The Mindfulness Guide To Helping You Deal With The Stress Of COVID-19
The daily news about COVID-19 can be relentless. Couple that with isolation, financial worries, new family or homeschooling responsibilities, college-aged children making an unexpected return home, and, in the worst-case scenario, the illness itself, and you have a recipe for tremendous levels of stress.
There’s so much uncertainty. Most of us have experienced a complete disruption in our daily routines. We’re sheltered at home and possibly dealing with the loss of a loved one or a job.
And while it feels as though the virus crisis is a local issue, because that’s where we notice its impact, it’s global. Many of the problems we are now facing are global in nature, such as the warming planet, economic inequality, and now a contagious virus. The Coronavirus is pointing out just how interdependent we are, with disrupted supply chains slowing down manufacturing and international travel spreading the virus. Globalization is a fact – the only choice is whether we will work together to solve our problems. The choice is between reacting with fear or responding with kindness. Nationalists are seizing upon the Coronavirus to find scapegoats and blame “others”, usually ethnic groups and immigrants, but others are working across borders to solve the problem. A new global collaboration is taking place, despite the U.S.’s leaders deciding to take a more nationalist go-it-alone approach.
Common reactions to COVID-19
- Concern about protecting oneself from the virus because they are at higher risk of serious illness.
- Concern that regular medical care or community services may be disrupted due to facility closures or reductions in services and public transport closure.
- Feeling socially isolated, especially if they live alone or are in a community setting that is not allowing visitors because of the outbreak.
- Guilt if loved ones help them with activities of daily living.
- Increased levels of distress if they have mental health concerns before the outbreak, such as depression; live in lower-income households or have language barriers; and experience stigma because of age, race or ethnicity, disability, or perceived likelihood of spreading COVID-19.
In the face of this uncertainty, do you find yourself scouring the internet for answers to all the questions running through your mind? Are you playing out all the what-if scenarios that your mind creatively supplies in large quantities in the hope that if something terrible actually happens, you’ll be better prepared? Do you find that much of your time and energy is devoted to either figuring out answers to questions that don’t have answers or trying not to think about the scary possibilities, all unsuccessfully?
If the answer to any of that is yes, rest assured, you are not alone. Uncertainty is one of the most difficult human experiences. Uncertainty means not having control over what might happen to us. We don’t do so well when we don’t have a sense of control – we may feel more anxious and more depressed and be more susceptible to pain and physical illnesses. Because a sense of control is so vital to our health and well-being, our minds go to great lengths to gain a sense of control in the face of uncertainty.
The actions that you may have found yourself engaging in recently – searching the internet for answers, playing out what-if scenarios, repeatedly worrying about what might happen in the future – are all an attempt by your mind to gain a sense of control. If you cannot have actual control, your mind attempts to make you feel as if you have control. If you think of enough what-if scenarios, and if you can find enough answers, maybe you’ll feel better. Of course, none of this actually gives you more control. Uncertainty is inevitable. Futile attempts to get rid of it take up a lot of your time and energy. As a result, you feel anxious and drained, and in no more control of uncertainty than before. The result of all this is escalating stress and fear. Ongoing stress can have detrimental effects on both physical and mental health. It’s a lot to take in, so it’s not surprising that many people are feeling anxious and stressed.
Mindfulness strategies and habits as a way of dealing with stress and fear
Fortunately, there are mindfulness strategies that you can use to manage stress during these scary and uncertain times.
But first, what exactly is mindfulness? Being mindful involves the nonjudgmental awareness of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions of the present moment. As mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It allows you to choose a more appropriate response to what is happening around you rather than acting automatically or without thinking. “It’s taking a break from the continual mind chatter and continual partial attention we give to most things in our lives. It’s not a clearing of the mind, but a focusing of the mind on something,” with a focus on breath being a common theme.
Consider incorporating one or more of the following mindfulness practices into your daily routine.
Most people think of yoga, tai chi or qi gong when they think of mindful movement – and these are all fantastic options. But walking, running, cycling and rowing can also be mindful if you remove distractions, both internal and external, and focus on the repetition of the movement, your breathing pattern, and the way your body feels as it moves through space.
Breathing exercises are sometimes performed in combination with meditation, but they can also be performed on their own. As few as 10 mindful breaths can relax the mind and body and allow you to refocus. There are a number of techniques you can explore, including diaphragmatic breathing and pursed-lip breathing, but here is a simple way to start. Put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Breathe slowly and be aware of how the air moves in and out of your body, inflating and deflating with each breath.
