Since my childhood, I have had severe panic attacks. They affected my studies and my work life. After each episode of anxiety, I would tell myself “Phew, I survived this. Now let’s get back to work.” Indeed, my work became my savior because it kept me mentally busy. Yet, in 2006, when I was 36, I had severe burnout symptoms: I couldn’t sleep, I had lost a lot of weight, my mind was very restless. I saw many western doctors. But none of them could heal me.
Heeding my intuition, I went to a wellness center in California that offered Ayurveda treatments. Ayurveda is the 5,000-year-old traditional Indian medicine that uses a holistic approach to heal and balance your body, mind and soul using natural herbs and oils. I did a two-week intense detox program there. It saved my life. I felt like I was reborn, not only physically but also spiritually.
Since then, I have spent 13 years learning and practicing various techniques to keep my mind fit and my anxiety attacks at bay. I know many of you—and your loved ones—are experiencing great distress as we grapple with the grim reality of COVID-19. Hence, I want to share with you five effective techniques you can use to fend off anxiety and stay mentally fit during this health crisis:
Yoga: A daily yoga practice of 20-30 minutes is a great way to decompress and get you out of your “monkey mind” and connect deeply with your body. My daily 30-minute Yoga routine includes standing poses and sun salutation to energize and ends with supta padangusthasana to stretch my hips and legs to relieve tension in the lower back (caused by sitting daily 8 hours in front of a computer!). If you feel overwhelmed by stress, or have trouble sleeping, you can lie down and practice Yoga nidra, a 20-minute meditation and visualization technique that induces deep full-body relaxation (listen to a demonstration here and here). Yoga nidra is so potent that the US Army uses it to help soldiers recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Pranayama: Yoga means “union” of mind, body, and spirit. And what binds them together is our breath. When you are stressed your breathing gets shallow, which acidifies your body and over-activates your sympathetic system, triggering a “fight-or-flight” response. Pranayama is an ancient yogic technique that enables you to consciously control and direct your breath in three phases: inhalation, retention, exhalation. Studies show that practicing Pranayama regularly oxygenates your blood, de-activates your sympathetic system and stimulates the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve), thus boosting neurotransmitters in the brain that curb anxiety. There are many pranayama techniques you can find on the Internet, but I find anuloma viloma, or alternate nostril breathing, the most effective practice to ground me quickly and remove brain fog.
Mindfulness: I learned Vipassana or insight meditation—known today as mindfulness—at Spirit Rock, a meditation center in California. Here is a simple way to practice mindfulness meditation: sit comfortably on a chair or on the floor, close your eyes, and start concentrating on your breath. Stay focused your breath. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your breath, again and again. By single-pointedly focusing on the movement of your breath, you can still your agitated mind in just ten minutes. You can practice mindfulness meditation either sitting cross-legged and focusing on your breath, or by walking slowly in your living room while being fully aware of all sensations that arise as you take each step. You can also use meditation apps like Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer to guide you through mindfulness exercises. Studies show that by diligently practicing mindfulness meditation, you can ease anxiety and mental stress, better detect mistakes, build resilience, cope with uncertainty, and combat depression.
Heartfulness: When your mind is too agitated, it could be difficult to ease into mindfulness meditation. Instead you can practice what I call heartfulness. In fetal development, our heart as an organ develops and gets active before the brain develops. Our heart, which has 40,000 sensory neurons, is our “second brain” (or rather our “first brain”, as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal stated: “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”).
Highly sensitive, the heart’s electric field is 60 times bigger in amplitude than the brain’s electric activity. The heart generates a magnetic field over 100 times stronger than the brain’s field and can be detected up 3 feet away from your body. This is why you pick up the negative (fear) and positive (joy) “vibes” of people around you: emotions—good or bad—are indeed “contagious”! When we are fearful or frustrated, our heart rhythm becomes erratic, thus reducing our “heart coherence”, a state of optimal physiological performance and well-being that occurs when our cardiovascular, nervous, hormonal, and immune systems all work optimally and harmoniously.
Here is a simple technique to restore your heart coherence and feel whole in just 2 minutes: take a deep breath for 3-4 seconds, and exhale slowly for 5-6 seconds (repeat 3 times). Put your left/right palm on your chest area and bring your awareness there. Feel your heart beating. As you inhale deeply, visualize you are breathing in through your heart, and as you exhale slowly, imagine rays of light emanating from your heart and suffusing your entire body. Repeat this cycle 5-6 times. You can combine this exercise with positive affirmations (“I am OK now”) and position emotions like gratitude and compassion (see below). You can use the HeartMath Inner Balance app to check your heart coherence and restore it through guided meditation tools (watch this amazing video at Burning Man to grasp the power of collective heart energy).
Loving kindness: According to the Indian yoga tradition, we have seven chakras–energy centers located in our subtle body–with seven associated energies that shape our perspective, emotions, motivation, and behavior in a specific way. Right now, our first chakra—which governs our self-preservation—is overactive, and all other chakras are shut down, making us feel powerless and disconnected from the rest of humanity. But we can’t build an inclusive and caring society post-COVID-19 if our heart chakra—the seat of compassion—is blocked. You can unlock your heart and unleash compassion by practicing loving kindness meditation (LKM), a powerful technique known as maitri in Sanskrit and metta in Buddhism.
Let me walk you through LKM: Close your eyes. Bring your attention to your heart. Bring up a picture of yourself in your inner awareness and tell yourself warmly: “May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be peaceful”. Repeat a few times. Feel your heart’s loving energy engulfing that person (you) and see him/her smiling at you. Now, visualize someone very dear to you and whisper him/her: “May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful”. Then, think of all the people suffering from COVID-19, and tell them: “May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful”. Next, envision all the health workers fighting COVID-19, and share your love with them: “May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful”. Gradually, extend this circle of luminous compassion to include your neighborhood, your city, your nation, and the entire world—while repeating: “May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful”. (click here to listen to a guided LKM by Emma Seppälä).
I invite you to use these five techniques to relax your body and mind, feel connected with others, and maintain a positive outlook during this difficult time. Namaste!