I've given myself an impossible task. I set out to explain why mindfulness is the most important skill to learn in 2022 at the exact moment when I have no inclination to practice it.
Omicron has me upset, disappointed, and worried. Days before Christmas, a loved one and their young, high-risk family tested positive for COVID. Separately, another loved one, despite good intentions, exposed themselves to significant COVID risk just as Omicron began rapidly spreading across the country. The domino effect of that potential exposure threw my — and many other people's — Christmas plans into disarray.
For me, anger and uncertainty unleash both adrenaline and motivation. I need to operate at peak problem-solving capacity, trying to anticipate what the future holds. I help my loved ones get tested, scramble to find housing where they can isolate, and talk through their concerning symptoms. Thankfully, they are mostly vaccinated and boosted, but the highly contagious, immune-evading variant presents new questions about its effect on vulnerable children and older adults to which I don't have answers.
To be honest, I had a sip of whiskey when I first registered the stakes. Then I flew into action. Only later did I pause to sit with and acknowledge the intense emotions, without pushing them away or letting them drag me deeper into panic. This act of being fully present, paired with self-compassion for the pain I felt, is mindfulness. Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn also defines it as awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.
When I'm practicing mindfulness effectively, I'm not in the past, wishing someone had chosen a different path nor am I imagining a future of devastating consequences. Instead, I'm in the present moment, using self-compassion and radical acceptance to acknowledge how I feel and extend kindness toward myself.
I share this experience because I suspect it sounds familiar or will become common in 2022, thanks to Omicron. The hardest season of the post-vaccine pandemic may be upon us, and the uncertainty will push many of us into a tailspin of anxiousness. If that weren't enough, the upcoming year will bring new but expected crises, like extreme weather connected to climate change, and others that we haven't yet anticipated. Regardless, social media algorithms will amplify our greatest fears and suspicions, pumping users full of rage and cynicism, as late capitalism demands we sacrifice everything for work while neglecting to meet people's basic needs. This is not a culture naturally prone to mindfulness. Instead, it can make us reactive, callous, and even more likely to worry about catastrophe than we already are as human beings.
That makes mindfulness the most important skill to cultivate. It deepens our capacity to cope with anxiety and other difficult emotions by gently interrupting runaway thinking and feeling. When practiced in tandem with self-compassion and radical acceptance, it opens the heart and mind in remarkable ways. We see possibility instead of dread. We feel connected instead of solitary.
Mindfulness can seem unattainable when the goal is mistakenly perceived as perfection. Rather, it's the act of starting again — and again and again — when an impulse, thought, or feeling pulls us into the past or future. Some people use the breath as a physiological tether to the present, particularly as they meditate. Rhythmic breathing calms the nervous system and makes it easier to focus on what's within our control. But mindfulness doesn't require breathwork or meditation. Mindfulness can be practiced during activities like walking, washing dishes, gardening, exercising, playing, or driving. When a thought, good or bad, barges in, mindfulness means observing it with curiosity and openness, then returning back to the present moment, where we note the musty smell of leaves in winter or how the horizon meets the highway.
It's easy to believe we're adept at taming anxiety born of uncertainty thanks to the pandemic. But this may be a false assumption. Dr. Jack Nitschke, a clinical psychologist, and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, told me that exposure to unpredictability doesn't necessarily improve our coping skills. "I actually don't think people get better at tolerating uncertainty just because there's a lot of it," he said.
"I actually don't think people get better at tolerating uncertainty just because there's a lot of it."
Instead, when we remain guided by fear and anxiousness, our malleable brain develops neurocircuitry to support those thought patterns and feelings. Anxious thinking becomes a track we unconsciously return to over and over because the brain has developed neural connections to support that habit. Nitschke believes we can also do the opposite. When we pause, bring ourselves back to the present moment, and interrupt a cycle of worried thinking, the brain develops new associations. The more we practice mindfulness, the more the brain learns to lean into it. Something will inevitably blow up this relative calm, like getting bad news, but we remain capable of strengthening our brain connections for mindfulness. Over time, coming back to the present, even in crisis, becomes easier.
This might be harder for some than others. While Nitschke believes everyone can take advantage of brain plasticity to adopt effective ways of coping with the pandemic and uncertainty, those with histories of trauma or mental illness might feel it's more difficult to interrupt their dominant thought patterns. Similarly, someone who disproportionately experiences injustice, trauma, and economic hardship may experience mindfulness as a single sandbag in a deluge.
"There are a number of real concrete, institutional, environmental, community factors that are, in a very tangible way, contributing to the psychological distress that these individuals are experiencing," Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, told me.
Burnett-Zeigler believes that mindfulness is one way to address that stress and has studied related interventions in low-income communities of color, particularly among Black women who've experienced depression and trauma. In a pilot study in the south side of Chicago, Burnett-Zeigler taught participants techniques like body scanning, seated meditation, yoga, noticing pleasant and unpleasant events, and mindful communication. Most of the women reported improved anger management, enhanced awareness, feeling calm and relaxed, and better control over thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Most also experienced decreased trauma symptoms, but a small number reported worse trauma symptoms. Burnett-Zeigler suspects those participants had so powerfully (and understandably) deployed avoidance and denial to cope with their trauma that mindfulness brought to the surface painful feelings instead of soothing them.
Burnett-Zeigler remains convinced that the skills encompassed by mindfulness — awareness, stillness, self-compassion, and stress regulation — are valuable tools for anyone. And yet people dealing with trauma may need additional resources fine-tuned for their experience, like yoga classes in which participants aren't asked to close their eyes and the lights stay on. This is not a small caveat in a time of pronounced grief and trauma, especially in communities of color that experience racial injustice and have also been hit hard by COVID.
It's also clear that the burden we carry — some of us bearing much heavier loads than others — will not become lighter anytime soon. When considering a skill to learn in 2022, whether for adventure, self-improvement, or satisfaction, look to mindfulness as a worthy challenge. Instruction is everywhere, including in books, podcasts, online courses, and apps. There is no competition, judgment, or failure; just the ever-present chance to find calm in the midst of relentless uncertainty.