Amidst the challenges and constant change of life in a pandemic, presence can be peace.
Globally, we are living in a state of emotional and psychological emergency. Daily life may feel volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous - conditions that neuroscientist Amishi Jha has found to be a perfect storm for extreme stress and disrupted attention.
In this environment of profound uncertainty, the present moment can be a refuge - if only we could stay there for a little while! As we learn how to hold our minds in the here and now, it can be helpful to understand the basics of how attention works, inspired by neuroscientist Adele Diamond:
- Paying attention relies on our executive functions; a group of mental processes that enable us to concentrate, plan, and feel Alert & Engaged.
- There are three basic types of executive
functions: inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Inhibitory control and working memory are directly involved in attention
- Our executive functions can be eroded by stress - and chronic stress in particular - through changes in mood, emotion, and mental patterns, which all affect our behaviour
Read on to learn five evidence-informed practices for harnessing the peace of presence, geared towards parents, teachers, caregivers, and the young people they care about.
5 Practices for Presence & Peace
1. Work in intervals. It's unrealistic to expect ourselves (and our kids) to work for hours at a time given the pandemic's demands on our energy and attention. Scheduling brief, regular brain breaks (like an interval workout at the gym) has been shown to boost focus and performance. 
2. Let your body lead. Work, school, parenting, and caregiving place enormous demands on our bodies and minds. Make a regular practice of tuning in to what feels good for your body in this moment, and doing just that. Let go of the pressures of productivity and expectations of achievement. This is an excellent "brain break" practice to do with children, as they can typically connect more easily with their bodies' needs and desires.
3. Time travel mindfully. Notice where your mind is at any given moment. Are your thoughts dragging you into the past or pulling you into the future? Acknowledge this by saying to yourself: my mind is ___right now (past, future, fear, hope). Take a deep breath and gently redirect your mind back to the present. Anchor your attention here with an affirmation, then set an intention to let your mind "time travel" (if you wish to do so) at a more appropriate time.
4. Reframe attention as connection. Attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give to the people we care about, especially children and youth. Motivation plays an important role in attention (particularly when our resources are depleted), so remind yourself why its worth the effort to keep your attention in the here and now. Connection can also be a resource for attention. Use connection as a tool to keep your mind present, taking in the good.
5. Practice mindfulness. Neuroscientist Amishi Jha calls mindfulness "mental armor" against mental wandering, rumination, and catastrophizing. In the article "The Brain Science of Attention and Overwhelm," she shares that regular practice is essential, and that as little as 12 minutes per day for 3-5 days per week is enough to see measurable improvements in attention. The good news is: the more you do, the more you benefit! Download a mindfulness app or try Amishi Jha's mindful breathing exercise online today!
Amishi Jha, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research & Practice Initiative at the University of Miami, describes the effects of these conditions - and what we can do about them - in her article "The Brain Science of Attention and Overwhelm."
Think of it like this: in high-stress situations, our cognitive and emotional resources face unprecendented demands.
As a result, they are sent to the "frontlines" first in order to meet our basic safety and survival needs (living in a pandemic, this might look like adhering to social distancing and mask policies, exercising extreme caution in public/social spaces, or maintaing excellent hand hygiene for ourselves and our children).
Whatever resources are left over are rationed among less urgent (but ultimately essential) functions of daily living such as work, parenting, housekeeping, maintaing our relationships, and self-care.
Inhibitory control involves self-control and focused attention. We use inhibitory control when we think before speaking or acting, and when we resist internal or external distractions.
We use working memory to temporarily hold pieces of information in our minds, such as remembering a phone number long enough to write it down or composing a text message in our heads before typing it.
Amishi Jha likens working memory to a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink: we can only fit so much on it, and we have to keep re-writing what we want to keep on it. In the age of COVID, much of our mental whiteboard is taken up by the new rules of living, leaving little space for inscribing the other important things in our lives.
Cognitive flexibility lets us see things from others' perspectives, evaluate both sides of an issue, and change our minds from time to time.
In "The Science of Education for Peace," world-renowned neuroscientist Adele Diamond describes the role of executive functions in attention and introduces the idea of peace as a state of mind.
For a simplified crash course on executive functions, see this short article and video from understood.org.
In a 2011 study, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that brief mental breaks significantly boosted performance in study subjects performing a 50 minute computer based task. A key takeaway from the study is as follows:
"From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!"
Find a work/rest interval scheme that works for you, and stick to it. For example:
- Work without distractions for 25 minutes. Then take a 5 min break. Continue to alternate between work and rest according to the clock.
- Work for 50 minutes. Then take a 10 min break. Repeat as needed.
Shorter work/rest intervals can be beneficial when you are feeling especially depleted or distracted.
After several work/rest intervals, schedule a longer break (eg. lunchtime).
Try this method (sometimes called the "Pomodoro Technique") with the young people in your life too!
Mental time travel can be distracting or distressing (eg. ruminating about past failure or imagining future negative events), but is most oftern harmless.
In the extreme, however, mental time travel can be a symptom of anxiety and depression. If your or your child's mind is frequently wrapped up in distressing ideas about the past or future, it could be helpful to seek mental health support.
Affirmations are highly personal and should be motivating. Examples include:
- Being present will help me think clearer so I can meet my deadline.
- Keeping my attention in the here and now will allow me to be more patient with my child.
- If I keep my mind steady I can get in and out of the grocery store faster.
- If it feels good to you, place one hand on your forehead and one on your heart.
- Take a deep breath and invite your body to lead you for the next ___ minutes (set a timer if needed).
- Does your body crave sleep, food, movement, connection? Do your best to honor this without judgement.
A deep conversation with someone you care about, cuddling with a loved one, getting lost in a story, or playing with a beloved child can all help hold our attention in the present.
Help kids stay present by creating sensory, creative, or imaginative opportunities for play together. For example:
- Toddlers and young primary school children love to lose themselves in imaginary play! Costumes, props, and music can help set the scene.
- Older children and youth can dive deep into art projects, learning a new instrument, listening to music, going on an outdoor adventure, cooking a favourite family recipe, etc.
Creating an experience that holds young people's attention in the here-and-now is especially helpful for youth whose minds are prone to wandering and worry.