Dr. Christiane Wolf on how to mindfully curtail the spread of coronavirus — and keep a cool head about it, too.
From NPR to CNN, we’re hearing calls for us to bring mindfulness to bear to avoid the risk of infection with COVID-19.
Mindfulness is the practice to intentionally bring awareness to the present moment so we can choose our response to what is happening, instead of acting on autopilot. For example, we are being counseled to not habitually touch our face, in order to avoid contamination. But that’s easier said than done, as it is such an automatic habit.
It’s paramount that we use — and deepen — our practice to help ourselves and the world.
The great news is that this is exactly one of the things mindfulness practice teaches: to become aware of automatic patterns, to stop them and to instead choose a new response. Mindfulness acts here like a flashlight; we point it at our habitual behaviors so that we can reconsider them and act in a different way. Without awareness, we can’t change what we’re doing. Awareness is always the first step.
For example, we all have learned to not pick the nose in public. It’s probably still done in private, but we have pretty much automated the pattern of becoming aware when we are about to pick it in public and then to stop the impulse.
Let’s look at the four main ways that mindfulness helps us with preventing infection. They are:
- It helps us stop from engaging in automatic behavior
- It creates the awareness that we can undertake a better behavior
- Regular mindfulness meditation boosts the immune system
- Through mindful media practice, we can stay informed — but not panic
1. Stopping automatic behavior
What are the behaviors that we are being asked to stop to avoid infection or its spread?
- avoid touching the face, especially the mouth, nose and eyes
- cough and sneeze into the elbow or a tissue, not the bare hand
- avoid shaking hands or hugging
The impulse to touch one’s face often comes from an itch in that area. People familiar with mindfulness practice will recognize the practice of “not scratching the itch” during meditation, which is training in exactly what’s called for here: to become aware of an impulse before the hands move and to let the impulse to itch be there and not act on it.
Here is an exercise on how to practice this with the example of not touching your face:
1. Take a minute or two to notice every impulse to touch your face. Can you just observe the impulses and not act on them? What happens to the impulses when you don’t do anything? If it’s hard to not follow an impulse, imagine that you will leave a black marker-dot or glue on your face where you touch it. Feeling your breath like an anchor might be helpful to hold steady with the attention through the exercise.
2. Try to remember the exercise and what it feels like to not act on an impulse throughout the day.
3. Often you will only become aware while you touch your face. That is more awareness over not even being aware of touching the face and a sign of progress! Keep going!
4. Repeat Step 1 several times until you become more aware of the impulses during the day and it becomes more natural.
2. Choose a better behavior
Positive behavior patterns such as washing hands often and longer (about 20 seconds), to practice social distancing (6 feet if in public or work from home!) if possible or at least stay home with cold and flu symptoms, have been shown to decrease the risk of contamination and spread of viral infections.
Mindful hand washing
Mindful hand washing is a practice introduced into hospitals and other medical settings many years ago. It’s used as a kind of mindful break, a moment when one is fully present with all the senses that involve the washing of the hands, like feeling the warm water and the slipperiness of the soap, or smelling the scents. This serves the double purpose of A) getting the time in needed to clean the hands not only of dirt but also of bacteria and viruses, and, B) it serves as a mindful mini-break to reset the nervous-system during a stressful day.
Staying away from crowds and people as much as possible seems to be the most promising behavior to slow down the spread of the pandemic in order to not overwhelm the medical system for the people who need it. Practice this as much as possible but stay connected with friends, family and your meditation community through online offerings and platforms like Zoom, Skype or Facetime. We need the mutual support now more than ever. Don’t isolate! Reach out to a fellow meditator and practice together while on the phone or zoom.
Staying home with cold and flu symptoms
Not going to work with cold or flu-like symptoms can feel like a difficult choice when workplace demands are high and while paid sick days are often absent or very few. With COVID-19 in the mix, it (hopefully) becomes an easier choice to stay home and rest and recover, which is as good for the sick person as it is for the co-workers who have less of an exposure risk to infection. Maybe the government will step in to offer help to workers that don’t have paid sick days? Being given the option of staying home and giving the body what it needs — rest — also reinforces the important principles of self-care and self-kindness.
3. Regular mindfulness meditation boosts the immune system
Several studies show that regular mindfulness meditation practice lower overall stress levels, enhance quality of life, and boost the immune system. COVID-19 has a higher risk of complications for people with compromised immune systems. So while it might be too much of a claim to say that meditation saves us from getting infected or, once infected, lowers the risk of complications, many longtime meditators will claim that they get less cold and flu infections or that they have lowered the frequency and intensity of flare-ups of chronic ailment and diseases.
4. Mindful media practice: Stay informed but don’t panic
Mindfulness practice also has a proven track record of lowering anxiety and worry. With all the media coverage of the coronavirus from around the world, it’s easy to fall into worry or even panic.
Mindfulness helps us be aware of the presence of anxiety or worry in the form of thoughts and as sensations in the body, and to observe them with friendliness instead of trying to push them away. Repeatedly returning to the sensations of the breath or the grounding feeling of the feet on the floor help us reorient to the present moment instead of racing toward some anticipated future. As the slogan goes: Keep Calm and Carry On. (It’s worth nothing that that slogan, was designed and made popular during World War II to instruct British citizens how to behave in the face of threatened massive air attack.)
Using the principles of mindfulness, we can practice this and help us all to move through the epidemic with all its unpredictability, doing our part to lower the spread and impact of COVID-19, physically and emotionally. It’s paramount that we use — and deepen — our practice to help ourselves and the world to stay calm and get through this together.