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Wellness Wednesday: How mindfulness and staying grounded can help during the Covid-19 pandemic

This week, Helen Byrne of The Mindfulness Centre and Kathryn Crowley, yoga teacher and artist share their thoughts on maintaining wellbeing.

Helen Byrne & Kathryn Crowley

The Covid-19 shutdown is slowly, delicately winding down. Despite the implementation this week of the first of a phased return to normal, we are still being asked to remain at home and stay the course.

Here at TheJournal.ie, we are running a weekly Voices column, ‘Wellness Wednesday’, in which we feature advice and information from mental health professionals, yoga teachers, mindfulness practitioners and more. This week, Helen Byrne, a mindfulness practitioner and Kathryn Crowley, yoga teacher and artist, share their thoughts and some helpful resources:

THIS EXCEPTIONALLY CHALLENGING time in all our lives demands that we support each other and cultivate solidarity, and it provides us with the opportunity to be creative in how we respond to the coronavirus threat. 

When we feel threatened our nervous system prepares us either to ‘fight’ a perceived enemy, to run and get away from the danger, the ‘flight’, or to ‘freeze’, as though we could just become invisible. 

Those fight/flight/freeze reactions have enabled our species to survive. Without this capacity to be ready to react quickly in times of danger our ancestors wouldn’t have survived. They would have been eaten or beaten.   

The problem is not the immediate reaction to danger, but what happens next. If our nervous system keeps the body in a state of hypervigilance, we can run into trouble. In that state, our capacity to be creative in how we respond to challenges is diminished.

When we’re highly stressed like this, we see through the narrow lens of fear and this limits our options. Mindfulness can help us to recognise our fear and anxiety so that we can hold them in awareness, while not identifying so completely with them. 

Watching emotions, but not powered by them

In this way, we can experience fear and anxiety without being totally taken over by them.  We can hold our fear and anxiety in ways where they do not become the whole story but are part of it, held in a spacious, compassionate way so that we can continue to live our lives as they are right now.  

This moment in time is our life. We may find that we are waiting for this to be over, for what happens next and this waiting can have the effect almost like holding our breath.  It can make the present moment feel unbearable. 

We often hear the expression that ‘we are living in limbo,’ but maybe what we are being challenged to do is to find ways to really be alive in this period, not just waiting for it all to be over. 

shutterstock_1510165223 Source: Shutterstock/Microgen

We can give our days meaning and purpose by setting up some kind of routine, connecting with others even if over the phone, by email or by joining an online class, doing things that give us pleasure, turning off the news and only turning it on deliberately at certain times of the day, exercising however we can, and practising mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not a panacea, it will not help us to get rid of our anxiety or our frustration, but it can help us to hold our experience with awareness, spaciousness and compassion.  

Mindfulness can help us to take a pause, connect with this moment, and deliberately bring our attention here so that we can try to de-escalate anxiety levels to some extent.  Often, in the ordinary ebb and flow of our lives, we can fall into the illusion that we are in control and are safe.  

Now, in the face of the coronavirus threat, we find we need to be flexible, to respond creatively, with wisdom and compassion, so that we can support ourselves and each other.

This is a time when it becomes really clear, in spite of the illusion of separateness, that we are all interconnected and our behaviour affects not only ourselves but each other and the wider community. Mindfulness can help us to find moments of stability and ease in the midst of the terrible uncertainty, worry and unease that pervades the whole world right now.  

Source: The Mindfulness Centre, Dublin 2/YouTube

The teachers at The Mindfulness Centre are highly qualified and experienced, all accredited members of the professional body, The Mindfulness Teachers Association of Ireland.

We are offering twice-daily online live guided meditation sessions by Zoom, which people are finding very supportive. The sessions are for half an hour. You can also access various guided audio meditations on our page, led by members of the team.

Let’s all do the best we can to consciously take care of ourselves and each other in these strange days. Perhaps at the end of it all, we may be a little more appreciative of the freedoms and choices many of us may have taken for granted until now.  

Keeping well with Kathryn Crowley

Stress can cause chronic pain to some people (in the case of the fibromyalgia syndrome for example) and grey hair to others. It can manifest as a skin rash, indigestion or insomnia.

We are all different, yet we all have the ability to process our emotions in difficult times. It’s a kind of alchemy; we have immense inner resources to tap into. As a yoga teacher, I am unemployed now like many of you (yoga by Zoom doesn’t sit well with me), so rather than worrying about what we cannot control, I’d like to inspire you to focus on what is possible. 

Alchemising anxiety

Emotions are for expressing, not repressing so whatever it is, let it out. Right now there is a lot of worry in the world. Talk to someone by phone, look up counselling services online, take action to voice your worries. It is crucial to talk, sing, crow, make whatever sound works. All voices can benefit from singing. Chanting is another good outlet. 