Preparing a healthy meal is a great way to have quality family time while doing something that is good for you. And once you sit down to eat, take the time to savor the meal while thinking about the taste, texture, smell, and look of your food – as well as the health and nutrition it provides.
Artistic expression – no matter your chosen medium – can be very freeing and supportive of your mental health. So, pick up a pen, paintbrush, guitar, or your dancing shoes and lose yourself in the artistic expression.
There’s been a lot of medical research into meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, that has shown it can actually impact physical health by reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone the body produces when under stress. Cortisol is helpful when you’re trying to flee a predator, as it helps your body fight or flee. But our bodies don’t really know the difference between when we’re experiencing a physical threat or a mental threat or worry, and it reacts the same in all those situations by producing cortisol.
Therefore, the body is flooded with cortisol when we respond to emotional stress or anxiety, and too much cortisol can lead to health problems. The more we worry and the more we fret, the more cortisol we produce, and that can lead to all sorts of problems including high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, and weight gain. Meditation can help reduce this excess production of cortisol and provide other mental and physical health benefits.
There are many types of meditation practices, but if you’re new to meditation or just want a way to relax during these stressful times, keep it simple.
Find or create a distraction-free zone and sit or lie down – whatever is most comfortable – for 10 or 15 minutes of quiet time or prayer. Try to disregard thoughts as they arise and instead focus on your breathing. Another type of meditation involves contracting and relaxing your muscles, starting at your toes and moving through each muscle group until you reach the muscles of your face and head. Finally, there are countless phone apps and YouTube videos with guided meditation, which can be a great place to start.
How Mindfulness Can Help You Deal with Fear
If we’re not mindful of our fear, it will overwhelm us and that’s rarely a good thing. When we face something threatening such as a fast-moving virus, it’s normal to be afraid. This sort of thing is like catnip for our brains, which are hardwired to scan for danger. Reading blaring headlines or watching alarming news about the Coronavirus plays into our nature, and not in a good way.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to accept painful thoughts and feelings in a balanced way. In particular, it is, for most of us, a healthier way to deal with both the stress and fear surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Mindfulness offers a way to turn toward our anxiety and fear so we don’t become overwhelmed by it. We can bring mindfulness into the fray to settle our nerves. And we can notice whether binge-watching TV news invites a wise response to forgo a family reunion in a coronavirus hot spot. Whenever fear arises—whether triggered by a mysterious virus or not—we can stop and investigate it. We can learn to see it not as a monolithic feeling, but as a fleeting experience with movable parts—sensations, thoughts, images, and so on.
In doing so, we can become intimate with the patterns of our personal brand of fear. We can notice where somatic angst shows up in our body. We can listen to the speed and content of our mental chatter. We can watch images appear in the theater of our minds and more clearly see the story that’s projected. When fear is mindfully broken down in this way, it becomes workable. It can even wisely inform our next steps. Feeling into the discomfort of uncertainty can birth new perspectives, and having the mental flexibility to consider another option creates an island of safety in the midst of uncertainty.
Draw the line between preparedness and panic
When we are stressed or anxious, our thinking brains go offline, and we go into survival mode. Intellectual information doesn’t stick because we’re busy running away from the danger. Only when our brains perceive safety does our thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) come back online. That’s when we can rationally plan for the future.
For example, when we are home, calmly writing a grocery list, our prefrontal cortex helps us to make a reasonable list. But when we get to the grocery store and see everyone running around in a panic state, we suddenly join in. The scientific term for this is “social contagion”, which is basically the spread of emotion from person to person. So what do we do about this phenomenon? Noticing that we are panicking is a good first step. Similar to taking your foot off the gas when your car is going out of control, mindfulness helps us ground ourselves in the present moment, which helps our minds stop racing off into the future with worry or catastrophic thinking.
Grounding is a powerful yet simple strategy to help you manage and detach from fear, anxiety, and pain. The goal is to shift attention away from negative feelings toward the external world. Grounding is particularly powerful because it can be applied to any situation where you are caught in emotional pain (e.g. triggered) and can be done anytime, anywhere, by oneself, without anyone noticing it.
Grounding is not a “relaxation technique” and in fact, is a more effective tool for victims of trauma.
Learn how to stop your fears, many of which feel quite real, from snowballing (“I’m going to lose my job,” “My grandmother is going to die.”) Mindfulness practices such as the mindfulness exercise offered above can help you stop your fears from snowballing and to build good “mental immunity” to stress, anxiety, and panic.
