Covid 19: Managing mental health through mindfulness

Brook education and wellbeing coordinator, Viccie Hamlet, explains how practicing mindfulness can help to manage stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

We’re living through a global pandemic, an unprecedented time that we’ll tell future generations about. We’ll also talk about how it ended, how we recovered and how everything returned to ‘normal’. For now though, we don’t know when it’s going to end and unfortunately there’s no pause button that we can press on our responsibilities. This is causing unknown amounts of worry and anxiety and added to the stress caused by negative events and the effects of having our lives turned upside down, it’s no wonder the mental health and wellbeing of so many people is suffering.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation practice that has been around for thousands of years and recently scientists have uncovered the reasons why it’s so effective at reducing stress and anxiety and increasing happiness. This is to do with our brains, hormones and genetics. Here’s more about the science behind it.

Practicing mindfulness helps us by enhancing our emotional awareness, which gives us greater control over how we respond to the challenges we face in life and where we place our attention.

It also grows our capacity to manage a multitude of thoughts in our brain at any one time meaning our thoughts and actions are more responsive and less kneejerk. All of this enables us to cope better with negative experiences, reduce anxieties, feel grounded and importantly be happy.

Practicing mindfulness is quite simple and doesn’t take long at all, however it does require discipline.

Like a muscle, the more we do, the stronger we get and the benefits increase. An easy starting point is focusing on your breathing.

  • Sit somewhere quiet and comfortable, set a timer for 5 minutes, close your eyes and take some deep breaths.
  • Recognise where you notice your breath – this could be your chest moving or you may feel the air coming in and out of your nostrils. Wherever it is, turn your focus here and concentrate.
  • You will 100% veer off into your thoughts, maybe about the past, plans for the day ahead or you may be distracted by sounds or physical feelings. That’s ok – as soon as you notice that you’ve been distracted, acknowledge it and then return to the breath.
  • Continue until your time is up.

Something to note here is the act of returning to the breath after wandering off is what strengthens our muscle. Don’t be disheartened that you were distracted. Be delighted that you noticed and returned.

Practicing this short exercise might not seem groundbreaking, however, you will immediately experience a drop in cortisol (stress hormone) and will likely feel calmer and more clear-headed. Carrying out this exercise repeatedly, maybe twice a day (even for two minutes if you don’t have five) will strengthen your ‘muscle’ and you will be more able to cope with the various thoughts, worries, fears, plans, etc. that are swirling around your brain at any one time.

If we think about the different stressors people may experience during COVID-19, they can fit into the categories below:

  • Worries
  • Experiencing negative events
  • Loss of control/uncertainty

Mindfulness can help with each of these. With regular practice, your awareness on the types of thoughts you’re having develops allowing you to become a critical consumer, spot the fake news and take control.

Worrying

Many of us catastrophize when we worry. An example might be worrying about the future of our employment. It’s quite easy to build up a narrative that sees Covid-19 forcing redundancies, leaving us unable to pay our bills and losing our home. Our biology leads us to think negatively, it’s what kept our ancestors alive but worrying now won’t change the outcome. Some of the worries people have could be likely, BUT if they live in future catastrophes then not only will they suffer if it happens but they will also suffer now.

Quite often, our thoughts are in the past (a regret) or in the future (a wish, a worry or a want). Through practice, we can identify if our thoughts are accurate and helpful. If they’re not then we can learn to let them go, stay in the present moment and respond to reality.

Negative life events

Although mindfulness cannot take life events away, it can help us to cope with what is going on. Mindfulness helps us to develop awareness of our feelings and the greater that awareness is, the easier we can separate the negative event from everything else. For example, we may be isolated from our loved ones and feel terrible, however if we turn our attention to how we have overcome past obstacles and look at the other positive elements we have in our life, we begin to feel stronger in our current situation. In addition, we can recognise and experience the negative thoughts and feelings without being hijacked by them. We remain in control.

Uncertainty and lack of control

Most of us have experienced a change in our everyday life as a result of the pandemic. For some, this uncertainty and perceived lack of control is causing feelings of stress and unease. Practicing mindfulness helps you to recognise what is outside of your capacity to control (the weather or a global virus) and what is (your thoughts and actions). Trying to control what is outside our remit will only lead to feelings of frustration. If you concentrate your focus on what you can control and remove reliance on outside influences, you will feel clearer and more fulfilled.

This is just the beginning, and there is lots of other information available about mindfulness. Here are five more simple practices for every day life. See what works best for you!

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