Photo via healthtalk.unchealthcare.org

Nothing is as it should be right now — nothing is normal and nothing is certain about moving forward. University of Maine students have lost the second half of the spring semester to online classes and remote learning. Events are now virtual, Orono’s restaurants are closed except for takeout and delivery and the closest anyone can get to the experience of a bar or club is going to the grocery store, as it now has a bouncer due to the max capacity rules. 

Yet right now, people still have obligations. Seniors may still be finishing a thesis and defending it virtually. Students are pushing through classes that don’t lend well to an online format. Some students don’t have reliable internet access, and some students have lost power more than once in the past two weeks due to weather. 

In the midst of all this, it’s hard to set expectations for yourself. With what appears to be more free time on our hands now, it seems like this would be an opportunity to get ahead, to learn a new skill or to excel in anything that was constrained by time before, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. 

UMaine alum and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) Kim Leo has some other advice on what you can do right now: practice being mindful.

“The word ‘mindfulness’ can be intimidating to some,” Leo said, noting the commonly related questions: how can you stop your thoughts and how can you sit still? But being mindful, even during a pandemic, isn’t as impossible as you’d think, and it’s something we all can practice.

To break the concept of mindfulness down, Leo cited the work of Viktor Frankl, who says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This space between what is happening to us and how we respond is the mindfulness, according to Leo. 

“Being mindful is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, allowing ourselves to feel and tolerate being in a moment where we may be feeling pain, suffering or even pleasure. It’s turning inward and feeling this,” Leo explained. 

So how does this apply to the pandemic? 

If with the newfound free time afforded by having nowhere to be, you are finding yourself particularly unproductive, that’s ok. If you’re not learning how to juggle, or skateboard and if you haven’t completely taught yourself Spanish German, French or Mandarin, that’s ok. The state of mind created by a pandemic isn’t one of normalcy, and this isn’t a vacation, so don’t expect yourself to feel like it is. Instead, embrace whatever it is you’re feeling right now, try to understand its relation to the stimulus (this pandemic), and forgive yourself if you’re not reading Shakespeare’s entire collection. Be in the moment and practice mindfulness instead.

“Using our sense is a very simple way to be mindful,” Leo said. “What can you hear in this moment, what can you see, what can you feel through touch, what can you taste, what can you smell? This is a very simple way to ground yourself when you are feeling activated, overwhelmed or stressed.”

In practicing mindfulness, a large part is acknowledging your own thoughts and emotions without judgment and without the pressure to rid yourself of these thoughts. Notice what your senses are noticing, and if you can find yourself tuning in, feeling, hearing, seeing and becoming more aware of things as they are happening, you’re practicing mindfulness. 

Leo’s message to students: take care of yourself right now. Make time to feel, validate and love yourself. And instead of punishing yourself for how you choose to use your free time, take a chance and experience the benefits of mindfulness and how it relates to you. 

“Mindfulness is hard work,” Leo said. “It will feel awkward, uncomfortable and it will challenge everything inside of you that wants to react, avoid and run from big feelings.”

Be patient with yourself, be in the moment and be mindful.