By Amanda Barnes
Some days are harder than others to get out of our heads and into our lives. We might be stuck on an emotion, replaying in our minds an event that didn’t go as planned or worrying about a “What if” occurring in the future. The year 2020 has certainly brought about a multitude of “What if” moments; What if I lose my job? What if we quarantine for months and months and the kids don’t go back to school in the fall? What if I, or someone I love, gets the coronavirus? What if another innocent black life is taken? What if the guy I want to win the presidency (and yes, it’s going to be a guy) doesn’t win and the other one does? These are all real questions and valid concerns many of us have contemplated over the past few months and are still grappling with.
As a mental health counselor, I not only deal with my own questions and concerns about all of the above, I try to help my clients manage their thoughts and emotions in these trying times as well. I can’t answer any of the “What if” questions for them but I do try to help my clients recognize what is in our control and what is out of our control. We need to keep our options open for employment opportunities in this climate. We need to know our strength and resilience is always greater than we realize and we can handle more than we think. We know we have to wash our hands, socially distance from others and wear face coverings in attempt to keep ourselves from getting or spreading the virus. We know we need to stand up to what is wrong, and we need to vote to have our voices heard. These are things we know to be within our power right now.
But what about all of the things that are not within our power? What do we do with all of those worrisome thoughts and fears? Fretting about something never changes an outcome, and holding onto stress and staying in a constant state of anxiety about what may or may not happen is not healthy. It’s bad for our overall health and is zero percent effective.
Once we differentiate between what is in our power and what is not, it’s important to take the time to focus on the things we can control and let go of what we can’t. We can make goals to update our resumes and start to research other positions if we fear our jobs are going to be fatalities of the pandemic. We can be active in getting our voices heard as it relates to decisions around the re-opening of schools, Black Lives Matter or the presidential election of 2020. We can make our plans to fight back against the coronavirus and social injustices, tend to our causes and give them our all, but realize we can’t be working on these things 24/7. And sadly, bad things are going to happen regardless of all of our efforts. We need to create time to take mental breaks from it all. How do we that? Mindfulness is one way.
When we are mindful of our present emotions, feelings, sensations and thoughts, we are not reliving the past or fearing what might happen in the future; we are living in the moment. I have found one of the best facilitators of mindfulness is getting out of my head and into my body. Exercise is a great way to do just that and can be as effortless as going for a walk. One of my favorite walks to take when I need a break from my thoughts and concerns is a sensory walk. I basically go on a sensory walk every day with my dog. It’s easy to do, I’ll walk you through it…
Start your walk by engaging and trusting in all of your senses, allowing yourself to step away from your thoughts and into your surroundings. As you tap into each sense, dive into it fully as your dog does with his nose. When dogs sense something on their walks, they investigate it with all of their attention. Channel your inner puppy here and start by noticing everything you smell.
Bring your awareness to your nose. Take a big, deep breath. What do you smell? Maybe you’re by the water and you smell the mix of ocean air, sunscreen and dough boys or you’re walking by someone who is cutting her lawn and you smell the freshness of the cut grass. Breathe in all of the scents, one breath after another.
Next, bring your attention to your eyes. Take a look around and focus on what you see, not what you’re thinking. Start to home in on one thing at a time. Observe the colors, the patterns and placement of things. Maybe you discover a house you’ve never noticed before or your neighbor’s love of hydrangea is coming into view in periwinkle blues and lavender hues. Take mental pictures of what you see.
Once you’ve focused on the many things you see on your walk, bring your awareness to your ears and pay attention to the various vibrations around you. Where are the sounds coming from? Are they in the distance or are they nearby? Is it a single sound or a grouping of sounds? Are they human voices, children’s laughter or the leaves rustling? Pay attention to all of the ways the world around you is attempting to communicate with you.
Start to transition from what you’re hearing to what you’re feeling with your skin. Maybe it’s the warmth of the summer sun on your face, the many pebbles under your feet or the way the silky blades of grass feel when you run your fingers through them. Take note of all of these things around you and how they literally touch you.
Lastly, what do you taste? You don’t have to put anything into your mouth necessarily to taste it. You may taste the salty air or the sticky humidity if you’re on the coast. Let the taste linger.
After I purposefully engage all of my senses on a walk like this I tend to feel so much more alive and invigorated because my senses are awakened and taking in everything around me. This exercise never fails to get me out of my head, away from anxious thinking, and into my body and my surroundings.
I realize this sensory walk isn’t going to change our current climate, but it’s a gentle reminder that the best way to deal with the unknown is to take time to care for ourselves. When we take good care of ourselves and choose to be present, we greet the future and all of its unknowns with the most balanced and centered version of ourselves. That is what is in our control.
EG resident Amanda (Mandy) Barnes is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Warwick. She is the proud mother of three teenagers in the East Greenwich schools and one crazy dog named Wrigley.
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Thank you for this wonderful essay. I never thought of it as my daily walks as mindfulness but that’s exactly what I do (as you described).
It’s also why I don’t listen to an audiobook or music during my outdoor walks – because I’d rather hear the music around me.
We have 2 indoor kitties but I do love dogs and over the years, I’ve learned the names of many of the ones who live on my neighborhood walk. I see them as friends and enjoy sometimes talking with them as they come out to “greet”
Me ( or protect their turf).
What a lovely thing to read this early morning (the kitties and work thoughts woke me up……)
Thank you for this advice. It is interesting that you recommend using one’s senses in the order of greater intensity for dogs. They smell first, then see, then hear. My service dog walks me four times a day and his sensory priorities are quite explicit. His hearing is keen, his sight piercing but I sure do wonder what his sense of smell tells him that remains a mystery to me.