Meditation in the time of COVID-19
Meditations affect on anxiety, immunity and boredom
Within the last few months society, in fact the world as we know it, has been flipped upside down. Thanks largely to the appearance and spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Social norms we have lived with for generations have now become dangerous and in some cases lethal. No more hand shakes, hugs, or fist pumps. What could have once been considered a lazy weekend of staying in for 'Netflix and chill', home has become a state and in many cases a government mandated "stay-at-home" order that has lasted weeks approaching months in some places. With the impact this virus is having on our daily lives and the the growing number of questions still without answers there is little surprise that people all over the world are experiencing anxiety, in one form or another. Over the next couple months these articles will discuss the benefits of meditation in the handling of [or in some cases enhancing and mitigating] anxiety, immunity, and boredom.
Anxiety is a huge issue for many of us right now. When I say "us" I'm not just talking about us Americans I'm referring to every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. We are living in an unparalleled time not seen for over 100 years (give or take). There is a growing global pandemic outside our doors, a virus that has the potential to kill you and doesn't care about your political affiliation or socio-economic status. It is totally understandable if the weight of this realization causes you some anxiety. Anxiety has a way of making you feel cut off from the world around you but don't worry you are not alone. There are others who are also feeling the same way you are. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 40 million adults in the U.S. have some kind of anxiety disorder. Worldwide, 1 in 14 people are affected. These were the numbers before the coronavirus hit so just imagine where they are now with social distancing and shelter in place orders initiated in various countries all around the globe.
Before I get too far into this article I want to clarify a few things. The intention of this article is to express the benefits of meditation in it's regards to anxiety, immunity and boredom. When I refer to anxiety I am speaking only of the feeling of anxiousness brought on by (temporary) stressful situations or stimuli.
Here's a little insight into anxiety: Anxiety is a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate emotions. There is a difference between everyday anxiousness and clinical anxiety. We’ve all likely experienced the feeling of anxiety, whether it’s butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, tension headaches, an upset stomach, or tightness in the chest — all natural occurrences when adrenaline is pumping. Our adrenal glands start flaring whenever we’re in a dangerous situation or potential conflict, activating the “fight or flight” mechanism, or when we’re a bag of nerves ahead of delivering a speech, a must-win sports game, or walking down the aisle, for example. That’s anxiousness. Anxiousness becomes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) when the fear or worry doesn’t abate, escalating into a sense of impending doom, constant ruminating, and, in some cases, panic. Anxiety on this scale can be all-consuming, debilitating, and distressing. Stress can, of course, induce anxiety, and there is an overlap between the two in terms of the physiological reactions. Stress is a heightened emotional state that dissipates once a stressful situation is over whereas GAD is a diagnosable condition that tends to persist for long periods.
Now that we're clear with the type of anxiety we're dealing with let's move onto managing it. Through meditation one can begin to better assess situations that trigger anxiety and begin to get a better understanding of how it operates. Research has shown that a consistent meditative practice reprograms neural pathways in the brain and, thereby, improving our ability to regulate emotions.
Through meditation, we acquire the ability to recognize anxiety-inducing thoughts and story-lines. We see them, sit with them, and eventually learn how to let them go. Through this process we learn two important things: thoughts do not define us and thoughts are not real. Meditation affords us the ability to gradually change our relationship with anxiety, differentiating between what is an irrational episode and what’s true.
People often lump meditation into the "touchy feely" category of fields of thought or practice. Although this is usually seen as a derogatory term there is some truth to it. Another one of the benefits of developing a meditative practice is learning body awareness, which teaches us to bring our attention to any physical sensations felt in the moment. Body awareness can best be described as a technique involving mentally scanning your body, inch by inch, making us more attuned to what is being experienced physically. In the same way you are learning to sit with your thoughts you also find that you can do the same with your [physical] senses.
Anxiety effects the body the same way stress does in that it triggers the autonomic nervous system, leading to a spike in the release of epinephrine and cortisol — the “stress hormones.” While both of these hormones have important roles to play in the body on any given day it is when there are too much of them in our system that problems arise. Too much epinephrine can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes; too much cortisol can affect our health in numerous ways — including increasing blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system, and constricting blood vessels [increasing blood pressure].
Meditation can help us counter the “stress response,” leading to a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. Another benefit of meditation is in it's ability to gradual change in the human brain, inducing a set of physiological changes that form the stress-busting “relaxation response” that can be seen in MRI imaging.
Thank you for reading the first part of our 3 part series detailing the many benefits meditation has in regards to its impact on anxiety. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will highlight meditation's benefits on our mind and immune system.