Stress has a way of hijacking attention, destroying focus, dragging down mood and weakening the motivation it takes to make healthy choices.
It’s an understandable and natural response to bad situations, but too much stress doesn’t serve you well.
Even when you can’t change your circumstances, you can make steps toward shifting your mindset.
Mindfulness can help. Goldie Hawn, actress and founder of MindUP, a mindfulness program for kids, and Amishi Jha, associate professor of psychology and director of contemplative neuroscience at the University of Miami (and Hawn’s mindfulness teacher) joined TIME for Health Talks to share how mindfulness can help people during difficult times.
“It’s about paying attention in the present moment non-judgmentally,” says Jha.
“The fact that we don’t default to this way of being is what makes training the mind in this way so important. The mind has a mind of its own.”
Here are their tips for how to use mindfulness to create calm when life gets choppy.
Quiet the “barking dog”
The goal of practicing mindfulness is simple, but to do it effectively, it helps to have a basic understanding of the brain.
“Every child has one, and we don’t tell them how it works,” Hawn says. When kids (and adults) learn about the emotional system of the brain and how to calm it down, “they can think better, they can learn better, they can make better choices.” Over time, “if we do this regularly, then eventually our brain will slowly default to a better state of mind.”
In MindUP, kids learn nicknames for key parts of the brain involved in regulating emotions.
“The amygdala is like a barking dog, and when he barks, the wise old owl in the prefrontal cortex can’t think, and can’t remember, and can’t do anything,” Hawn says.
“It’s hijacking the energy and the ability of the prefrontal cortex to stay awake, for the lightbulb to go off.”
Thinking of the brain in this way helps kids understand that to calm down, all they have to do is “quiet the dog down in the doghouse for a while.” One way to do this is to take a “brain break”—Hawn’s kid-friendly term for a quick meditation.
Change your focus
Jha’s research has found that mindfulness training tools strengthen attention in people under high-stress circumstances—even for active-duty military service members.
Attention is important because “we need it for everything: focusing, noticing, making decisions, regulating our emotions,” Jha says.
Practices that can strengthen attention can be as simple as tracking sensations of the breath, fostering kindness and connection with other people, or imagining a flashlight scanning the entire body and focusing where the light hits.
“We can pick up these practices at any moment, and it takes as little as 15 minutes a day to see benefits,” Jha says.
Changing your focus can be powerful. Early in her career, after Hawn started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, she took meditation classes. “There was incense, flowers, the wind was coming through the curtains in this room, and I started to use my mantra and meditate,” she says.
“Something happened to me. It was as if this feeling of joy, my happiness, had been buried, and I was reconnecting to the seat of joy that in some way I believe we are born with…I just started to giggle. I had found a piece of me that I thought I lost.”
With time, meditation helped Hawn sharpen her priorities. “I was really able to individuate from my ‘stardom’, or visibility as a celebrity,” Hawn says. “I was able to focus on the things that always mattered most, and that was happiness, having a family, being a mother.”
Sneak mindfulness into unexpected places
Enduring stressful stretches of time—like the coronavirus pandemic—isn’t easy for anyone, and neither is perfectly adhering to healthy practices during them. “I’m experiencing depletion, worry, uncertainty,” Jha says. “My orientation at this point is to really lower the bar: to not have any aspirations to crush it.” The more you demand of yourself during difficult periods, the greater the stress.
One easy way to sneak in mindfulness without devoting any extra time to it is to infuse it into everyday activities, like brushing your teeth, Jha says. “Usually you don’t even remember brushing your teeth,” but if you focus on each step—holding the toothbrush, applying toothpaste, noticing the sensations that arise as you guide it around your mouth—you’re practicing mindfulness.
“Remember, mindfulness is always here for us,” Jha says. “It didn’t take me any more moments in my day to do it, but it just gave me a little sense of I’m still here, I’m still experiencing the unfolding of my life. Though there is a lot to worry about and a lot of uncertainty, I can still return to this sense of steadiness, and trust myself that I can get through it.”