While I’ve learned many ways to calm my mind and ease the worry, this coronavirus, COVID-19, global pandemic is triggering my old anxiety-producing habits big time. Even though I’m not in a high-risk group, I find myself checking my state’s case count multiple times a day. Is it in my city yet? I talk about it incessantly with others. They might know something I don’t, right? I did go to the grocery yesterday and, while I didn’t buy toilet paper, I did buy frozen food from the meager selection left. I could go on.
Enough already! I decided that I needed to remind myself how to calm, reassure, and support myself through this — instead of escalating my brain’s anxiety and sense of alarm.
In any situation, your mind can help or hurt you. What we say to ourselves determines how we feel and experience an event — maybe even more than the actual event. So for my benefit and yours, here are some back-to-the-basics guidelines to help calm our minds and preserve our mental health through this — or any — trying time.
Ways to Work with Your Mind
Recognize Your Brain’s Biases
Your brain’s priority is always your survival — not maintaining a sense of calm or peace of mind. You have to consciously choose to do that. It has a natural negativity bias which means it constantly looks for, learns from, and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss with much more gusto than something neutral or pleasant. This puts your brain on guard which translates to a more negative, uneasy, jumpy you.
Your brain also fears anything uncertain or new, which this pandemic is both. We haven’t seen anything like this since the flu of 1918. You have to rationally put things in perspective for your brain to discount its biases. So, while focusing on the threat is just my brain doing its job, it’s not helping me to feed the fear. For those of us prone to anxiety it helps to calm our amygdalas and redirect our minds from obsessing over the danger.
Control What You Can
Our brains are wired to crave certainty and feel happy when they think this requirement is satisfied. Life does feel a little out of control right now. So it’s important to focus your mind and efforts on what you can control in your environment. Sometimes, the only thing you can control is you — your mind and behavior. Just doing that will help tremendously.
Limit Your Media
While it is good to stay informed, the non-stop news coverage and social media chatter about the virus feeds anxiety as much as it informs and eases fear. The key here is balance. There’s a fine line between staying informed and feeling overwhelmed by the news.
Research shows that in the case of past natural disasters or terrorist events, as people’s media exposure increases, so does distress. Educate yourself and learn the facts and recommendations, but don’t overwhelm yourself. Information is useful, but more is not always better. While you shouldn’t avoid the news entirely, it’s important to manage your exposure and give yourself a break from it completely once in a while.
Stick to a Routine
You might be working or going to school remotely. Many events and gatherings — which are an important part of our lives: churches, social, cultural — are canceled. Your usual daily schedule might be interrupted. This is unsettling to your brain. Your brain likes and finds comfort in routine.
Establishing and following a new routine can be very calming. For example, if you’re telecommuting to school or work, set a daily schedule for yourself that allows for meals and breaks. Go to bed and get up at the same time as you normally would. Continue to allocate your evening hours per your normal routine exercising, relaxing or however. Give your brain a sense of familiarity.
While this is definitely a time of stress for many, it can also be a time of pulling together and kindness. It is what we make of it. Remember, we are all in this together, and the pandemic affects all of us. Having said that, look out for and help your neighbors, family, friends, and coworkers as you can and as is safe. Helping others benefits your mental health. Again, it will give your brain a sense of control and cause it to release peaceful, happy neurochemicals.
Social interaction is an important part of maintaining good mental health. Do what you can to stay connected. Keep in touch with friends and family via the phone or computer.
Come Into the Present
When you find your mind getting anxious about all the uncertainties, bring your attention back into the present, a practice known as mindfulness. In this moment, realize that you are alright right now. It’s your thoughts creating a sense of danger. Bringing your awareness into the now calms your amygdala and puts your frontal lobe in charge. Many studies show that with repetition, practicing mindfulness can lead to a long-term, lasting reduction of anxiety and worrying. I find the mindfulness practice called grounding helpful and easy-to-do anywhere.
Working With Your Mind to Boost Your Immune System
The thoughts that run through your head cause neurons to fire and neurochemicals to be released. What happens in your head has real repercussions for your body. Science has proven that many mental practices actually, physically boost your immune system.
The act of smiling boosts your immune system because you’re more relaxed, with less cortisol and more happy neurochemicals. One study even found that smiling helps your body produce white blood cells to fight illness. Even a fake smile has benefits.
