Updated: Oct 6
The Covid-19 crisis is not over yet but in many parts of the world, restrictions are starting to be lifted, causing a lot of fear and anxiety, just as they did when they were first put in place. In most countries, reported incidents of high anxiety levels rose sharply due to Covid-19.
We’ve all had to adapt rapidly to a new and uncertain normal that has involved curbs on our movements, the wearing of face masks, social distancing, and an ever-present bottle of hand-sanitiser in our pockets. Let’s face it, it’s been tiring.
As restrictions ease, however, what was tiresome for many has become the new certainty and emotional security blanket for others. Lifting the limits on our freedoms, especially as Covid-19 is still a certain threat, can make the idea of going back to work, socialising in groups, and hugging people you don’t live with, scary for some.
Covid-19 is of course not the only source of anxiety that we routinely face. Stress from work or in personal relationships or in the state of our finances can also cause anxiety. Even the side effects of medication. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health condition in the world. In 2017, well before the impact of Covid-19, there was an estimated 284 million people globally experiencing some form of anxiety disorder.
How Meditation Can Help in Beating Anxiety
Mindfulness meditation can help. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.” Because of the way that mindfulness impacts the brain, mindfulness may be the best way to deal with chronic stress or anxiety.
When the mind becomes fixated on something disturbing due to the triggering of our negativity bias, there is a particular part of our frontal lobe called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) which becomes overactivated. This has the consequence of increasing beta and high-beta brainwaves which lead us to become stuck with particular thoughts and feelings that can feed into our state of anxiety. Preoccupation with fears about the future and how things will affect us, and our family can become heightened.
We’ve all found ourselves fixated on an insult or criticism that someone has thrown our way or focused heavily on a mistake we’ve made. Our negativity bias ensures that these moments in our lives have a much greater impact on us than the positives. It’s just the way we’re hard-wired and it can have a very powerful impact on our behaviour, decisions, and even our relationships.
It might seem as if our negativity bias is something that we could happily do without. Wouldn’t life be much better if we weren’t constantly predisposed towards fixating on all that goes wrong in our lives and the world around us? This highly skillful response mechanism has evolved however for a very good reason. Our negativity bias is there to keep us safe and the resultant anxiety that arises when it’s triggered is a critical part of our protection system. It’s there to warn us of dangers when driving in heavy traffic, walking along dark streets or when we fall behind with a deadline at work. Gone are the saber-tooth tigers that it would have had to alert us to in earlier periods of human history, but it is still there, firing up at every perceived threat to our safety or existence.
We can, however, take control of the negativity bias and thus the arising of anxiety. In these uncertain Covid-19 times it's an opportunity to take advantage of the social distancing restrictions and quarantining that so many are subject to and use that time to develop our mindfulness ability. We can, by changing our mindset, turn what appears to be a negative situation into an opportunity.
When we start to practice mindfulness, theta waves increase in the ACC. Theta waves are associated with relaxation, spacious,ness and gentle attentional awareness. With sustained practice, we start to shift into an observer role with a more expansive awareness of the situation, rather than being personally embedded in the situation, experiencing it as personal.
The observer role allows us to acknowledge and feel worries, irritations, and painful memories without the need to analyse, suppress or encourage them, allowing them to dissipate more easily.
As we gain the ability to simply relax into a state of open awareness of our problems insight into what is driving our emotional state can arise. This can create a sense of spaciousness and a feeling of freedom.
Some Methods for you to Try
If at any point your mind wanders, this is okay. The mind does this. Just notice it and bring it back to the focus of the exercise.
1/ Focusing on Sounds
Sit in a comfortable place and if you can, close your eyes. Now just allow your mind to drift to the first sound that comes into your awareness. It could be the ticking of a clock, or the sound of a kettle boiling, birds outside the window, nearby voices. Whatever sound you move your mind to, try not to think about it. Just be aware of it. If another sound comes into your awareness, shift to that, and stay with it for a moment or two, then shift to another sound. If there are no other sounds, that’s okay, just stay with a sense of allowing. It’s almost as if your ears are microphones, just picking up whatever sounds happen to come along without judgement or analysis.
