If you asked me in 2019 if I could find a way to combine my current life as a mind-body doctor at Harvard with my past life as a global health worker at the WHO in Geneva, I would’ve said, nah, impossible. That was pre-COVID, before we were faced with a pandemic that threatened our everyday way of life and our collective sense of well-being. But here we are, in the midst of it all.
There is no better time than now to strengthen your resilience!
Resilience is a skill you can master, and I’m going to show you how in this three-part series. First, we’ll focus on the foundation: strengthening the mind. Next, we’ll talk about strengthening your body and boosting immunity. And finally, discuss all the ways we can strengthen our spirit to cope with the uncertainty. With each module, you’ll feel better, gain resilience and decrease stress.
Because powering up your resilience while powering down your stress isn’t a magical, mystical thing. It’s a science-based formula based on biology. There are concrete ways to target the biology of stress and the science of resilience, and I’m going to show you how. But we need to remember one mantra: It’s all in the doing! When you do better, you feel better. Doing is everything. So let’s start doing!
WHY WE START WITH THE MIND
When a pandemic strikes, our primal fears are stoked and our self-preservation mechanism goes into overdrive. It’s called the fight-or-flight response, a cascade of hormones signaled by our brain to respond to danger. Evolutionarily, the fight-or-flight response saved us from a tiger in the forest during caveman times. Now, it makes us panic buy Purell and toilet paper, watch incessant amounts of news coverage, and scroll through social media feeds late into the night. Same concept. We are evolutionarily hardwired for survival whenever we feel unsafe or afraid. And while we know a lot about preparing for a pandemic by making sure we have the material stuff like food, water, shelter, and other provisions, we don’t know how to optimize our minds in preparation.
So let’s start with five concrete steps you can begin today to optimize your mind and outsmart the fight or flight response during COVID.
1. START A MEDIA CLEANSE: Falling down the rabbit hole when it comes to news primes your fight or flight response into overdrive. It’s time to parent ourselves and minimize our media time. Try slowing down your media consumption by either:
a) limiting the amount of time you spend consuming the news.
b) limiting the number of sources you get your news from.
Either way, you’ll curb your media consumption and this will have a direct impact on your fight-or-flight response. A solid goal is one hour a day using either approach. We all need to find a happy balance between being an informed citizen versus an overconsumer of news.
Clickbait has a biological basis.
And since nature doesn’t like a vacuum, try to substitute your need to read (or watch) with uplifting things. Personally, I’ve been reading a page a day from The Daily Stoic and The Essential Rumi. Also, never underestimate the power of laughter as a therapeutic force during periods of stress (Thank you, Trevor Noah and Lilly Singh!).
2. BREATHE DEEPLY AND OFTEN: If there is one definitive way to short-circuit the fight or flight response, our breath is the gateway. There are so many kinds of breathing exercises to do, but my favorites are the ones below to immediately and profoundly stop anxiety from escalating into panic:
a. Heart-centered breathing: Place one hand on your belly and your other hand on your heart. Inhale through your nose for a silent count of four, exhale through your nose for a silent count of seven. Do this for a few breath cycles, then resume normal breathing. This is a great technique to decrease the overwhelm we’re feeling and help us get centered.
b. Diaphragmatic breathing: Place both hands on your belly. Inhale and exhale slowly through your nose (or mouth if that’s more comfortable). Feel your belly rise and fall with each inbreath and outbreath. The GIF below is a great visual for diaphragmatic breathing.
3. CHANNEL YOUR ANXIOUS ENERGY INTO ACTION: We all have a lot of anxious energy right now. Let’s learn to channel it for good not evil. Remember in science class where we learned about potential and kinetic energy? Anxiety is potential energy (dormant in your head) and action is kinetic energy (an outward movement). There are so many ways to redirect your nervous energy into positive action. Start small and start at home. Find ways to make your home feel like a safe haven for you and your family. Do a deep clean (the act of cleaning can feel therapeutic). Organize your pantry, closets, files, and finances. Get a good supply of educational materials, books, games and entertainment so you can all thrive mentally. Create some new family rituals to bring more unity and cohesion to your home during this time of uncertainty. Spend your mental bandwidth on these productive actions to feel a greater sense of control and preparedness, both of which are like kryptonite to anxiety’s power.
4. FIND YOUR FLOW THROUGH PASSION: Even during the most ordinary of times, life has no guarantees. So if there’s something huge you’ve always wanted to do, learn or become, now is the time. We live in an era where you can learn anything from the comfort of your home. Have you wanted to learn how to code, how to bake, how to speak French, play the guitar, learn to crochet, woodworking, painting a mural? Whatever big, wacky dream you’ve had, now is the time to make it happen. And if that seems too frivolous for you, take a look at all the famous figures in history who came up with incredible ideas to move humanity forward during periods of quarantine. Scientifically, whenever we immerse ourselves fully in a task that uses all our mental faculties, we get into the state of flow, and flow has a huge therapeutic benefit on our fight or flight response. During times like these, the state of flow can be just the remedy we need to get through the day.
3. GRATITUDE: WRITE IT DOWN: There is perhaps no greater health promoting emotion than gratitude. It has so many proven wellness benefits, mostly because gratitude helps with cognitive reframing. When we’re stressed, our self-preservation mechanism goes into overdrive. So our brains become like Velcro to bad events (it’s a protection mechanism to recognize danger) and our brains treat the good events like Teflon, letting them slip away. When you actively practice gratitude, you’re changing your brain to pay attention to the good stuff. And over time that has profound effects on stress and resilience.
Start by keeping a gratitude journal: a paper notebook by your nightstand where you write down five things you’re grateful for each day and why. It should be a 90 second exercise. Research has shown that the act of writing uses different brain circuitry than typing, and retrains your mind to optimize healthier thoughts.
This pandemic has called into question so much for so many, that being able to count five things we’re grateful for each day is an exercise in abundance. And since pandemics create a scarcity mindset, having a sense of abundance internally is more important now than ever.
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Now on to Part 2: How to Optimize Your Body During COVID, which includes resiliency tips on sleep, exercise, and ways to build your immunity.
The post originally appeared on draditi.com