Keeping Calm & Thinking Clearly in Crisis

Posted 03/23/2020 | By HealthCorps

By Ann Friedman PhD of Mindful Being Houston

It has been a scary time learning about the COVID-19 virus. Information to help prevent COVID-19 has been disseminated by the CDC, including washing hands, avoiding crowds, and taking action with symptoms. It is important that everyone do their best to minimize the spread in this moment. I, along with many of you, will continue to pray for those families who have lost loved ones and those who are ill with the virus. May the world one day be COVID-free!

Anytime we face crisis, there is also opportunity. Not going out allows us to slow down and connect with ourselves. We can meet our needs for more rest and exercise. Perhaps we can cook a more nutritious meal. We can be present and relax more. A friend who is home from work just texted to say that she was listening to the sounds of children in her apartment building, home from school, laughing and playing in the hallway. It made her so happy. Another friend is listening to relaxing music as she finishes a project. She has found the music, which she doesn’t have at work, soothing. What are you needing in this moment? How can you do something to benefit from this time alone? How can you create something positive for yourself and your loved ones?

It is not helpful to panic. When we are highly anxious, the limbic system of the brain hijacks our higher level thinking and judgment. Our minds are spinning and we cannot make wise decisions. Mindfulness can be helpful to calm the limbic system so that we can better be with “whatever is” that we cannot change. The human brain often catastrophizes as a way to try to protect us… but science shows that the majority of what we worry about never happens. Catastrophizing raises the cortisol and inflammatory proteins in our bodies to unhealthy levels. We feel mentally and physically exhausted.

Here are some tips to keep calmer and think more clearly:

  1. Ground in the body. If you are really panicking, you can describe in detail 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you smell, and the taste in your mouth. This should help you let go of the thoughts and notice that this moment is all right.
  2. Take some long, slow deep breaths. Three-to-six long, slow deep breaths (exhale longer than the inhale) can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, our system of rest and digest.
  3. Step out of the spinning thoughts to name the feeling. Anxiety is here. Fear is present. Naming the feeling calms the brain. Use mindfulness practices to embrace those feelings and bring yourself some compassion.
  4. Notice if your mind is telling you things you cannot know are true. Are you predicting the future with your crystal ball? Are you catastrophizing? You can say, “brain, I know that you are trying to keep me safe, but these thoughts are not helpful right now. I can’t know they are true and neither can you.”
  5. Use self-care. When we are most distraught, we often turn to self-destructive behaviors of eating or drinking too much, using pills, gambling, surfing the net, or other addictive behaviors. Instead, see if you can take a walk and be present with the beauty around you, exercise your body to release physical tension, or take a warm shower or bath and savor the feeling of the water, the scent of soap, the softness of the lather. Feel each part of your body relax with this amazing gift!
  6. Get support. Talk to someone close to you about your fears and ask for a hug. Or, close your eyes and imagine what someone who loves you very much would say to you in this moment.
  7. Watch or read only enough to get the information you need. The 24-7 media is designed for promoting crisis. It keeps us “hooked” and creates panic for many. It is not helpful to watch tv or listen to radio news 24-7. Switch over to watch your favorite sitcom or a good movie.
  8. Remember, this too shall pass. Eventually mechanisms will be established to handle the spread of this virus.

Finally, crises like these teach us that the world is interdependent. We are not alone, isolated. What happens to one can happen to all of us. That is why mindfulness teaches us to be aware of others with openness and kindness instead of judgment. We are dependent on each other — including for our health. We all matter.

Hoping this finds you safe and well,
Ann and the family at Mindful Being

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