During my time as a medical student in Ukraine, war broke out. Suddenly, the entire country was consumed by panic, fear, and grief. My classmates and teachers were forced to go to the forefront of the war. Many parallels can be drawn between war-ridden Ukraine and the outbreak we are facing today.
As a mental healthcare provider for international students in Ukraine for five years, I experienced firsthand the traumatic effects of panic, uncertainty, and isolation on health and wellbeing. In this context I realized the benefits of mind-body medicine – how simple techniques such as meditation, imagery, breathing, various forms of movement and creative expression can help ease mental and emotional anguish. These evidence-based techniques can counteract our fight, flight, and freeze responses.
For many people, the conditions we are experiencing now related to the COVID-19 pandemic can similarly be traumatic. Trauma can wound deeply, taking a toll on our mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual well-being. Timely interventions can help.
My colleagues in healthcare who are serving at the forefront of this fight are terrified for their patients, their families, and themselves. They work long shifts fighting one of the worst pandemics in modern history, without necessary supplies, safety, or time to stop and feel. Lacking support from healthcare administrations and the government, they return home only to have to isolate from their loved ones. When they try to speak up, some are threatened to not divulge how they are treated. Others have even gotten fired for voicing their concerns.
Healthcare workers as young as in their 20s are writing wills and contemplating death. Every day they see friends and colleagues step into high-risk situations. Hospitals have turned into war zones, with frontline healthcare workers acting as soldiers.
N95 masks are not enough. We are facing an unprecedented global crisis. Personal protective equipment is needed to protect our bodies from the coronavirus, and our mental and emotional health require just as much protection and attention.
As a psychiatrist, Dr. Noshene Ranjbar, Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, is among thousands of practitioners worldwide facilitating small groups and workshops to teach the practice of mind-body skills through The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM). Free small groups facilitated by CMBM faculty are now being offered to assist individuals to work through their experiences of isolation, stress, and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic
In these sessions, participants can find a confidential setting to share their experiences while learning together. Practicing mind-body skills for even a few minutes each day can help release stuck emotions such as fear, anger, and grief, while helping prevent the development of various physical and mental health disorders.
Here is one example of simple techniques you can use to regain a sense of calm and strength: Take three to five minutes several times a day to notice sensations with your feet on the ground. Use the sensations as a reminder of the earth beneath your feet being one dependable and supportive aspect of your life. Put one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly and notice the movement of your breath. As you take in each breath, feel your lungs expanding, and imagine every cell of your body drinking in a fresh dose of oxygen. With each breath out, imagine releasing tension and stress from any part of the body that maybe feeling tense or tired at this moment. While performing even the most mundane tasks throughout the day – drinking a cup of coffee, taking a shower, or folding laundry – see if you can be completely present; notice each color, shape, texture, taste, smell or aroma; wonder at the beauty of the simplest aspects of life within and around you.
In addition to these online groups and techniques, a free peer support line has been created by psychiatrists nationally to meet the urgent mental health needs of frontline physicians. Physicians can call 1-888-409-0141 to speak with a psychiatrist.
A safe space for healthcare workers and others to express their fears, stressors, insights, strengths, and stories is paramount. Mind-body medicine skills and meaningful connection with others must be incorporated into existing COVID-19 efforts. Doing so will enhance our ability to navigate through this challenging time and emerge with enhanced resilience.