April 24, 2020 10 minutes to read · 2200 words

Mindfulness 101: The NOW Formula for COVID-19 Stress Relief

By Melanie Bragg

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It’s April 2020 and here we are in the middle of the first global pandemic we have ever experienced in our lifetimes: COVID-19. It has been 100 years since the Spanish flu and nearly that long since the Great Depression. Those of us who are alive now have experienced a long period of affluence and prosperity, despite periodic financial downturns. The new crisis is unprecedented, sudden, and there are many unknowns, all of which create intense stress, uncertainty, and many opportunities for anxiety and dread.

If there were ever a period for mindfulness, it would be now.

If you have your daily mindfulness practices in place, good for you. Just keep doing what you are doing. I have to admit, in the first couple of weeks of this thing I was so stressed I could not meditate very well. My focus was off. I was distracted, and my thoughts were dark. Meditation was tough. Even though sometimes I didn’t “want” to, I tried. I was not hard on myself because I was having such a challenging time that day. I am like everyone else. We were all cruising around with our plans and goals in mind, launching a new year and looking forward to life events, great new cases, and lots of fun with family and friends.

This hit us all hard.

The thing that kept me going was just staying in the NOW. The present moment. Remember how I always say in these columns that the past and the future are illusions, and that thoughts that go to either of those places are energy drains? Right now, in order to keep your energy and your spirits at the most productive level possible you must stay in the present moment. The NOW.

It was kind of like this: My mind was going in 15 different directions. “What about my staff?” “What about new clients—will they come in?” “What about our Division’s Spring meeting in Puerto Rico?” “What about Erica’s wedding in June?” “Are my parents going to be safe?” “Are we going to meet clients at the office?” “When is it going to be over?” “How long can I hold out?” We can all fill in our own cluster of competing thoughts that run through our minds all day, especially those of us with kids or elderly parents. “What about my kids’ schooling?” “How can I go to work and leave them?” “Can we move Mom down here now during all this?”

We can also beat ourselves up with a host of “I wish I had . . .” or “I should have. . . .” But what could we have done in the past to prepare for a global pandemic that we had no idea was coming? All these are competing thoughts of the past or the future, none of which we can control.

Everyone has a multitude of problems to confront, plans that are disrupted, and a high level of uncertainty. This stress can lead to a loss of productivity and a variety of potential long-term mental health issues. We must have mechanisms in place to deal with things in the moment and really be conscious of what we are feeling and how we are reacting so that we can see the warning signs before things get out of control.

We owe it to our clients and the public we serve to be vigilant about our mental health right now.

By staying in the NOW, I was able to keep my focus in the moment when I found my mind jumping from fear-based thoughts about the past and the future. I would literally say to myself, “Right NOW I am in my beautiful home cooking a healthy meal.” “Right NOW I am working out in my home gym doing a workout I love.” “Right NOW I am in my beautiful office working on my active case list.” “Right NOW I am on our weekly GPSolo Roundtable discussion talking to other lawyers who are in the same situation as I am.” It can truly calm you down in an instant. Try it.

It feels like when you are on a three-lane highway in the middle lane and your car wants to pull into the left lane (the past) or the right lane (the future). You just need to keep your car in the middle lane of the present moment. I actually had to consciously pull myself out of the past and the future and redirect my thoughts to the present moment. Whether you are a seasoned meditator yet or not, you can do it! You must do it!

Daily meditation practice will help. After those first couple of weeks, I have been able to get back into my daily routine, and it has been a lifesaver. It doesn’t make everything perfect, it just helps even things out daily.

After focusing on the NOW and realizing it was helping me see the gifts of this special time in history, I came up with a NOW Formula for you to follow and use as you navigate your way through your COVID-19 days.

NOW: Nurture. Own. Win.

Nurture

First and foremost, right now, nurture yourself and others. Compassion. Empathy. Those qualities should be at the top of our lists right now. Develop them. But start with yourself. You must put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping the other people in your life. I decided that during this time I was going to be especially kind to myself and to others. While staying on my good, healthy diet, if I have a Dr. Pepper and some Cheetos—no sweat. It’s a stressful time, and there is no sense in not enjoying special treats. (The funny thing is that while releasing my “should nots” I have actually lost weight and felt an improvement in my health by having healthy meals at home as opposed to eating out.)

Our sadness over the mounting deaths, our concerns over the health of first responders, our worries about the economy—all of us are feeling it. Sharing our thoughts and love for each other will ease our pain each day. Limit your exposure to the news. Just watch a little in the morning and maybe a little at night. It’s important to stay informed, but you don’t need to be inundated.

Take that bubble bath you always want to take but never seem to get around to. Sit down and read that book that has been on your list for a long time. It is so encouraging to hear so many people’s stories of how they have gotten all their home improvement projects done, how much time they have had with family that has really improved their relationships. There are a lot of hidden treasures that we can find once we stop the noise in our heads caused by the fear and uncertainty surrounding this virus.

