Chances are you’re feeling a little more stressed and anxious than normal right now. And we’re not trying to add another worry to your list, but here’s the thing: ongoing stress has a negative impact on your physical and mental health. And since this global pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, we could all benefit from learning a few self-soothing techniques – especially since many of our usual methods of blowing off steam are temporarily unavailable.
We asked Doctor Elise Bialylew, author of The Happiness Plan and founder of annual charity fundraiser Mindful in May, for her top tips on staying balanced during these unsettling times. Here’s her advice.
Monitor your daily dose of media
We get it: you want to know what’s going on. And arming yourself with knowledge can sometimes make you feel more in control. But at a certain point you need to disengage from the barrage of information and give yourself a break. “Right now we are being saturated with news about Covid-19, and it’s having a very real effect on our physiology and nervous systems,” says Dr Bialylew. Of course you need to follow the developments, but she recommends being mindful of when and how much news you consume. To protect your sleep (and thus, your health) she suggests trying to keep your phone out of your bedroom and avoiding reading news before bed.
Use your breath to calm yourself down
Your breath is closely linked to your nervous system, and you can use it help calm yourself. When you feel stressed, Dr Bialylew recommends slowing your breath and extending your exhalation. “This will quiet your entire nervous system, keeping you calm rather than reactive, and helping you make better decisions about what is needed,” she says. She suggests inhaling for four counts and exhaling for six counts. Just one or two minutes of this slow, deep breathing can stop you from spiralling and help you feel more calm and clear-headed. The best thing about this technique is that you can do it anywhere: in line at the supermarket, in your car or when you’re lying awake in bed.
Name it to tame it
According to Dr Bialylew, neuroscience research shows that talking or writing about how you’re feeling can help you relax. That doesn’t mean taking to social media to bag out someone who stood too close to you; it’s about processing how that person’s action made you feel. Over time it can even equip you to deal better with stressful situations. “As we become more mindful of difficult emotions, we reinforce neural pathways that help us remember to pause when we’re in the heat of an emotion,” she says. “Then we can use the most evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, to calm ourselves down.” In other words, the more you notice your emotional responses, the better you get at recognising when you’re having them, and the easier it is to stop them from overwhelming you.
Practice being compassionate
According to Dr Bialylew, studies have shown that consciously focusing on positive thoughts are good for your wellbeing. That includes finding something to be grateful for, even in times of chaos and stress, and making an effort to be kinder to others, even if it’s just in your own head. She has this advice: “Next time you’re in the supermarket line, take a moment to notice the people around you. Remember that all of these people are feeling unsettled and concerned to some extent. Just like you, they are hoping they get through this difficult time with the least amount of suffering possible. Connect with the fact that you are not alone, and take a moment to silently wish them that they’ll be okay.” If nothing else, remembering that other people are also worried will help you feel empathy rather than annoyance when they inevitably do or say something stupid.
“There are many ways meditation can help you,” says Dr Bialylew. “One of them is to train your mind to stay present rather than spin off into all the ‘what-ifs’, which add bucketloads of stress to your situation. It’s not to say you can’t think ahead and plan for the future, but meditation aims to help you have more control over when you want to do that – i.e. not when you’re trying to sleep.”
To get you started, try this free guided meditation she created specifically for staying calm during the coronavirus outbreak. You can also get daily guided meditations on the Mindful in May website. Alternatively, Dr Bialylew suggests following these steps to start meditating.
- Set a timer for one minute.
- Bring your attention into your body and notice if you’re holding any tension. Let that go.
- Bring your attention to the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body.
- As a way of anchoring your attention to the breath and settling your nervous system, try silently counting your breaths from one to ten. Your mind will inevitably wander off – just bring it back to the feeling of your breath and start counting from one again.
- This is a way of training the mind to stay in the here and now, rather than being hijacked by a whirlwind of worry about the future. Just like you train a puppy to sit and stay through repetition, meditation helps train your mind to come back to the present moment. Just keep practicing.