After a minute or two, try taking your mind inside yourself and see if you can notice how much calmer you have become. This is because your mind is fully in the present moment.
2/ The Raisin Exercise
This exercise is a classic mindfulness practice and can be done with any food, though it's best to pick something with an interesting texture, smell, or taste.
Take the raisin in your fingers and look carefully at it. Imagine that this is the first time that you have ever seen such a thing. Note the way the raisin looks, paying attention to the different grooves and the way the light catches it. Be aware of how it feels between your fingers and how it responds to pressure or being rolled between your fingers. Now smell it and note what this is like. Then put it in your mouth and hold it on your tongue. What is happening? Is saliva being produced? What does the raisin feel like on your tongue? Can you get a taste of it? Now chew it and notice the different sensations and the action involved in chewing it.
3/ The Five Senses Exercise
This exercise is designed to be used quickly in many daily circumstances. Try to follow the order given here. If you can’t complete them all every time, that’s okay:
· Notice five things that you can see. Try to notice things that perhaps normally you miss, such as the play of light on a wall, a crack in the pavement, or the pattern on a vase. Stay with each for a moment.
· Notice four things that you can feel. These should be things that you are feeling right now, such as a breeze against your face, the feel of your shirt on your skin, or the feel of a coffee mug in your hand.
· Three things that you can hear. Imagine that your ears are microphones again as in the previous exercise and bring your awareness to whatever is there in the background. It could be voices or birds singing outside the window or the hum of a refrigerator.
· Notice two things you can smell. This could be the smell of cooking or any scent in the breeze or even the smell of your own skin.
· Finally, notice one thing you can taste. Take a sip of something or chew or eat something and notice that taste in your mouth as you chew it and swallow it. What taste is left in the mouth?
4/ The Coffee Meditation
Of course, this doesn’t have to involve coffee. Tea or herbal tea is fine also. Try to focus on each step.
Look carefully at the coffee grounds, letting your eyes soak up every detail. See how the light touches the grounds and how it reflects off them. What does the coffee smell like? As you add the water, how does that sound? Try to stay with your experience rather than mentally describing the process. If you are adding milk and sugar, can you notice how they dissolve into the coffee? Can you notice the steam rising from the cup or mug and feel its heat against your hand?
Now take a sip of coffee. Can you sense any of the different delicate flavours within it? Don’t swallow the coffee in one go. Instead, savour it and explore it with your awareness. Then swallow and note how that feels. You can continue this with the whole drink, or by focusing for a five-minute period.
5/ The 3-Minute Breathing Space
This is a great practice for beginners to get their practice started. If you have a busy life or a busy mind, this practice could be perfect for you. The technique is divided into three parts, each lasting for just one minute.
· Awareness of what is happening right now. In this stage, we simply note whatever arises and comes into our awareness in the present moment. It is a wide-open state that is free from decision-making or choices or any kind of judgment and we are not trying to change anything. We simply allow whatever arises to arise in our consciousness and we stay with it for about a minute. We are just watching each experience from one moment to the next.
· Bringing awareness to the breath. We now bring our open awareness of our wider experiences down into a much narrower, concentrated focus on the breath. We find one place in the body where we can be aware of the experience of breathing, for instance, in the belly, or the chest or at the nose, or even in our back or the pelvic floor. Wherever we become conscious of the impact of the breath, we can keep our attention at that point in a narrow focus. Again, we stay here for one minute.
· Bringing awareness to the whole body. In this final step, we open out our awareness once more to include the whole body and the breath, noting any sensations that might be present. This last phase also takes about a minute.
Five powerful stress-busting meditations for you to try on your own. If you would prefer, you can try the guided meditation below, designed to help with those times when you are feeling most anxious: