Threats to health. Upheaval in the workplace. Economic uncertainty. Unclear school timelines. Stock market turmoil. The coronavirus pandemic presents unprecedented challenges and stressors for many of us. Here are 5 mindful steps each of us can take to help manage this journey:
Carve out a quiet space. We are all in our dwellings much more than usual, possibly hunkering down with family members as well. Navigating the swirl of work, home life, and other people's activities can be difficult. If possible, find a space of your own that can serve as a retreat to settle your mind, think, and do your own work. It doesn't have to be a formal room, but simply a space that you designate as your own. That space can create a welcome sense of oasis when you need it - and you'll probably need it.
Write it down. If you notice yourself with rising levels of frustration or worry, put it down on paper. Try to identify and pinpoint the top two or three items that contribute to how you feel. Be as specific as possible. This can help to bring an amorphous cloud of worries into a more manageable focus. Research shows that by itself the act of identifying how we feel - or affect labelling - can help us remain calmer. That in turn better equips us to solve the challenges in front of us.
Take a mindful breath. In contrast to our usual continual habit of "doing," mindfulness is a focus on our state of "being." A simple definition of mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment, with an open and non-judgmental stance, moment by moment. Studies demonstrate that after an 8 week mindfulness training program, subjects report significantly lower levels of anxiety and stress, improved pain tolerance, and better life satisfaction. One way to engage a mindful awareness is to pay attention to the natural rhythm of your own breathing. If your mind begins to wander, simply say the word "breathe" to yourself, and bring your focus back to your breath. Try this for 1 minute, and increase up to 5 minutes. This is an easy way to re-fresh and re-focus.
Connect with others. Studies show that even the small, casual interchanges that we participate in throughout the day can improve our moods and functioning. Take advantage of the digital avenues available to connect with peers, families, and friends, and be intentional about doing so. Or schedule weekly dates with a walking buddy - just remember to keep that six feet of space between you.
Be good to you. Movement, good food, and sleep are the foundations of mind-body health. Being good to yourself in each of these areas provides a strong defense against the anxiety and stress that are endemic during a pandemic.
20-30 minutes of moderately strenuous exercise (for example jogging, running, or vigorous walking) three times a week is an excellent starting point to reap the health benefits of movement. Add to that two times a week of weight-bearing exercise and you have a great recipe to optimize physical health and better guard against anxiety and depression.
Reaching for that bag of chips too often is not only a problem for our bodies, but we now know that highly processed foods negatively impact our emotional well being. Instead, choose whole foods that fight inflammation in the body. Examples include nuts, olive oil, leafy greens like spinach or kale, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, and fruits such as strawberries or blueberries.
Many of us are experiencing big changes in our daily routines, but we should continue to make consistent sleep a top priority. Sleep allows our minds and bodies to re-fresh and re-boot for the next day. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time each day - even on weekends. If you're now working from home but your schedule has loosened, still schedule a standing morning appointment or goal to help your sleep stay on on track.
These are trying and difficult times, but there are things you can do to move forward with greater ease. Create space for yourself, build self-awareness, nurture your connections with others, allow yourself permission to simply be for part of each day, and be intentional about exercise, nutrition, and sleep. Finally, remember to give yourself room to learn as you adapt to this brave new world, and take your new journey one day at a time.
Go Get Some Sleep by Ann Park, M.D.
I know: you’re busy. You barely walked in the door and there’s still so much to do. So just stay up late to get everything done, then catch up on sleep over the weekend. Right?
I wish this was possible, but the cold hard facts tell us otherwise. So instead of encouraging you to burn the midnight oil, my advice is: Go get some sleep.
Americans are sleep deprived and many of us have experienced this first hand. We know that adults require 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Older teens need 8-10 hours, and younger teens thrive best on at least 10 hours of sleep per night. Yet you know what’s coming next: the realities of sleep. The 2014 National Sleep Foundation survey showed that only 10% of 15-17 year olds sleep 9 hours or more, and 60% of them sleep less than 7 hours per night. Among 6-11 year olds, almost 25% sleep only 8 hours per night. And this is on a school night. Similarly, a 2014 survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that out of 450,000 adults, nearly one third typically slept less than 7 hours per night - the critical point beyond which sleep begins to have significant impact on physical and emotional health. Almost a quarter of all respondents reported getting 6 or less hours of sleep per night.
Does that matter? Does missing a few hours of sleep every week really make that much of a difference?
The answer is yes. Although sleep deprivation doesn’t necessarily impact us in the short term (except for crankiness and overspending at Starbucks), the impact over time packs a more serious punch.
Research consistently demonstrates that sleep is a major pillar of good emotional and physical health. Poor-quality sleep can negatively affect a host of medical issues including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It’s becoming apparent that sleep functions as a type of re-booting mechanism for multiple organ systems, a consistent nightly housecleaning that helps to maintain overall health. We also know that the body does not physiologically recover from weeknight sleep deprivation by making up for it all at once on weekends.