Learn to “anchor” yourself when you begin to obsess or panic. It is easy to focus if you are simply noticing what comes and goes. Problems arise, however, when you unconsciously resist discomfort, judge your discomfort or allow your mind to begin obsessing or fantasizing. When this happens, you will discover that a simple exercise such as sitting still for a few minutes and allowing your thoughts to come and go can become uncomfortable or even unbearable. Because it is so difficult to allow ourselves to just observe and just be—without the automatic mental functions of labeling and judging taking over—the mind needs an anchor. The most common anchor used in mindfulness practice is the breath. Paying attention to your breath is an excellent way to gather your attention and bring yourself into the present moment.
Learn how to soothe yourself. When you start to panic, obsess, or feel triggered by something in your environment, try each of the following:
- Gently stroke your arm, face, or hair
- Gently rock your body
- Give yourself a warm hug
Notice how your body feels after receiving each of these self-soothing techniques. Does it feel calmer, more relaxed? Notice which of these self-soothing techniques feels the best to you. For example, do you have more positive associations with one more than the other? Don’t allow your self-critical mind to try to talk you out of it—it is not silly or self-centered to soothe yourself—it is a loving thing to do for yourself.
Stop judging yourself for feeling anxious and fearful or for behaving in ways that seem unproductive or unhealthy. We need to take a fresh look at difficult emotions like fear and pain that can provide us with important information about what’s happening inside of us. Emotions become destructive—meaning that they cause us greater mental or physical suffering—when we either cling to them or push them away. And emotions seem to get stronger the more we fight them.
The healthier way to deal with these difficult emotions is to “hold” them in an open, aware, self-compassionate way. You can also change your relationship to your feelings by not judging an emotion or getting upset because you are feeling an emotion, telling yourself things like, “I hate feeling like this,” or “I shouldn’t feel like this,” or “I’m wrong to have this feeling.” Instead of becoming self-critical when you begin to panic, become obsessive, or fall back on old coping methods like overeating, you can work toward accepting your behavior with self-compassionate statements like:
- “It is understandable that I would feel afraid right now.”
- “It is understandable that I would go back to old habits when I’m stressed.”
The key here is to remind yourself that it is understandable, given the present situation, that you would be afraid, stressed, or panicked and that offering yourself understanding and self-compassion will help you a lot more than judging or criticizing yourself.
Being present: self-acceptance and self-compassion
There are two related practices that can help us to regain a sense of calm, as well as to gain some perspective. These two practices are mindfulness and compassion. In addition to helping the average person cope with their stress and fear regarding our current pandemic, being present and self-compassion are particularly effective practices for those who have experienced trauma in the past, including former victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse who can become “triggered” by this current crisis.
First and foremost, mindfulness involves being in the present. It has been said that the present moment is all we have. The past has already occurred and the future is yet to be. We can become so lost in our fears about tomorrow that we miss the present. In addition to learning how to pay attention to the present moment, we need to learn how to do so without evaluation or judgment. We need to use our conscious awareness and direct our attention to observe and only observe. So mindfulness entails observing what is going on in our field of awareness just as it is—right here, right now.
Acceptance is another aspect of mindfulness. Instead of trying to ignore or get rid of our emotional pain, when we respond to our pain with acceptance, change can happen naturally. Acceptance is not the same as resignation or feeling powerless or hopeless. And it is not the same as sugar-coating reality. Instead, acceptance in this context refers to making a conscious choice to experience our sensations, feelings, and thoughts just as they are. When we practice acceptance in this way, when we give up trying to control or manipulate our experience, we open the door to change.
While compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. More specifically for our purposes, self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. If we are to be self-compassionate we need to offer ourselves the recognition, validation, and support we would offer a loved one or a dear friend who is suffering.
Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her ground-breaking book, Self-Compassion, she defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.”
Self-compassion encourages you to begin to treat yourself and talk to yourself with the same kindness, caring, and compassion you would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has actually been shown to comfort and even help heal others of their ailments or problems, connecting with your own suffering will do the same for you.
Combining mindfulness with self-compassion
Self-compassion and mindfulness can work in tandem to help you learn to lean into your fear and anxiety and establish a new relationship with it. As Christopher Germer stated in his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: “While mindfulness says, ‘Feel the pain,’ self-compassion says, ‘Cherish yourself in the midst of the pain.’”
Mindfulness practice often leads to self-compassion. Mindfulness combined with self-compassion will help you to experience fear, anxiety, and pain in safe doses instead of either avoiding these feelings or allowing them to overwhelm you and your ability to focus and function. Self-compassion teaches us that instead of dealing with difficult emotions by fighting against them, we acknowledge our pain and respond to it with kindness and understanding.
