Annie Phan, Contributing Writer
It can be hard to view 2021 as a fresh start after a year like 2020. As COVID-19 spreads and politics flood every screen, conversation and newspaper cover, it’s important to prioritize your mental health.
Two local professors are seeking to impart mindfulness and leadership skills to students in the new year. VCU management and entrepreneurship professor Chris Reina and University of Richmond political science professor Monti Datta held a virtual event, “A Mindful Approach to 2021,” on Feb. 2.
“What better time to do it than now as we enter 2021 with all the challenges we’ve seen in the past year, as well as the current challenges we are in now?” Reina said.
Here are some tips from both professors:
Practice informal and formal mindfulness
Set aside time for sensory-focused meditation. Sitting upward in a chair or laying down helps you focus on your senses such as touch and sound.
“Use your breath as an object of awareness,” Datta said. “Allow your stray thoughts to run and return gently.”
Designating a period of meditation, even if it is only for a few minutes, will help remind you that you do not have control over the external, but over your internal breathing.
Informal mindfulness is about how you pay attention and the quality of your attention. It may not be as structured as meditation, but being attentive in your daily interactions will help you navigate your conversations and actions with those at work, school and home.
Be an attentive leader
Be conscious in how your physical and verbal mannerisms convey a message, positive or negative. Compassion stems from acknowledging others’ ideas and feelings while simultaneously working on your own emotional awareness.
“Leaders need to be aware that everything they do, everything they say, everything they don’t do and everything they don’t say sends a message,” Reina said. “The best leaders make me feel valued, important, cared for. It’s not just a leadership thing. It’s a human thing.”
Separate fact and emotion during difficult discussions
Datta, who holds a doctorate in political science, said that intense emotions such as sadness or anger are expected to emerge during heavy discussions over topics such as politics or the COVID-19 pandemic.
Datta said metacognition, or conscious awareness of how one’s thoughts form, plays a role in differentiating emotions from facts.
“When we have a thought that is filled with anger or stress, metacognition allows us to step back and say, ‘I can feel that emotion and recognize that doesn’t define me,’” Datta said. “It’s important to listen with your body and not just talk with your head.”
Approaching difficult conversations requires an open mind. Taking away judgement will allow clearer understanding to new perspectives and current events.
“I’ve come to understand that nonjudgement is really just acknowledging and being able to step back to see what goes through our mind,” Reina said.
Pay attention to your physical body
“If we can listen to our bodies at the physiological level, it can inform why we think what we think,” Datta said. “It can influence the nature of our thoughts.”
The body can tense up, and the heart rate can increase during high-stress situations. Neglecting the physical symptoms of stress may lead to long-term health issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Similar to any physical lifestyle modification, effective change comes from incorporating healthy habits into our daily routines.
“Practice, practice, practice,” said attendee Roger Mancastroppa, an adjunct in the academic skills development department at the University of Richmond. “The more we practice both in formal and informal situations, the easier it becomes to really notice what is happening and what might happen as we engage with the outside world.”