Laughter is more than just fun and games. It’s beneficial for your mind and body. In fact, studies have shown that laughter increases the number of T-cells in your body and boosts your immune system. So, watch some of your favorite comedies or read a humorous book.
Listening to music
A review of scientific studies on music and health determined that listening to music has many benefits for your body and mind. In addition to reducing anxiety and helping many aspects of mental health, music can also boost your immune system in the following ways:
- Listening to music was better than prescription medications in reducing stress before surgery.
- People who listened to music had an increase in their levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), a type of antibody that is present at mucosal surfaces (digestive tract, lungs, etc.) and helps to prevent infections.
- Music listeners had higher numbers of an immune cell type called “natural killer cells,” whose job it is to attack bacteria, infected cells, and cancerous cells.
- Listening to music reduced levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone that has many physiological effects, one of which has a role in promoting obesity.
Mindfulness is just a way of thinking. At the most basic level, it’s simply being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. Being mindful means that you become aware of the workings of your mind, at that moment. When practicing mindfulness, you deliberately direct your awareness back into the now and focus your attention there. Science shows mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, and improves many other mental health conditions.
Daniel J. Siegel M.D. tells us in The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being:
Studies have shown that specific applications of mindful awareness improve the ability to regulate emotion, to combat emotional dysfunction, to improve patterns of thinking, and to reduce negative mindsets.Researchon some dimension of mindful awareness practices reveals that they greatly enhance the body’s functioning: Healing, immune response, stress reactivity, and a general sense of physical well-being are improved with mindfulness.
It takes mindful awareness to remember not to touch your face or shake hands or lick your finger, as has become humorously evident in so many videos where people are telling us not to and do it. Doing this can be an exercise in mindfulness.
The thoughts, words, and images that run through your mind have very real physiological consequences for your body. Your brain sends the same messages to the central nervous system whether something is being imagined or actually experienced. Visualization, or creative imagery, can be used in any situation. It is a recognized mind-body therapy that’s effective with many health concerns, especially stress-related ones.
Studies have shown visualization successful at improving and strengthening the immune system. I used visualization extensively when healing from a brain injury, and my mother did when battling cancer. I’m happy to report that it worked tremendously well for both of us!
On the other hand, prolonged stress and worry elevate cortisol levels, weaken your immune system, and cause inflammation. By stressing out about the virus, you are actually hurting your body’s ability to fight it.
Things That Haven’t Been Canceled
While our daily routines are going to be disrupted with almost everything canceled for a while, there are still plenty of things we can do to help ourselves through this time without putting us or others at risk.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. It will decrease anxiety and stress and strengthen your immune system. While you may want to avoid the gym or group exercise classes, for now, it’s a perfect time to go for a run or walk, explore nearby parks, or try a new exercise video on YouTube. I’ve already seen several families taking walks — pulling small ones in a wagon — around the neighborhood.
Reading has multiple benefits for your brain and mental health. On a physical level, reading stimulates your brain, improves connectivity, function, and memory. It can even help you sleep more soundly. Emotionally and mentally, science shows reading relieves stress. I know I love getting lost in a book.
You can look at the self-imposed isolation as giving you more time at home. More time to start that meditation practice you’ve been meaning to try. Meditation is a mindfulness practice from which your mental health and immune system will benefit. Learn how to get started here.
Instead of focusing only on what is wrong and scary, you could intentionally look for and remind yourself of the good that is present in your life. It always there if you look for it. Your brain doesn’t automatically notice it. It zeroes in on the bad. The benefits of gratitude are physical and mental. It changes the neurochemicals in your brain increasing happiness while decreasing cortisol and stress.
Every single aspect of your physical and mental health is affected by sleep — for better or worse. Mentally, not getting enough sleep escalates anxiety and depression. Physically, research shows that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, and not sleeping enough can prolong recovery.
Doses of sunshine can boost your mental and physical health. The sun’s UV rays help your body make Vitamin D, which is important for your bones, blood cells, and immune system. Natural sunlight helps your body set its circadian rhythms, which can also aid in sleeping more soundly. Sunlight boosts the production of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin greatly influences your mood and more of it can give you more energy and help keep you calm, positive, and focused.