Staying Present in Scary Times


The world seems to have paused. One week ago feels like a month ago. The hours are now marked by the next trip to the bathroom or the snack cabinet. Relaxing at home feels familiar, but there is a discomfort humming beneath it all. The open windows frame an eerie silence, mirrored in our calendar, a grid of outlined emptiness.

To whatever extent normality has shifted for each of you, collectively we’ve become more anxious and sad in this suspended state.

Having to stay-at-home isn’t so different than most of my days, and I’m not the only one out there comparing this to the everyday experience of stay-at-home-moms. I echo the hopes that the world will have more appreciation for the work of parenthood or the dedication of educators when this is all over, but I’m also afraid we’re going to realize why postpartum depression is so prevalent in new mothers.

I don’t mean to make light of this pandemic by comparing it to bringing home a new baby; I’m well aware they exist on opposite ends of the spectrum of life. But when my life opened to my first “bundle of joy,” a door to negativity opened as well. The themes that became the patterns of my first year of motherhood are what many people are experiencing right now: disruption, limits, isolation, and anxiety. I coped with these changes by pining for my past life and trying to gain some control over the next few years.

I’ve heard it said that depression is dwelling in the past while anxiety is dwelling in the future. While an oversimplification, there’s truth in it: its conclusion is that healthy resides in the present. C.S. Lewis agreed the present is the most holy place to dwell,

“for the Present is the time which touches eternity.”

In his book The Screwtape Letters, he writes that humans are able to experience the freedom and actuality of eternity only in the Present, while living in the Past or Future distances us from sacredness. He concludes the Future is the farthest from goodness, full of “unrealities” which inflame hope and fear, yet the easiest for us to be swept into because our biology points us in that direction. Lewis sums it up:

“Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear looks ahead.”

Saying “just be present” seems like an easy solution, in fact like doing nothing at all. Yet it is incredibly hard to keep our thoughts centered there (just pay attention in the next hour to how many of your thoughts are about something that has happened or will happen). Our minds wander to replaying old memories, sometimes making sense of them, sometimes altering them a bit. We start fantasizing about future moments, letting ourselves feel excitement and hope for something good on the horizon or anxiously living out those unthinkable events so that we can feel more prepared for them. And sometimes, while you scrub your hair in the shower— wait, did I already wash with shampoo or was that conditioner? I’ll just shampoo again to be sure… – we self-soothe with a good ol’ fashioned actually-win-that-argument or a victoriously-and-singlehandedly-save-the-day-scenario. This is all normal and fine until it’s not. Until these thoughts lead you to dark and stuck places.

But you see, that’s the thing, this is all in our heads. One of the easiest ways to get out of this headspace, then, is to come back to our body, the part of us that (as of yet) can’t time-travel like our minds can. This is an essential premise to mindfulness theory, so if you’re already acquainted, simply let this serve as a reminder to practice it more in this time. If you’d like more specifics, read on.

Mindfulness is simply put the ability to be fully present to where we are and what we’re doing. It helps us move away from overly reactive emotions or feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. We all naturally have the ability to “be present,” it just takes some training. Here are some of my favorite techniques:

Deep Breathing

Taking time aside to focus on the most natural thing we do is incredibly calming. Deep breaths are a fast fix for bringing down anxiety or any turbulent emotions. This can be incorporated at any moment in your day for any length of time. I used it to get through two natural labors and in every trying moment since those rascals were born!

5 Senses

Another great way to focus your mind on the present is through your senses. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overwhelm your senses instead with a deep whiff of your morning coffee. Pause from the monotony of working at home to look out the window for 5 minutes or take the scenic route around your house, instead of picking up your phone in the downtime. And if you’re listlessly eating as much as I am during this quarantine, at least consciously enjoy every bite of that third morning snack!

Body Scans

A body scan is basically working your awareness from one end of your body to another and noticing the sensations in each part of your body, ideally, relaxing tension as you go. This technique has made me aware of the places I hold the most tension (my jaw) and the more I practice, the more I notice and relax throughout my day.

The body seemed an easy place to start for now (and I’m sure ours all need some attention after such tense weeks!) but I’ll dive more into the mental part of this next week with a post on managing negative thoughts.


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