From crisis to calm - mindfulness during COVID-19

Anxiety can take root and flourish in a time like now - when things are new and unprecedented and the future is uncertain. But, as Dr Sanjay Suri considers, by focussing on the present and examining our worries, we can engage in the five ways to wellbeing.
Sanjay Suri

Worry and anxiety have been around before COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has heightened these feelings manyfold. The virus is now spreading in the UK and continues to extract a significant death toll in Britain as it has done in other parts of the world.

The current situation has uncovered how the human mind responds in a crisis. The remarkable abilities of thinking, planning and acting have come to the fore. We are at our creative and strategic best - building new hospitals in record time, designing new ventilators from scratch. People are using their ingenuity and creativity - designing masks, visors and CPAP kit. We are mathematically modelling what to expect. And we are in the process of investigating new testing methods, drugs and vaccines. 

But we are worried. And who would not be? This is a classical worry chain… What if my symptoms of a cough and a sore throat are Coronavirus? Will my staying at home increase the workload for my team? How do I get tested? What will happen if I get it? Will I end up in intensive care? What if I am asked to cover the adult wards and ITU and A&E? I haven’t done that for years! What if I pass it on to other patients and to my family? What about PPE? Oh I feel even more ill! 

The perfect soil for worry and anxiety to take root and flourish is when an event is new and unprecedented, the information is ambiguous and rapidly changing and there is uncertainty about the outcome. All these conditions are met with the current Covid crisis which some have likened it to a global war against an invisible enemy. 

We need to find a way to be quiet at least for a few minutes each day.

Thinking or problem solving which is great for planning and strategy is unfortunately only partially effective when it comes to managing our worries and anxieties. The human mind tends to focus on the negative - worst case scenario thinking. It also has a tendency to be overly hopeful and optimistic, clutching onto the straws of data that suggests improvement - the so-called green shoots. 

And worry affects our lives. It stops us from thinking clearly and making good decisions. It saps our energy which we need to preserve in the midst of a crisis. And of course we lose our sense of humour though there are plenty of great Coronavirus jokes to bring that back. 

So how do we manage our worries and anxieties during this difficult time? We need to find a way to be quiet at least for a few minutes each day. Focussing on the present moment and noticing what arises. One way to do this to anchor our attention to our breath. This allows our monkey mind to stop swinging from branch to branch - past to future and back. The other way is to focus on where in your body you feel the worry. And then tune into that area, again as a way of anchoring into the moment. This allows the mind to be calm and figure out how to respond to the worry. 

One can ask oneself a few questions:

  • Is my worry based on fact or simply based on my thoughts? The fact is that we are in the midst of a pandemic but my thinking makes me worry about ending up on a ventilator. 
  • Is the problem I am worrying about within my control? I can control my social distancing and handwashing but I cannot do anything about a new vaccine.
  • Do I need to do something about my worry? What can I do now? Get busy helping someone and stop listening to the same depressing news for a short while.
  • What if I just stayed with the feeling of worry? Sometimes staying with the feeling without naming it or building a story around it helps to transform it and make it more manageable.

Most worries never come to pass. Some help to drive us to action. And we can use the worry in a positive way to do something about it. Other worries are simply ruminations of the mind. Knowing the difference between the two helps us make wise choices about how we should respond. 

Once the mind has found a way to be quiet and calm by being aware of the present moment, it may be possible to be grateful for what you have and what is still here. And you will be able to be more kind and compassionate towards yourself and others that you are called upon to support.

You will hopefully be better able to engage in the five ways to wellbeing:

  1. Connect - What better time to get in touch with family and friends and find out how they are managing and coping with this new reality and its uncertain duration?
  2. Be active - Get some exercise - walking, running, yoga, anything - whatever makes you happy - it is a great way to structure the day that seems so different now.
  3. Take notice - Pay attention to whatever is taking place in the moment and watch how your mind relates to difficulty.
  4. Keep learning - You can learn something new about viruses, vaccines or simply about yourself and how you respond in a crisis.
  5. Give - Offering help and support to others even simply a listening ear can be therapeutic during these troubling times.

Stay safe. Stay well. Stay positive.

Update - 30 April Thank you to those who joined our mindfulness sessions on Zoom in April. If you'd like a team or individual session, please get in touch with me on sanjay.suri2@nhs.net.