Especially salient for us as women is the role of sleep in depression. Did you know that depression affects approximately 16 million people in the U.S. every year - and that the rates of depression are twice as high for women as for men? Risk rises along with the hormonal fluctuations that occur during menstrual cycles, post-partum periods, and peri-menopause. Furthermore we know that rates of depression rise sharply after puberty, again significantly more for adolescent girls than boys. In this state of increased risk, it's important to know that sleep deprivation is associated with higher rates of depression. The relationship goes both ways: depression also leads to poor sleep, and it's one of the key symptoms we monitor when treating depression. Whether you are trying to inoculate against or recover from depression, good sleep is your friend.
The positive news is that people who self-report good sleep also report significantly higher rates of excellent physical health, mental health, and overall quality of life.
SO: given that sleep can make such a difference to our emotional and physical health, what can each of us do to get a better night’s rest? Here are several steps you can take:
Keep a sleep journal for 1-2 weeks. Find out how much you are actually sleeping.
Commit to making sleep a priority for yourself. It sounds simple, but people who make a conscious decision to get good sleep report significantly higher rates of sleep!
Create sleep-related guidelines and stick to them. Have a clear expectation for yourself/your kids. Kids whose parents made and kept sleep-related rules slept on average one hour more per night.
Set a schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
Modify a packed calendar of evening activities into a more doable pace - the most common challenge for both adults and children to getting a good night’s sleep.
Avoid caffeine late in the day.
Power down computer use for thirty minutes to an hour before bedtime. This gives your brain time to disengage and unwind.
Keep other electronics out of the bedroom too. Yes, that iPhone, that iPad, and that TV streaming NetFlix.
Take home message: If you make sleep a priority and set up some simple parameters, you can significantly improve your chances of consistently getting a healthy night’s rest. This is an excellent way to boost your physical and emotional well-being.
Many working moms, possibly overqualified at multitasking, also find ourselves with overdeveloped muscles of worry. We worry about how things went, how they should have gone, and what will happen down the road.
Of course, it’s good to learn from our past. And we must be reasonably ready for the future. Yet habitual worry about past and future along with our culture’s lifestyle of 24-7 digital distraction can lead to the formation of perpetual brain churn. (Admittedly “brain churn” is not an actual clinical entity, but I think we all know exactly what it feels like).
Scientific research, though, tells us that our brains are not built to churn. Constant distraction and interruption - either from the outside world or from within ourselves, as is the case with worry - causes our short term working memory to become less efficient, and diminishes our ability to retain longer term information. Anxiety also impacts our bodies’ immune systems and sleep cycles. Overall, worry is not a visitor we want to invite for an extended stay.
So if I told you about an antidote to worry that:
is imminently doable,
has no bad side effects, and
would it pique your interest?
It definitely piqued mine.
Mindfulness is the name of the antidote.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of being attentive to your present moment or experience. This is done in a neutral, non-judgmental way. Although practiced for centuries in Buddhist and other Eastern traditions, it has more recently found its way into our Western awareness. But far from being another passing fancy, mindfulness is backed up by well-established studies. For example, we know that the practice of mindfulness is associated with with such diverse measures as positive changes at the cellular level, altered brain flow activity, better outcomes in physical and emotional metrics, and improvements in school and work performance. And it is known to help research subjects cope better with stress and anxiety.
So how can we make use of this in practical ways?
First: Try some simple mindfulness techniques. Some of the most far-reaching and well-established mindfulness research is based at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. For the past 20 years, they have effectively taught over 20,000 patients simple mindfulness techniques to help them manage stress, pain, and illness. One technique involves focusing on your breath, and gently moving past any interrupting thoughts. The idea behind this technique is to get comfortable with distraction and then calmly training yourself to return to a point of focus.
Here is a simple, starter exercise (this is the one I first tried):
a) Breathe regularly and rhythmically, paying attention to the natural pace of your own breath. b) When other thoughts intervene - and they will - simply say to yourself, "Thinking" and then return your attention to your breath moving naturally in and out. c) Start out doing this one minute at a time. If a minute is too long - and yes, it was extremely long for me at first - gear down to 30 seconds. You'll find over time that your ability to switch from a state of distraction to a state of focus improves. Very satisfying.
Next: Expand your moments of mindfulness to other areas of your life. What about when you are walking down the street? Or eating something delicious? Or stepping out into the sunshine for the first time in the mornings? Get your mind in the habit of experiencing the here and now.
Then: Look to make mindfulness practice a part of your regular routine. Can you start at once a week and perhaps increase to a daily event? Maybe your practice will be one minute or maybe it will be ten minutes long. There is no penalty for going slowly. The only grade being given is an A for effort.
Finally: What do you notice? Perhaps you find that you are better able to move from distraction to a more peaceful, centered stance. Or perhaps you notice that you are more easily able to prevent thoughts of worry from spiraling uncomfortably. Or maybe you’ll just get a better night's sleep! In my personal experience, the effect of mindfulness feels cumulative - as if over time, every attempt builds me a slightly better foundation for becoming focused next time.
Mindfulness is easy to start, and has the potential for great personal payoff. Think of it as your antidote to worry.