When my eight-year-old came to me with a worried look and asked if she was going to get the coronavirus, I answered her truthfully: “I don’t know, but if you or anyone else in our family does, we know how to take care of you.”
I hope I sounded calm, but inside, I too was feeling anxious. As parents, caregivers, and teachers, our natural instinct is to protect our children from difficult news, but the anxiety and panic around the coronavirus is hard to avoid. Sometimes the best way to navigate the difficult emotions is intentionally moving through the anxiety and stress together.
That night, my daughter and I did a 4-2-6 breath and sent loving-kindness wishes to ourselves, our family and friends and the world. Her fear didn’t disappear, but she did feel calm enough to fall asleep peacefully. It’s powerful what a few minutes of mindful breathing and focused, kind thoughts can do to soothe an anxious child – or adult.
Here are a few key mindfulness practices to help your family manage the overwhelming feelings that might come up around news of the coronavirus and any other stressful situations:
Breathe out longer with 4-2-6
The simple practice of breathing out longer is enough to activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down in periods of stress. Stress and anxiety often manifest as shallow, quick breathing. By taking a longer breath on the exhale, we allow the body to naturally come back to center state.
The parasympathetic nervous system is controlled by the vagus nerve. When we breathe deeply and slowly, we send a signal to the vagus nerve to put on the brakes, giving ourselves a space to find calm — a form of self-compassion. Once we regulate our breath, we can more easily clarify and manage intense feelings. Here’s how to do the 4-2-6 practice:
- Raise open your palm in the air to show counts
- Breathe in for 4 counts, putting down a finger for each count
- Hold breath for 2 counts
- Now exhale out for 6 counts, raising a finger for each count
- Repeat three times
- Ask children about to check in about their feelings with a thumbs up or down
Find an anchor in the natural world
When we feel anxious, we often enter into a negative feedback loop. We might experience rapid, shallow breathing or an increased heart rate. This in turn tells the brain we’re under stress and the cycle continues.
Mindful Littles advisor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, Matthew Fishelder, explains that practices such as mindful breathing can break the cycle by encouraging us to become more aware of our body, which helps us calm down and in turn tells the mind we’re okay. In addition to mindful breathing, another way to reground is to focus on an element in nature. Here are some simple everyday practices to try as a family:
- Get fresh air
- Hold a rock or stone
- Place bare feet on the ground
- Take a moment to breathe in with 4-2-6 breath or another breath
- Try the Root to Rise Moving Meditation
Validate the feeling by naming the emotion together
One of the most important practices we can do is validate a child’s emotions and our own by allowing our bodies to accept, name and feel those emotions. To be worried about the coronavirus is a very natural human response. Instead of saying “Don’t worry” or “Nothing will happen,” when we accept a child’s feelings, we allow them to naturally work through the emotion.
Naming the emotion together allows all family members to express how they feel, which is a critical step in letting go. When we share our own vulnerability around a stressful or scary situation, it reassures children that we are human too and they’re not alone in their feelings. Giving a reassuring hug helps too. Not everything is within our control, but we can respond authentically and with courage and compassion for ourselves and our families.
Move your bodies together
The root of the word “emotion” is “motion,” which means “move out, remove, agitate.” To help manage our feelings, we can literally move our emotions out our bodies! Exercise, ride bikes, play outside or throw an impromptu dance party to physically continue the process of releasing intense emotions together.
Notice and soak in the good
Our brains are wired toward negativity bias — the tendency to notice and dwell on the negative rather than the positive in our lives. Spending extra energy proactively noticing the good and soaking it in can help decrease our negative feelings and increase the positive ones.
One way to do this is to experience awe. Research shows feeling awe can lead to increased happiness, generosity and health. Notice and share five awe-inspiring experiences with your children. Was it a walk among the Redwoods, a sweeping view of the Grand Canyon or maybe the simple glimpse of a hummingbird? Ask them to share their own experiences. Check out more fascinating facts about the science of awe.
We hope one or more of these mindfulness practices help you and your family feel grounded, present and positive no matter the situation.