The COVID-19 pandemic is stressful and incredibly frightening. Our nervous systems are on overload, and we’re constantly gripped by worry and panic. We’re expected to deal with a huge and sudden change to our daily lives. It feels insurmountable when we look at the big picture. This is why it is crucial to take care of your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak.
Meditation is an age-old practice that teaches you how to connect your mind with your body to reach a state of calm and stillness in the present moment. In addition to proper hand washing and following the CDC’s recommended guidelines, using meditation to reduce stress levels is an effective coping strategy to consider. For those experiencing anxiety in the time of COVID-19, we’ll show you how to reduce stress through meditation below.
Meditation is an approach to training the mind, similar to the way that fitness is an approach to training the body. Meditation gives you the space to slow down, quiet your mind, and observe your thoughts as you focus inward. Utilizing tools like meditation helps the brain create more positive emotions, more energy, more focus, more presence and less distraction.
Meditation has roots in spirituality, but the benefits are also backed by science. Studies show that meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. A meditation practice takes commitment. The initial stages of using meditation for stress can be defined by wandering thoughts, unwanted feelings or emotions, legs falling asleep or back pain. But, like any practice, these initial stages are temporary. Over time, the negative experiences dissipate and the result is a clear mind and balanced emotions. Meditation teaches you to pay attention to the breath as it goes in and out, and notice when the mind wanders. When we pay attention to our breath, we learn how to return to and remain in the present moment.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Mindfulness can also be helpful when it comes to dealing with stress, and it's something that we already possess — you just have to learn how to access it. Mindfulness suggests that the mind is fully attending to what’s happening, to what you’re doing, and to the space you’re moving through. During stressful situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, the mind takes flight, and we lose touch with our body. Pretty soon we’re filled with obsessive, worrisome thoughts, and that makes us anxious. What we’re doing when we’re being mindful is bringing our body and mind into alignment by placing our attention on the breath, by sitting back and slowing down.
While mindfulness is innate, it can be cultivated through proven techniques, and short pauses we insert into our everyday lives. No matter how far our thoughts spin out of control, mindfulness can snap us back to where we are and what we’re doing and feeling, at the present moment.
People often think of traditional meditation for stress as silently sitting by yourself. But there are all types of meditation, each with their own intention. The following techniques each create an immersive experience for you to become fully present in the moment and reduce stress through meditation.
Mindfulness meditation encourages you to observe wandering thoughts as they drift through the mind. The purpose is not to engage in the thoughts that come, but to be present in the moment by simply observing them. Through mindfulness meditation, you can see how your thoughts move in particular patterns. By focusing on something like your breath, you can bring yourself into the present and take yourself out of the mental loop that perpetuates stress and anxious thoughts. To practice mindful breathing, find a comfortable seat and take a few minutes to focus on your breathing. Notice the sensation of the breath as it comes in through your nose, fills your lungs, and goes back out through your nose. At some point, as you continue to breathe, you’ll most likely become distracted. When this happens, acknowledge the distraction, let it go and come back to the present moment.
Kundalini is a meditation style that involves yoga poses in order to extend your energy from the base of the spine all the way to your mind. With both proper breathing and specific movements, kundalini teaches you how to disengage and focus your mind. Switch out your regular workout with a kundalini a few days a week to reduce stress through meditation.
Qigong is an ancient Chinese exercise and healing technique that involves meditation, controlled breathing and movement exercises. Qigong is a style rooted in martial arts with the purpose being to focus on both your breath and posture simultaneously in order to gain full body control, and allow the energy flow to increase throughout your body. Take a break from counting your miles and putting your body through repetitive muscle stressors every once in a while, and try a qigong practice to be in full sync with your body and reduce stress through meditation.
When we feel anxious, the body’s stress response is triggered. Emotions last for about 90 seconds, so taking deep, relaxed and controlled breaths can help to ground you back into your surroundings. By switching your attention to something physical, like your breath, you’re essentially pulling yourself out of the mental loop that perpetuates anxious feelings and reducing stress through meditation. Focus on taking deep, controlled, calming breaths for a few minutes a day, intentionally expanding your lungs as you breathe in slowly and deeply, before exhaling naturally.
