Naming it, Reframing it, Taming it: Mindfulness in a Pandemic
By Cheri Lovre
The first thing to remember about any crisis is: We’re going to come out of it.
Right now, after months of living with Covid-19, many people feel disoriented. It’s like we’ve lost our North Star. No one can be sure of the best course to follow. But the North Star is there in the sky. We just can’t see it right now because the lingering fog of uncertainty is still all around us.
The vaccines that are emerging now will help, but the uncertainty related to COVID will continue for at least a few more months. Too much critical information—about how the disease spreads, who is vulnerable, how it affects the human body, how to treat it, and how to prevent contagion—is still being learned through trial and error. We still don’t know, for example, how safe it is to travel to different places or how to learn if we have put someone at risk.
Don’t give yourself a hard time because uncertainty makes you feel uncomfortable. Uncertainty makes everyone feel uncomfortable. That’s why so many self-help books promise guaranteed outcomes and money-back offers. They know that certainty sells.
We have been living with the discomfort of uncertainty for almost a year now. We may not have much control over it. But we have considerable control over our responses to it, and over our own anxiety and stress. If we have experienced losses and feel grief as a result, that’s a deeper issue, but there are still ways of managing our responses that will make things better over the course of the next year.
One technique that is generally helpful in crisis is grounded in the practice of mindfulness. It is a sequence that I refer to as:
“Name it, Reframe it, and Tame it.”
1. Name It
To “name it” is to identify and learn to recognize your reactions and emotions. “This is not the reality, it is just my reality right now. This is not something that’s wrong with me. This is an experience, a feeling, a message from my body.”
In the case of COVID-19, being mindful about this message helps you understand why your anxiety, grief, and depression feel so different and perhaps seem less manageable than in other circumstances. “Naming it” builds your courage and is a starting place for gaining mastery over your situation.
2. Reframe It
To “reframe it” is to use this understanding to reorient your view of current reality, with all your emotional strength. You create a new inner narrative that helps you think about these experiences in a more constructive, helpful way.
One way to get into reframing is to add a qualifier to our original thought or emotion. The qualifier is an additional statement that helps us move in a more constructive direction.
“I feel like I’m adrift in uncertainty [name], but I also know this won’t last forever.” [reframe]
“I am afraid that my daughter won’t get a good education this year [name], but every school is figuring out what works.” [reframe]
“Our kids really miss being with their grandparents, and I feel heartbroken and responsible [name], but at least we’re Zooming and making plans for what we’ll do once we’re past this.” [reframe.]
I may be making mistakes [name] but I can learn from them. [reframe]
These are just examples. Any of these could be true for you, or there may be others. In an organization, there may be reframing opportunities like these:
“All our jobs are still at risk [name], but we’ve had the time to figure out how to stay in business.” [reframe]
“We’re so tired of remote working [name],” but we’re learning how to manage ourselves much better now as a hybrid workplace.” [reframe]
3. Tame It
To “tame it” is to align this new narrative with everyday life by regularly practicing a new set of habits that make it easier to fully commit yourself to recovery. Research psychiatrist and writer Jeffrey M. Schwartz calls this “refocusing”: we deliberately focus our attention, again and again, on the things we do that take us in the direction we want to go.
Because we’ve rehearsed our response this way, when new feelings of anxiety arise, we’re ready for them. We bring our attention to our alternative practice or coping strategy. (It might be, for example, a regular session of mindfulness or physical exercise, or one of the new narratives we prepared.)
At first, we do this even if it feels awkward. But after a while, it begins to feel natural.
The key issue is repetition. We focus our attention, again and again, and the repetition strengthens our neural pathways associated with the new narrative, until it becomes second nature
At any stressful time, it’s important to pay attention to your own physical and mental self-care. This is especially important when the time frame is open-ended; when you don’t know if the pressure will ease up in weeks, months or longer. It’s like having to prepare for a race when you don’t know how many miles you’ll be called on to run.
Self care enables us to maintain our stamina, to boost our immunity, to contribute to the well-being of others, and to maintain healthier relationships. We can’t move forward well unless we keep ourselves fit. Commit to it! Put it on the calendar and set aside the time.
Start with food and sleep. Eat more fresh, wholesome meals. Set it up so you get ample sleep; perhaps more than you think you need. Some of us are waking up in the middle of the night, and we may need to find new ways of drifting back to sleep—or napping during the day. Incorporate mindfulness.
Be forgiving of yourself. If you don’t live up to your wellness ideal on any given day (or week), take a deep breath and switch to practices that work better for you. We all want to survive the rest of the pandemic and to have the people we care about survive.
And we can learn something from the history of other crises — including pandemics of the past, natural disasters, and crises of violence. People have been dealing with the aftermath of these experiences for millenia. When we respond with mindfulness to the stress of uncertainty, grief and depression, and when we pay attention to our own wellness and the well-being of others around us, we are more likely to emerge stronger than we were before. In this way, we can prepare ourselves for the future that will inevitably follow the pandemic and for our role in it.
Cheri Lovre works with educators to help school communities recover after crises including school shootings, natural disasters, and now, the Covid-19 virus. This essay is adapted from her new book, A Little Book of Courage for the Big Pandemic. You can learn more about her work at the Crisis Management Institute.