The following post was authored by Vicki Kennedy Overfelt, an Intermountain Healthcare mindfulness instructor, following her diagnosis and recovery from COVID-19.
The science surrounding the practice of mindfulness and its stress-reducing effects is convincing and as a result, many have been drawn to begin the practice. Is it possible – even in the midst of a global pandemic and the unsettling physical, emotional, and economic circumstances in which we find ourselves – that mindfulness could be helpful? I would answer with a resounding “absolutely!”
In early March, I began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The first and strangest was an inability to smell anything, not even the disinfectant we were using to clean the kitchen. Then deep fatigue, dry cough, joint aches, fever, and brain fog possessed my body for two weeks. A test confirmed I had coronavirus – an illness unlike any I’d ever experienced.
As you may know, sometimes we’re so sick that not even a good movie or book can offer distraction or relief. That’s how I felt. With COVID-19, there were also times when anxiety got the best of me. I wondered: Would I get even sicker? At the peak of my respiratory challenges, I couldn’t speak a sentence without wheezing and pausing to catch my breath. This caused more anxiety, which made the wheezing worse.
Fortunately, I’ve long practiced mindfulness, a collection of practices that help us cultivate non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and our environment. But paying attention to the present moment, especially when that moment is as challenging and unpleasant as coronavirus, may not only sound difficult, but downright undesirable.
An experience I had one afternoon while carefully monitoring my temperature might illustrate how the practice of mindfulness can actually help. I was using my cell phone to make sure I left the thermometer in for at least three minutes. My phone was turned face-up where I could see the time elapsing...1:07:36...I kept looking back and forth. On my third glance over, the numbers shifted out of focus and what appeared clearly was the reflection of the blue sky with beautiful puffy clouds. In that moment, I exhaled a deep sigh of relief. Resting in present moment awareness and the sensations of breathing, I found a few moments of peace. The thoughts of what might happen passed through my awareness as did my anxiety.
Mindfulness is a practice much like going to the gym. The more we practice, the more likely our brains and nervous systems will know it’s a reliable way of managing stress. Meditation, gentle movement, and other mindful practices have a very real and immediate effect on our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that helps us respond to stress effectively and recover from stressful episodes more quickly.
Take one minute to try this brief mindfulness exercise.
- Wherever you are, come to a relaxed posture or sit down. You’re welcome to close your eyes if that feels comfortable for you. Gently notice how you’re feeling.
- Slowly breathe in for a count of 5 at whatever pace is comfortable for you. When you’re ready, release the breath for a count of 7, allowing the exhale to be longer than the inhale. Repeat this for 5 full cycles of breath.
- As you finish, tune in to your body, heart, and mind, and notice how you feel now.
Intermountain Healthcare offers several recorded and live mindfulness sessions to help you strengthen your capacity to deal with stress. Visit intermountainmindfulness.org to learn more.