In times of COVID-19 the way to resilience is to live in the moment - but plan ahead
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A recent study finds that people who manage to balance living in the moment with planning for the future are best able to weather stress without succumbing to negative moods.
What the researchers say: "It's well established that daily stressors can make us more likely to have negative affect, or bad moods," said the lead author of the study. "Our work here sheds additional light on which variables influence how we respond to daily stress."
Specifically, the researchers looked at two factors that are thought to influence how we handle stress: mindfulness and proactive coping.
Mindfulness is when people are centered and living in the moment, rather than dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Proactive coping is when people engage in planning to reduce the likelihood of future stress.
To see how these factors influence responses to stress, the researchers looked at data from 223 study participants. The study included 116 Americans between the ages of 60 and 90,and 107 between the ages of 18 and 36.
The study participants were asked to complete an initial survey in order to establish their tendency to engage in proactive coping. Participants were then asked to complete questionnaires for eight consecutive days that explored fluctuations in mindfulness. On those eight days, participants were also asked to report daily stressors and the extent to which they experienced negative mood.
The researchers found that engaging in proactive coping was beneficial at limiting the effect of daily stressors, but that this advantage essentially disappeared on days when a participant reported low mindfulness.
"Our results show that a combination of proactive coping and high mindfulness result in study participants of all ages being more resilient against daily stressors," the researchers said. "Basically, we found that proactive planning and mindfulness account for about a quarter of the variance in how stressors influenced negative affect.
"Interventions targeting daily fluctuations in mindfulness may be especially helpful for those who are high in proactive coping and may be more inclined to think ahead to the future at the expense of remaining in the present."
The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
So, what? When I was much (very much) younger I adopted (or maybe came up with) an adage for myself which went: “Never look forward to the future or back at the past.” I still think it would be great to live by. Except it’s impossible.
Our conscious mind, and even more our subconscious mind, is constantly weighing the present in relationship to the past and the expectations of the future. It’s how safe we judge ourselves to be, and so is vital to our emotional and physical survival. To live in the moment is not to attempt the impossible.
We can’t turn off the amygdala and the thalamus—the gatekeepers of the brain. They are always on watch and alert for danger.
What we can do is still other parts of the brain such as the posterior superior parietal lobe which give us our sense of time and space. Essentially this is what meditation does. It gets our conscious mind out of the here and now and transports us to a space where there is only continuum—we get lost in the task we’re doing (Csíkszentmihályi’s “flow”), or the music we’re listening to or the nature we’re walking in, or the conversation we’re having.
A good conversation is a spiritual exercise which includes “mindful listening” as we call it—concentrating on the words people are using which give us a window into their personality and even their soul.
Planning for the future, to be part of our resilience, must be connected to our sense of purpose—the reason we live and what, ultimately, we live for. Not the transient tasks and goals of work, or even family, but the social, spiritual and longer-term goals that give our life meaning.
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