How do I get through this?!
This is a question so many of us have been asking ourselves, our families, friends, loved ones, and communities. And even as we worry about getting through each day of the Covid-19 pandemic, one thing I see on a daily basis is the resiliency of humankind. Even though we’re scared, we help each other. Even though we’re social distancing, we’re not alone. We are all overcoming this together, and there are certainly days that are easier than others. I’ve been talking about this a lot online and have made a number of videos but wanted to also share some of my thoughts and recommendations here on my blog. I don’t want to make this seem like it’s easy, because it’s not, but it’s also not impossible. It takes flexibility, humility, and a sense of humor most days to accept our own flaws and work towards “good enough” coping. Please don’t strive for perfection because this will only set us all up for failure. That said, here are my current tips and tricks for coping with Covid-19 (recognizing that this list too will require flexibility):
This is by far my number 1 recommendation. Grounding is all about being in the present moment but in an active way (I’ll explain more in a moment). I will talk about meditation and mindfulness in this list but I also want to acknowledge that “quieting the mind” is difficult for people under normal circumstances so expecting that under extraordinary circumstances does not seem very realistic. In the most basic sense, grounding is all about using your 5 senses to engage with your environment in the present moment. My favorite go-to grounding exercise is 54321 (check out my YouTube video with a guided exercise starting at minute 1:30). With this exercise, you start by noticing and naming to yourself 5 things you can SEE, then 4 things you can HEAR, 3 things you can TOUCH, 2 things you can SMELL, and 1 thing you can TASTE: One note on 54321, some people don’t like identifying 2 things to smell or one thing to taste OR they find this more challenging than rewarding so you’re more than welcome to skip those and focus on the first three. That said, I always recommend people modify any skill to fit their own unique needs and style – don’t be afraid to get creative and please share your modifications so we can learn from each other!
Our breath is one of our most amazing super powers – it is so closely tied to our nervous system that it can have an almost instant effect on stress and anxiety once we learn how to breathe properly. When we’re scared or anxious, we have a tendency to start breathing more quickly and to breathe from our chest rather than our belly. This serves an evolutionary purpose – it gets the blood pumping to our arms and legs so we can fight or flee from danger. While this is great when we really are in danger, when we get into this style of breathing without any threat, it keeps us constantly on edge. The first step to using our breath to cope with fear and anxiety is to slow our breathing down – first just focus on taking 1 or 2 deep breaths to reset your breath rate and prepare you to be more conscious about how you are breathing. Once you have taken a couple deep breaths, notice if that was enough for the moment – has our heart rate started to slow down? Are your muscles starting to relax? Can you use 54321? If not, using a breathing exercise can be very helpful to get you over the height of anxiety and back to the present moment. One of my favorite breathing exercises or techniques is called coherent breathing. Coherent breathing is a term used to describe a breathing strategy of slowing and elongating the breath to a rate of about 5 breaths per minute. When we look at meditation masters around the globe, we find that overtime, they all naturally sync their breathing to this rate during meditation! Coherent breathing also helps to engage the vagus nerve, which plays a super important role in calming our nervous system. To start, just count the rate of your natural breath (is it 2 counts, 3 counts, etc.?). Then, once you have found that natural rate, start to lengthen the inhales and exhales at an equal rate. For example, start by inhaling for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 4. Once you notice your body responding to this (again, continuing to slow down your heart rate, feeling more calm overall), try to lengthen it to 5, then 6 counts. Some people can get up to 8-10 counts per inhale/exhale but they are definitely the minority! If you notice that after 1-2 minutes at a certain breath length you start to feel more anxious, step it down (for example, if 6 is too long, go back to a count of 5). Breathe like this for 3-5 minutes or for as long as you like to get maximum benefits.