When we’re anxious, we tend to tighten our muscles without realizing it, which leaves them feeling fatigued. Intentionally relaxing your muscles can turn on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which helps to calm you down. Scan, or pay attention to all the muscles in your body starting with your head. Are your forehead and eyebrows scrunched? Are your teeth, lips, and jaw clenched? Scanning down to your neck and shoulders, consciously release any tension you are holding in these muscle areas. Move down your arms and hands, chest, abdomen and down to your legs and feet, releasing tension as you scan. Enjoy the feeling of being loose and relaxed for a few minutes or as long as you need to reduce stress through meditation.
Bring awareness to your physical response to stress by visualizing releasing it from your body. Take a minute to pause and feel the weight of your body in space and your feet rooted to the ground. Scan your body to see if you can feel where the stress is located in your body. Then imagine that the stress has gathered in the form of a dark cloud. Take a deep breath and imagine that you can exhale the dark cloud as you expel the outgoing breath from your lungs. Visualize the dark cloud floating away slowly. Keep watching it float away until it completely disappears.
The idea behind concentration meditation is to focus on something specific and repetitive. This could entail following the breath, repeating a mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong, or counting beads on a mala. Throughout this meditation practice, the goal is to concentrate on this one thing alone and to bring your mind back every time it starts to wander. Rather than pursuing random thoughts, you simply let them go.
Guided meditation involves following step by step instructions that help you stay on course during a meditation practice. Guided meditation can be led by a meditation or yoga instructor, but apps like Headspace offer simple guided meditations to use anytime for stress management. A guided meditation practice can be as short as a few minutes or as long as several hours. Either way, the purpose of this practice is to achieve mental, emotional and physical healing and reduce stress through meditation.
The following is a posture practice that can be used as the beginning stage of meditation practice or simply as the meditation itself. This is your practice, so modify as you need, if something feels right, go with it!
Especially during times of heightened stress like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to incorporate a daily meditation practice, as well as other self care tips for stress reduction. But if meditation for stress still seems overwhelming, try some simple grounding techniques. Incorporate mindfulness into your life in small ways every day. For example, before you brush your teeth in the morning and at night, take three slow, deep breaths. This simple meditation technique can be helpful anytime you’re feeling stressed; or use it to relax if your worrisome thoughts are keeping you up at night
Once you start using meditation for stress, you’ll notice a difference right away. Not only physiologically, but also mentally and emotionally. Studies on the relaxation response associated with meditation have documented the following short-term benefits to the nervous system:
A meditation practice can help reduce stress by helping you to recognize and release thoughts which are stressful and anxiety-provoking. In addition to heightening your awareness and clarity, meditation reduces your adrenaline and cortisol through regulation of the amygdala. This helps you properly assess the situation and respond accordingly. Studies show that the amygdala, where our fearful and anxious emotions live, decreases in brain cell volume after a meditation practice. Stress and anxiety result when we feel we can’t handle the pressures and adverse situations of everyday life. It’s a simple question of supply and demand of available emotional resources. It’s not about whether the perceived stressor is valid or not—we feel a responsibility to respond to all of the pressures and demands. Meditation helps you to sort out which thoughts demand our energy, attention, and emotions are valid and which are not. By using meditation techniques to train our minds, we increase our mental resources and become more capable.
We are living through a global pandemic, the first of our lifetime. It’s stressful, frightening and our nervous systems are on overload.We’re in a constant state of fight or flight. That’s why using meditation to reduce stress is essential, especially if you’re trying to live mindfully. Incorporating a daily meditation practice helps us to manage stress, and gain insight and awareness through observing our thoughts, as well as increasing our attention to others’ well-being.
by Jaclyn LaBadia, featured contributor
cover photo by Commune Yoga