Mindfulness Matters More than Ever

Try this mindful coping idea for COVID-19 worries

By Leziga Barikor

It is very rare that a news event has as far reaching impact and implications as what has happened with the COVID-19 pandemic. To even find an event comparable, we have to go back over a hundred years to the 1918 flu commonly known as the “Spanish flu” and it still doesn’t come close. According to professionals, the best approach we have to maintaining the least amount of lost lives is social distancing which has uprooted many of our daily routines.

From record breaking job losses, to closures of schools and many of our favorite non-essential businesses, and, for the spiritual, the inability to gather in community can have many questioning what is left? Sure spending unlimited time on streaming platforms and sleeping in has it’s short term appeal, but it quickly becomes clear that isn’t all most of us want out of life.

And to top it all off, the pandemic itself — as daily reports pour in about positive cases and deaths and constant reminders to wash your hands, it can be overwhelming. The immunocompromised and otherwise at risk make up more of our friends and family than we ever thought to worry about, but now we are. Worried. And it’s during a crisis like this that we need to be practicing mindfulness more than ever.

Worry and anxiety in the COVID-19 era

To be clear, I’m no psychologist or medical professional, and I highly recommend you seek one out if you’re feeling daily life has become unmanageable. But today I am writing as a person with worries when it comes to COVID-19, and I hope some of my coping strategies can help you during this difficult time. This pandemic has put us all in the unique position of having many of very real and valid fears. Will I loose my job, will my mother get sick, will my friends get sick, how will I ever find toilet paper all comes to mind.

So how do we practice mindfulness when our anxieties all cover a range of various valid possibilities? Well first, I think we need to get a better understanding of mindfulness and what our brains and bodies are doing during times of high stress.

Now mindfulness can have many different definitions and applications, but for my purposes, it is the practice of using your five senses to fully be in the moment whatever it is and wherever it is. It’s a practice most commonly associated with therapy, but need not be limited to professional settings. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but they aim at the same goal of accepting without judgement your current state of being.

The major issue we’re facing with this pandemic is an uncertain future, and anxiety is often related to concerns about the future. What a lot of us are experiencing is natural response to an common enemy — the unknown. Not knowing what to anticipate is both frustrating and scary, and that’s okay. You don’t need to fight or immediately make these feelings go away. To practice mindfulness is to let yourself be and feel whatever is happening in the moment, and actually allowing yourself to feel the worry won’t make it worse. It instead gets you further on the process to feeling better.

Mindfulness in the midst of real chaos

Now I feel like a lot of well meaning blogs discussing mindfulness require people to jump into the deep end and start by recommending meditations. I do meditate and find it very useful, but besides carving out 10-20 minutes of your day for calm, that still leaves time for stressers to pull you back down again.

The battle against racing thoughts is at a fever pitch when every inconvenience or negative consequence of the pandemic is making daily life challenging. So the first step towards mindfully quelling daily worries and anxieties is to notice them and how they’re making you feel. Accept the feelings but challenge your thoughts. Consider what the location is in time and space for these thoughts being mindful that anxiety is often future focused.

  • Asking what ifs. . . (What if that person who just coughed has it?)
  • Thinking in absolutes. . . (This quarantine is never going to end.)
  • Future forecasting. . . (First I coughed this morning and again right now, I must have it.)
  • Minimizing the positives. . . (My work is keeping us all home, but I’ll probably get sick at the grocery store.)
  • Conclusion jumping. . . (They just announced a case in my parent’s town, it must be them or their direct neighbors.)
  • Should/shouldn’t. . . (I should’ve bought toilet paper when this first hit the news.)

There are plenty more models you can find to help you identify anxious thoughts, and that’s an essential first step to changing your mindset.

What your body needs after going through these feelings is for your autonomic nervous system to reset. The various physical responses you have to anxiety are seen in the autonomic nervous system without you ever thinking about it like regulating your breathing and heartbeat. The sympathetic division is where your “flight or fight” responses come from, and the subsequent calm at rest state is managed in the parasympathetic division. But since a virus isn’t an enemy we can fight or run from, our body’s next resort is a freeze response.

Freeze and turning location services on

Since we can’t flee or fight the threat this pandemic poses, freeze responses, essentially having your body shut down, is the next place you could go. This may be reflective in you losing focus, having a lack of motivation and desire to just sleep all the time. And honestly, get the extra rest. And take a deep breath to help kick start your parasympathetic nervous system to calm mode.

The next way to get through the anxiety after you’ve paused to accept your negative emotions and identified your thought patterns is to turn on your location services. Not on your phone, but with your present environment. Where are you, what is your current outer environment? It may seem silly at first, but answering those questions in your head very specificially can help pull you back into a more mindful state all without having to take a mediation break.

The physical reactions we have to anxiety are all to deal with danger, so you have to tackle that question to move forward. Your body doesn’t think you are safe and wants to protect you, so you have validate that internal concern. This great podcast episode gives four questions to ask yourself to get into a more mindful state, and I’ll paraphrase a few here.

  • Are you safe here and now?
  • What are your five senses telling you about how safe you are now?
  • How does your body feel now that you’ve established your physical environment is safe?

Now the fourth step is to savor that feeling of okay-ness. And things are going to be okay. The next time you notice yourself worrying excessively, you can use the same location setting questions to pull yourself back into the present. Are these thoughts based in a present reality or a future concern? Well if it’s a future concern, then it’s time to check back into the present moment.

Why mindfulness

Now the goal isn’t to ignore very real problems you may be facing because of this COVID-19 crisis, but to give yourself a better mental framework to operate in it. My job is very focused on the topic, and our normally daily routines have been disrupted in ways we could’ve never imagined. But practicing mindfulness reminds us even through this mess, we can still find things to be grateful for and we are resilient enough to meet the challenge.

Once you find your own inner calm, your friends, coworkers and family members will be drawn to it. You’ll find taking care of yourself not only gives you the benefit, but those you socially distantly interact with will experience it too.

Stay safe, and if you can, stay home.

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