I decided that during this time I was not going to be upset with anyone. If I have those feelings of impatience or frustration with someone, I realize that I have no idea what they are going through, and I cut them slack. Everyone just needs to stay in their own lane and understand that everyone reacts differently to situations like this, so we are all coping as best we can. Nurturing ourselves and others will help us get through all this. It’s been really fun to do that, and once it is over, I plan to stay that way. Being at peace with people, even the ones who irritate me, really reduces my inner stress.

Own

We must own the situation we are in now. All of the worry and frustration in the world is not going to make Target have our Charmin toilet paper any quicker. For the life of me, I do not understand this toilet paper thing. Maybe someday we will learn the answer. But no amount of fretting, rumination, or worry is going to change one thing. We are all out of control of this situation. We are all out of our comfort zones. And we are all dealing with it in different ways. The only thing we have control over is our reaction to it. And our reactions will determine our outcomes.

I called an old friend from Canada the other day and said, “Hey man, how you been during this crazy past two weeks?” He answered me like this, “Well, I have spent the last two weeks coming to terms with the fact that I am old”—i.e., that he is part of the high-risk age group and, therefore, he doesn’t need to be tra-la-la’ing out there doing a bunch of errands. If he was in his 40s, he probably would be like so many of the younger people who are still not taking precautions. But he wasn’t, and he had to own it.

By owning it, we are releasing our attachments to the past—what was—and we are accepting what is NOW. That is one of the main principles of mindfulness. The process of non-attachment to outcomes and releasing our desire for control of things we have no control over. This is going to be especially important for those attorneys who have not embraced technology or who have had others handle technology for them. You can’t have your paralegal handle the Zoom court hearing from your house. We all have to be responsible for learning many new things right now. Wishing for the old days or for things to go back to the “way they were” is not going to be a productive use of your time and energy.

When we release control, we are less likely to ruminate. In previous columns I have discussed the scientific evidence that rumination and worry are actually harmful to your immune system. The stress of those repetitive thoughts cause damage your long-term health and well-being.

Once you own this situation and find your place in it, you can begin the next part of the NOW formula: win.

Win

Nurturing ourselves and others and owning it puts us in the position to win. And because we have access to better, more productive energy each day, we can brainstorm on ways to alter our business practices to accommodate this new world. We won’t be trying to hang on to the old ways. Instead, we will be excited about the new:

  • ways of doing business;
  • forms of and uses of technology;
  • ways of client intake and client interaction;
  • ways of coming together with family and friends; and
  • life changes that we must adapt to in this trying time. (These are only a few exciting changes—add yours here.)

Our patience will be tested. And we have choices to make each and every day as to how we are going to fare. Are we going to let it get us down and cause us to not move forward? Or are we going to face it bravely and experience new things and new ways of flourishing in a challenging time?

For me, keeping my daily routine of a (1) morning mediation, ( 2) an exercise class on my Peloton tread or bike, and (3) my gratitude ritual helps me stay in the zone I need to be in to make this a valuable time for me. Having some kind of routine is crucial. Then by adding my NOW Formula in (nurturing myself and others, owning the situation as it is right now, and working on ways to win), I can go through each day with hope and promise that this will not be wasted time, that I will survive this, and that I will be better equipped to serve the needs of the clients who need me to be prepared, sharp, and on top of serving their needs. We are the portal to the justice system for them. And I always say, the stronger and healthier the portal, the better off the public we serve will be. The public we serve needs us—and will need us more than ever now. Let’s get strong for them. Let’s get ready to help them through the challenges this COVID-19 crisis has caused them. And let’s be a part of making this world a better place each day. It starts with you and your mindfulness practice.

I hope this message has encouraged you to know you are not alone, that this is not easy for any of us, and that by working together and practicing mindfulness each and every day, we can get through this with more insight, more compassion, more empathy that ever before.

Until next time . . . namaste. Please let me know if you have any tips, sources, or experiences with mindfulness you want to share at melanie@bragglawpc.com.

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”—Zen proverb

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Melanie Bragg has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Houston’s fiercest attorneys in her representation of children, the elderly, and mentally disadvantaged people. Her firm, Bragg Law PC, is a general civil firm in Houston, Texas. She also writes and produces legal education programs through Legal Insight, Inc. (founded by Bragg in 1993). Her writing credits include Crosstown Park, an Alex Stockton legal thriller; HIPAA for the General Practitioner; chapters in How to Capture and Keep Clients, Second Edition; Effortless Marketing: Putting Your Unique Qualities to Work, Second Edition; and The Conscious Lawyer: How the Practice of Mindfulness Will Increase Your Bottom Line; as well as the forthcoming ABA book, Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. When she is not writing, Melanie devotes her time to her work as Immediate Past Chair of the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice (GPSolo) Division and to sharing ideas with fellow authors. She is interested in your feedback and ideas about how solos, small firms, military, and government lawyers can lead richer, happier lives and thereby improve the delivery of legal services to the public. Melanie can be reached at melanie@bragglawpc.com.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 9, April 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.