How Practicing Mindfulness Can Help During A Lockdown - By Dr Ananya Awasthi
To be mindful, is to make a conscious effort in bringing all our attention to the "present" and the "now", instead of thinking about the past or worrying about the future.
This period is an excellent opportunity to invest in human relationships
Nationwide lockdown in India to control the spread of COVID-19, is the first time that we have experienced what it is to practice "social distancing" and live life in a lockdown. When it first happened, I wondered if this is how it felt during war time or was it closer to the national emergency that our parents saw in their lifetimes. Surreal as it seems, we are neither fighting an enemy nation, nor are the civil liberties restricted - except for public movement. Instead, it is a unique reality that we are all living in and trying to make sense of.
As soon as the doors are shut down except for essential services, it is perhaps the time to start looking inwards. While we could spend almost half of our waking hours cleaning utensils, wiping floors, washing clothes and making food, which by itself is a lifestyle change that most urban dwellers are getting used to. It is the other half of the day, where we sit and ponder what to do with ourselves in this seemingly disconnected world. Our sources of information - T.V., Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are usually exploding with information on the corona crisis and the new positive cases that are added with each passing day. While some will be working from home, most of us have long hours to spend before we go to sleep and prepare ourselves, for the same routine all over again. Feeling of emptiness, stress, anxiety, fear, depression and at times plain helplessness due to boredom, are some of the common negative emotions that most of us are already dealing with in some form or the other.
Which gives rise to a fundamental question - How Do We Make Our Lives Worthwhile in a Lockdown?
First step could be to understand and practice "Mindfulness". To be mindful, is to make a conscious effort in bringing all our attention to the "present" and the "now", instead of thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Easier said than done, this starts with "Mindful Breathing" - being conscious of each passing breath and simply observing things as they happen without judgement or explicit reaction. Research has shown that "Mindful Breathing" and Pranayam, as we know it in the yogic traditions, has a positive effect on the autonomic nervous system that oversees the ability to regulate emotions and manage stress. Just as how emotions can influence the rate, depth and pattern of breathing, similarly conscious and deep breathing can decrease anxiety and reactivity, leading to greater composure and improved attention span. Building on Mindful Breathing; Meditation, Yoga, exercise and fitness are various other manifestations of leading an "active" life during the lockdown. Though, it is to be noted that practicing "mindfulness" is a larger change in the conscious mindset. We can be mindful of getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals and controlling excessive consumption of intoxicants, which are not just good habits to keep but are also scientifically significant predictors of our health and happiness.
Moving from "Mindful Breathing" to "Mindful Being", latest research on human wellbeing, happiness and flourishing has shown that there are a number of values and behaviours which can have an important impact on our physical and mental health. Most importantly, evidence suggests that having a purpose or mission in life can significantly improve our health and wellbeing. In times of COVID-19 pandemic, volunteering to help others in greater need, can be an important pathway to explore this sense of purpose. Volunteering, in principle means to inculcate values of collective consciousness (part of mindful being) and work in ways that serve the society. With the current lockdown, this could mean an online donation to corona relief fund, volunteering as a doctor or even remotely coordinating the pick-up of groceries for an old couple living across the road.
Alternatively, a fundamental service that is especially relevant to the coronavirus lockdown, is to not hoard essential items. In light of the current restrictions imposed on public movement, there is a tendency amongst us to do "panic buying" and hoard essential items like food and medicines, without a concern for the supply side shortages that it may end up causing. While, stocking essential items up to a reasonable level, is certainly warranted, reflecting on virtues like service and generosity can help us develop a community spirit and contribute towards our collective wellbeing. Similarly, another tendency we need to eliminate is "stigmatizing" the family of those who are infected or have been quarantined. Stigma can have a big impact on the mental health of the affected communities and at times, may even discourage individuals from reporting symptoms or going for testing - in light of the feared discrimination and ostracization.
Coming to our own family and dear ones, this period is an excellent opportunity to invest in human relationships. In cases of co-habitation, we can finally spend all the time that we never had before - with our spouse, children or parents. If living alone, checking on our family and friends through calls and messages, by itself can go a long way in building social capital.
Since face-to-face interaction is limited, social media is increasingly becoming a default medium for consumption of news and communication with your friends and family. Hence it is all the more important to have a mindful attitude as we use Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp and other modes of social media. Mindful consumption of news would mean that we read and share only credible and evidence-based information on the spread and control of COVID-19. Falling prey to "Fake news" and scaremongering can have a significant negative impact on your mental health - possibly leading to stress, fear, anxiety and depression. Before you forward a WhatsApp, do check if the information is reliable, what the sources are and whether it is necessary or helpful to share this information with others. Again, focusing on the rational and objective piece of the news instead of magnifying the perceived negative emotion, is an important strategy to process information and minimize the ill effects of excessive exposure to confusing and at times misleading information.
Lastly, we cannot deny the fact that some amount of suffering and hardship due to the spread of Coronavirus is inevitable. Either directly being affected with this infectious disease or dealing with indirect losses related to supply chains, daily wages, financial markets or even loss of employment. It is at these times that a mindful approach in life can help us cope with stress and anxiety and think of ways that we can contribute towards fighting the disease. This would entail: being mindful and aware of possible symptoms and reporting to the appropriate health service provider, mindfully practicing behaviours like handwashing, being mindful of our communities and mindful of our impact on the environment; thus, paving the way for a more resilient society.
(Dr. Ananya Awasthi, is a graduate in Global Health from the Harvard School of Public Health and currently works for its India Research Center.)
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