Change presents a huge challenge for those of us with and without a mindfulness routine, it creates anxiety and worry, removes us from the present moment and most significantly, it interferes with our habits and routines. In today’s article, we’re going to discuss the benefits of a mindfulness routine in times of change, as well as the importance of maintaining that routine throughout challenging and changing times. Despite our better instincts, it’s often our most beneficial practises that get dropped from our lives when big changes come along. We find ourselves making up excuses like, “I’m too busy” or “I’m too stressed” to avoid exercising, calling a loved one or practising mindfulness. With a rational mind we can see that these are the very things that can help us cope with change, so how do we build a routine and stick to it when big changes interrupt our lives?
Why we react negatively to change
Whether big or small, positive or negative, change is always a jarring experience for human beings. In a world where change is a daily inevitability, our minds are shockingly unequipped to deal with the psychological fall out of impermanence. If we think back to the biggest moments of change in our lives: leaving home for the first time, the death of a loved one or a promotion at work, the consequences of these changes are hugely varied. Some changes we look back on as opportunities for growth, or a chance to live the life we have always envisioned, whereas some result in grief and loneliness. So we know that change does not always lead to a negative outcome; why then, as human beings do we have a built-in apprehension for change? Why is it that when we know a big change is coming our minds take us to the worst outcome imaginable? It’s because change equals uncertainty. As human beings we feel safest when things are certain and predictable. Our minds are not very good at distinguishing what’s real and what is just a thought in our heads. We are constantly predicting the outcome of situations as a technique to keep us safe, but when something external changes in our lives and things don’t feel so predictable our minds struggle to cope with this uncertainty. We are programmed to look out for threats, and in uncertain situations our minds are always on the lookout for something dangerous – although our distant ancestors would have found this useful for keeping them alive, it is no longer a helpful mindset. Luckily we don’t have to just accept this little quirk of our minds and subject ourselves to a lifetime of over-thinking and catastrophizing, we can give ourselves a fighting chance to learn to cope with change.
How mindfulness can help you to cope with change
Mindfulness is all about keeping your mind focused and aware of the current moment, so in its most basic principle mindfulness combats the worry we feel about the future when things around us are changing. If you are struggling to cope with change at the moment you might want to begin by labelling some of the thoughts and emotions you’re experiencing. Mindfulness teaches us how to notice without judgement or comment, so first try identifying the change that you are concerned about. Once you’ve done this try to isolate the specific fears and worries you have surrounding this change, and maybe vocalise these worries or write them down. By labelling your concerns you are acknowledging their existence and can begin to build a tolerance to them.
Something to remember when using mindfulness to cope with change is that your mindfulness practise itself will change each time. Each time you sit down to meditate you’ll find that your mind will wander onto different thoughts and sensations or you’ll be able to stay focussed for longer than other times. Accepting change within your mindfulness practise can have an extremely positive effect on your ability to deal with change in your day-to-day life. So control what you can (which is often very little) and try to accept the fact that most other things in life are simply out of our control, and so they should be – we can’t predict the future or know how things will turn out.
When you start to notice your thoughts drifting to worrying about change and you have successfully labelled those thoughts there are a few mindful techniques that will help you to bring your attention back to the present. When you feel yourself beginning to panic and come up with excuses to not practise mindfulness, select an anchor that will ground you in the current moment. This should be something that you can rely on always being available: your breath, a glass of water or the sound of cars or birds outside the window. You could also perform a body scan, where you move your attention from your head to your toes, just acknowledging the sensations that are present within your body. Both these techniques gently bring your focus back to what is happening around you, and away from your worries and anxieties about the future.
The importance of habits
Unfortunately, it’s sometimes the habits and rituals that provide the most help in our day-to-day lives that get dropped the quickest when we experience change. So now that we know how beneficial mindfulness is to us when dealing with, or preparing for change, how do we maintain our mindfulness routine when it feels like everything is getting too overwhelming and we just don’t have the time anymore.
Mindfulness needs to become a habit, even if it is already a habit in your daily routine it might need to be re-worked to keep you motivated to practise even when life is particularly stressful. What do we know about habits? Well, they’re hard to make and notoriously easy to break. This could not be more true when considering the effect that overwhelming change can have on a person’s habits and routines. So, in order to make sure that our minds do not allow us to drop our most beneficial habits in times of change, we need to hack the psychology behind habit building.
The reason we perform a repeated action or behaviour is because it yields positive results for us, but when the results become too difficult to prioritise over our feeling of unrest and uncertainty the only way to respond is to double down on those rewarding results. In the long term the rewards of a mindfulness routine will be: greater compassion and empathy, ability to handle stress and anxiety, and improved concentration among many others, but to keep you on track in your mindfulness journey when you’re in need of some extra motivation you may need to introduce some rewards of your own that you can see immediately after sticking to your mindfulness routine. These can really be anything but remember not to choose something that will be harmful in the long term, or that might just be a distraction. The point of this is to provide you with a bit of extra motivation in the short term while you cope with an overwhelming change.
Tips for sticking with your mindfulness routine
· Label your thoughts.
· Body scan.
· Control what you can.
· Focus on an anchor.
· Reward maintaining your routine.
· Alter your routine to practise a more casual form of mindfulness.
· Creating small achievable goals from those things you can control (such as “I will clean the living room today” or “I will make sure to call someone I love”).
· Creating a mini morning ritual might help to start your day off with structure so you are more proactive. For example:
- Have a good stretch.
- Don’t check your phone in the first 30 mins.
- No social media for the first hour.
- Have a mindful glass of water and acknowledge the sensations you feel from it.
- Try a quick 5–10-minute meditation or breathing exercise or try some positive psychology (such as 3 things you are grateful for).
- Create a plan for your day using your small goals you’ve created combined with your daily tasks).
- Don’t create hypothetical situations, if these thoughts arise, acknowledge them but understand it’s not reality.
It is essential to your mindfulness practise that you learn to accept change as an inevitable part of being human. And also understand that change is not always negative, it’s only the unknown consequences of those changes that we are afraid of. But if you’re not quite at that point yet, and you’re looking for ways to keep working at mindfulness while struggling with change then hopefully you have learned a few good tips from this article. It may feel like maintaining a mindfulness routine is the last thing you could possibly manage when also confronting big changes in your life, but by adapting your routine to suit your current mental state you’ll find that the benefits of mindfulness far out-weigh the effort needed to stick to it. The goal with mindfulness is to bring it into every aspect of your life, however, this is more of a long term goal that, even people who have trained in meditation and mindfulness for years can find challenging. So if you’re finding life overwhelming due to big or small changes, then it might be that you need to allow yourself to curate a mindfulness routine that is the least intrusive to your life.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.