The uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic naturally fills all of us with stress and anticipation. Signs of distress have increased within society and health care. Recently, my local market ran out of masks, and fights have broken out across the country over convenience items. Panic buying among capable citizens has left vulnerable groups without the opportunity to purchase sanitary items and prevent illness. Unfortunately, fueled by fear, we will act at cross-purposes in our fight against the coronavirus.
To combat this, we are called upon to reach a higher degree of commitment within ourselves and curb the tide of fear. Mindfulness is an optimal behavioral strategy within this period of self-isolation to manage our stress and establish the foundation for optimizing our mental and emotional hygiene.
Mindfulness is simple but challenging, and its scientific evidence-base is exponentially growing. A number of studies demonstrate that mindfulness alleviates symptoms of anxiety and lessens the burden of stress and fear. Mindfulness protects the immune system from becoming compromised due to stress, thereby lessening the chances of catching certain illnesses. Moreover, mindfulness is needed so that we can act wisely in our fight against the coronavirus.
With mindfulness, we can pause our habitual patterns and investigate our fear. Each person’s experience will be different. Our fear is not monolithic but is part of a transient stream of mutually-reinforcing emotions, sensations and thoughts. For example, in investigating our experience of emotions, we may observe that our palms are sweating. We notice that our rushing thoughts and fear contribute to this physical reaction. Though it may sound non-intuitive, inviting in uncertainty and being present with all our mental and bodily responses can be freeing.
Bringing our attention to our internal theater interrupts the habitual patterns of our emotions, sensations and thoughts. Through gaining impartiality when cultivating mindfulness, we have an empowering vista to consider novel responses to our situations and a source of confidence to act despite the uncertainty of our times.
Mindfulness is a self-regulation and cognitive management tool. It can be used to reduce automatic behavior and to instead choose more empowering behaviors. We can more easily manage deeply ingrained behavior patterns, like touching our faces, by becoming aware of the impulse before we automatically scratch our faces. Within this space of pausing habitual patterns, we can choose alternate actions, like using a sanitary napkin to clear our sinuses or cleaning our room of the allergens making our nose itch.
Mindfulness is a muscle that can be strengthened through meditation for each moment, no matter how anxiety-producing and dissociating that this moment may be. Mindfulness can be strengthened with practice and be brought into all the unpredictable encounters of the day, such as when a panic porn Tweet starts an anxious cascade of disinfecting ourselves and our belongings and perhaps ourselves then again. Mindfulness is a state of cultivating “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience” and is easy to start practicing anywhere. There are many apps and guided practices online that can be used.
Cultivating and strengthening the ability to be with the present moment can help transform rote activities into experiences to be savored and embraced. For example, pause and notice the feeling of your body as you inhale and exhale for a few moments. Or, when walking outside, bring your whole being into the experience and feel each step, listen to the sounds around you, and observe the colors, rather than wander into rumination and worry. When worries and anxiety naturally appear, acknowledge their presence as intermittent mental images and bodily sensations.
Mindfulness is not about avoiding fear, but relating to it with an ease and friendliness that builds internal strength and resilience. Continuously returning to the sensations of breathing or of the feet on the ground establishes us within the present moment and not to presumed futures, the heart of anxiety. By gaining impartiality when cultivating mindfulness, we can better manage our stress, empower ourselves and act wisely in our fight against the coronavirus.