeling) and step two (identify where your body’s holding that feeling), it might be tempting to do something about it.

Don’t.

Studies show that accepting unpleasant emotions, rather than trying to change them, actually helps you feel better in the long run. In a society so focused on finding solutions, it’s important to remember that your feelings are not a problem to be solved. Simply holding compassionate space for them will allow them to run their course and move along in a much healthier way.

So while you find yourself with increasing amounts of together time and tension, remember: Name what you’re experiencing, and find it in your body. Turn toward the feeling with curiosity, rather than away from it with judgment.

Not only will you become more present for yourself, you’ll become more present for your kids. And you’ll be teaching them a valuable tool they can take with them long after the pandemic has passed.

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