As Kristin Neff so eloquently stated in her book Self Compassion, “The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are experienced simultaneously.”
Mindfulness and controlling the “second arrow”
In troubled times like this, it’s also helpful to reflect on the Buddhist concept of the “second arrow”. The first arrow is the negative event that happens–such as seeing your startup’s sales drop for the quarter or losing a client–or having COVID-19 show up. The second arrow is how we deal with the first arrow. “If I get stuck in resentment, and I’m angry about it, and I don’t accept it, then I feel victimized. I want to blame people for it–and that creates a mental state of suffering, which is the second arrow.”
It’s the second arrow that you can control. With mindfulness, you can learn how to let it be momentary, take it apart, look at it, and ask if it’s really productive to stay in that mental state, or are there different ways of looking at it that will help you accept what’s true, and be more effective in moving forward.
Mindfulness exercises for dealing with COVID-19
There are plenty of free mindfulness exercises to be explored online. The ones selected here are just a few of the many that can help to ease stress and anxiety and increase your sense of peace, calm, and contentment.
- Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) helps to initiate the body’s relaxation response.
- Body Scan Meditation. At a time when most of us are caught up in the movements of the mind, coming back to the body is a powerful practice for restoring our sense of peace and presence.
- Smiling. In these challenging and uncertain times, softly and subtly envisioning an inner smile spreading through the entire body can help us to rest and reset.
- Relaxing Sleep Music. Music has a profound impact on our sense of peace and calm.
- Mindfulness of Emotions. Becoming more curious about our emotions helps to deepen our awareness while decreasing our attachment to whatever moves within.
- Loving Kindness Meditation. Our embodiment of peace is strengthened when we explore loving-kindness for ourselves and everyone that inhabits this earth.
Mindfulness and the Power of Emotions
Mindfulness of emotions can be challenging to navigate. They come and go with the same impermanence as waves yet often carry the same brute force as a storm at sea. We can find ourselves overwhelmed by their force, whether the emotions that come are in the form of anger, fear, sadness, disgust, anticipation, joy, or any other feeling. Our emotional landscape when heightened can be an intricate intermingling of numerous feelings and sensations that often boils down to an indescribable experience of unease and discomfort. In this melting pot of emotions, we can find ourselves unable to find clarity, peace, and stillness.
As we reflect on our emotions, it is important to separate what is within our control from what is outside of our control. See the illustration.
When mindfulness of emotions arise consider these four ways to open up to them mindfully.
- Turn towards the emotion. There is a common tendency to move away from difficult emotions when they arise. While this may have once served as an effective defense mechanism, we can help ourselves to move through the emotion more effectively by turning towards it. By taking a few deep breaths and gently opening ourselves to whatever is present, we are able to transition through our emotional landscape with greater understanding and acceptance. The key here is to open from the heart and stay open to whatever arises.
- Create space by identifying the emotion(s) – without judgment. It is easy to become caught up in the story associated with the emotion – why we feel it, who is responsible, and how it could have been avoided. While there is a time and place for this inquiry, it can be useful to detach from the mindfulness of emotions when we are in the heat of them. We can practice this by becoming aware of what exactly is moving through us. Rather than saying to ourselves, “I am angry,” which often leads to, “because…” we can instead simply notice what is present. Simply witness ‘anger’, ‘grief’, ‘sadness’, or whatever is the case as though it were a separate entity. Open to this energetic presence with compassion and curiosity, noticing if the mind intervenes with judgment. Come back to an open heart.
- Feel into any bodily sensations that are present. When we become caught up in mindfulness of emotions, we can open our awareness to the entire body. What do we notice? Where do we sense increased or decreased activity? Even numbness can be observed. Feeling into the way the emotion presents itself in the body can help us to create some sort of distance in-between ourselves and the energy moving through us. As we practice creating this distance, strengthening our awareness of it, we come to realize that our emotions are just a happening that can be witnessed from a quieter, more peaceful place.
- Become aware of the impermanence of this state. Feelings, thoughts, and sensations all come and go; such is the nature of life. When mindfulness of emotions rises, we can heighten our awareness of the transitory nature of our experience. Through this opening to the flow of our emotions, we become less consumed by them. We start to loosen our grip on the beliefs we hold about them. We come to realize that we are not, in fact, our emotions; and through this realization, we find the strength to journey through the storm in our sails.
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