3) Meditation and Mindfulness
Now, to be honest and transparent, this is something I will always recommend but I do not expect it to work for everyone. As I said earlier, meditation can be great for a lot of people in many situations, but it can also be very frustrating and just cause more problems than it’s worth. I think the greatest causes of frustration are due to the common misconceptions about meditation. For example, when you imagine someone meditation, what do you see? If the image above is anywhere close to what came to mind, I bet it seems pretty unrealistic and unattainable, especially right now! I mean, how the hell am I supposed to get to the top of a mountain, sit crossed legged, and basically float on air to meditate when I’m social distancing, contained to my house, and just trying to get through each day without metaphorically strangling my family members?! For those of you who still want to try meditating after reading all that, let’s start with some more realistic ways of getting into a quieter (notice I didn’t say quiet or silent!) head space:
a) You don’t have to sit in full lotus pose while floating on a cloud to meditate
For most people, sitting cross legged is really painful because their hips are really tight. Try sitting on a cushion if you’re super committed to sitting on the floor. Better yet, just sit in a chair (a hard-backed chair is preferable to help you stay alert versus sitting on your couch, but the couch is great too!) or try meditating while lying down on the floor. You can also do walking meditations, meditate while doing the dishes, or even try to meditate while eating!
b) Your mind wasn’t made to be silenced, so why fight its natural tendencies?
Our mind was made to wander – that’s what makes us so creative and innovative. Be thankful for that wandering mind! That said, there are certainly times that we want our minds to shut the f up already! When you’re working towards this goal, I recommend just focusing on very brief moments of quiet (this may only be for 1 second!). Also, when you notice that your mind has wandered to other thoughts or worries, that moment of realization is a true moment of mindfulness – of being fully aware in the present moment. The goal then is to return to focusing on your breath or some other stillness without judging yourself and falling down a rabbit hole of self-shaming. How do I not judge myself for my mind doing its job and wandering off you ask? One of my yoga and meditation teachers shared the greatest metaphor for this that I always return to. I am a dog lover, but I think this will resonate whether or not you have a dog. Imagine letting your dog (or a dog) outside in the morning to go potty. You walk away, go start the coffee, whatever, and when you return, your dog is there waiting for you at the back door, ready to greet you and start the day. What do you do when your dog comes back? You praise it! You welcome it back into the house, you love on it, and you move forward. The same applies for our mind – when it comes back home after wandering off, let’s work on welcoming it back, praising it for returning, and coming back to the breath even if it’s just for a moment.
c) You don’t have to meditate for hours on end to get some serious benefits
Many people are intimidated by mediation because they think they have to devote hours upon hours at a time for it to be worth it. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth! Sure, there are monks and meditation experts that do this and I bet they do float on friggin clouds but guess what, that’s not your average person. Just start with 3 minutes a day, and ONLY allow yourself to meditate for 3 minutes a day for the next 7 days. This will start to tease your brain and make you crave more time. Whatever you do, do NOT allow yourself to increase the length of time until day 8. Then, just increase it to 4 minutes a day. Keep increasing by 1 minute a day for a few weeks until you find your sweet spot. For me, it’s usually 7-10 minutes a day, both because of my own nervous system and mostly because of life demands. One of the great things about meditation is that it has cumulative effects so the short daily meditations add up over time, which can actually change the structure of your brain!
4) Gratitude Practice
Social distancing has forced us all inward, in our homes, in our minds, in our bodies. This can be a blessing and a curse. One of the blessings is that this inward reach can help us find gratitude for the simple things in life, things we often take for granted in all the hustle and bustle. The practice of 3 Good Things just asks you to write down three small things for which you are grateful each day. Some people like to do this in a journal but you can get creative with it too! I like to write my 3 good things down on small pieces of paper and keep them in a basket or jar where I can reach in and pick one at random when I’m needing a pick me up. Recently, I’ve been using some heart-shaped sticky notes I found in my desk and sticking them on the side of my desk in rows so I can visually see all the things I’m grateful for each day throughout the week: This simple practice has been studied and shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and improve overall well-being!
Thank you for reading this. Thank you for taking time for yourself, for your family, for your community. I will continue to add things here and write other posts about Coping with Covid-19. Please let me know how you’re coping so we can share the wealth! Stay safe and healthy out there.
Original Post: Coping with Covid-19
Jennifer Hughes is a Psychologist that has been working with trauma survivors for over 10 years has given me the insight, authenticity, and skills needed to help you rediscover your resilience. Whether you want evidence based treatment or more exploratory work, She is here to walk beside you on your journey to recovery. Call (504) 408-1790 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a consultation. Visit Jennifer Hughes’s Profile.