Anxiety is debilitating for some people so if you can at all, develop a meditation practice. Start with simple breathwork and it will do you the world of good. Anytime your mind starts to focus on disasters or dark imagined futures, focus on your breathing instead, it is the key action to calm your thoughts.

In time you can learn to project into the future in a way that is positive instead of ‘panicky’. In yoga, we call breathing exercises “pranayama”. Prana means life force, so by working on your breathing, in essence, you are tapping into your own energy to rejuvenate yourself on a physical level while cooling your mental state. This is so much better than letting external forces like the news dictate your mood. Less screen time and TV will help you too.

Life outside

We are keeping social distance, but nothing changes the fact that Summer is finally here. The beginning of May was traditionally known as Bealtaine and it marked the return of light. We are now halfway between Spring Equinox and Summer solstice.

Traditionally, fires were lit all over Ireland as a ritual celebration at Bealtaine and our ancestors would have moved animals to Summer pastures at this time. Today, signs of Summer are everywhere. Look around at the trees and fields, or if you are a city dweller far from any green areas then watch a nature documentary for inspiration.

The vibrancy of our planet is uplifting in every sense. Wildflowers are blooming and sticky buds have burst open on trees that were stark and skeletal a few months ago. All around us we can witness the endless seasonal signs of growth, renewal and rebirth. Connect with nature if you can, it’s beyond helpful.

shutterstock_794755342 Bealtaine Fire Festival at Uisneach in Westmeath. Source: Shutterstock/dirtymouse

Light and air

Fresh air is crucial of course, and Ireland is blessed with pristine air quality. Oxygen is life; it boosts the immune system, assists digestion and supports serotonin production for a happier mood.

Even for people living with you who can’t walk very far, try to get them out of the house to enjoy some deep breathing. Anyone with injuries or physical restrictions can also sit out with a blanket wrapped around their legs and lower back (to keep the area around the kidneys warm).

Natural light is beneficial too. One medical study found that patients had a better recovery after surgery because of regular exposure to natural light. The cohort even had lower pain levels, so they needed less medication, which is fascinating.

We all take our health for granted at times, so let’s not ever underestimate the power of fresh air and natural light. Now is the ideal time to make the very most of it as often as possible. Feel the sun on your face at every opportunity.

Grounding

Savasana is a yoga pose also known as ‘corpse pose’. Lie flat on your back, arms by your sides. I do this outside so that I can listen to the birds, close my eyes and feel the elements. Being outdoors might require wearing a few layers of clothing.

pjimage(1) Grounding can come in different forms, like walking barefoot, savasana and sound baths. Source: Shutterstock

Wherever you practice, you might want to cover yourself fully with a blanket. The challenge is to remain perfectly still for 5-10 minutes. I provide an audio service via my website to guide you in the process of relaxing every part of your body while breathing for relaxation.

Another practice for grounding can also be done standing up. If you have access to a patch of grass, a corner of the park, simply walk around very slowly in your bare feet. Stand completely still, arms relaxed by your sides, connecting down to the earth through the soles of your feet. It feels good and it taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, activating a ‘rest and digest’ response in the body. 

The power of sound

Not everyone lives in a place where local birds provide the soundtrack, so sitting outside or going for a walk with headphones on is another option. When drowning out traffic noises, instrumental music is more calming than songs.

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When the mind does not have lots of words to contend with it, relaxation is easier to achieve. Low-frequency sound waves are the most soothing; search for binaural beats online and take time to listen intently to lower your stress levels.

Creativity

There are endless ways to be creative. If you have time on your hands, why not try out a new recipe? If you have been comfort-eating lots of sugary items through all of this, that can impact negatively on you. Why not bake your own sweet treats as a healthier option?

Or if you are usually the kind of person who is not interested in cooking dinners, why not think of a meal you really enjoyed once and recreate a version of it slowly, step by step at home? This time of year is great for making morning smoothies; check out my blog for recipes. 

smoothie orange Source: Kathryn Crowley

Painting, doodling, sewing and writing are lovely ways to be creative. As I say to students it’s about the process, not perfection! Who cares if you don’t finish something or get it ‘right’ first time? Experiment and have some fun. It will relax you.

This society is very results-driven and so much of it is absolute nonsense. The frantic pace of life, endless pressures have all played havoc with people’s health. I am not skipping through the fields making daisy chains and claiming that I never get stressed, however, the way in which I respond to it has massive implications.

If you do nothing else during this time except learning how to apply techniques to soothe your stress levels, you will be giving yourself a gift that will last a lifetime.

Helen Byrne is Co-Director of The Mindfulness Centre, Dublin 2. Kathryn Crowley is a yoga teacher, writer and artist. She is currently studying sociology at MA level in the University of Limerick and working on her first book. Find her on Instagram and www.kathryn.ie.

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Helen Byrne & Kathryn Crowley

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