There’s a lot of talk about the need to keep your stress levels down now that we’re living under siege in corona-ville. Then there are the children to think of.
How do we help them to keep calm, let alone empowered, when everybody seems to be living with a riotously unquiet mind?
Who better to ask than a stressed top of the tree expert in frontline medicine and public health. How does he go about it?
Rob Moodie is Professor of Public Health at the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health. As a doctor he worked in refugee health care in the Sudan for Save the Children Fund and Medicins Sans Frontieres, and later for an Aboriginal Community controlled health service in Central Australia.
To catch his breath and settle himself mentally and emotionally, Professor Moodie relies on meditation. Simply put, he sits quietly, closes his eyes, and pays attention to his breathing.
It’s often described as training in awareness, gaining perspective and learning to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgement.
“It took me 20 years to work out you need to do it daily for it to have an effect,” he told The New Daily.
“I’m what you might call gently addicted to it. Particularly now, it’s been really useful, in terms of just being able to maintain balance … so that I can respond more appropriately to all the stresses that are around. I find it enormously useful.
“I think everyone knows the recommended guidelines on physical health: 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. I’m utterly convinced that we need 30 minutes of regular investment in our own emotional health.
“That can be meditation or yoga or prayer or walking in the forest. Whatever it is, we need something regular to nurture our soil and spirit: something that helps us maintain a sense of balance. This will become even more essential as life gets a bit harder around us.”
The benefits during a life under viral siege
Lonely older people: In 2012, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles reported that a simple meditation program lasting just eight weeks reduced loneliness in older adults. The program involved a technique called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which teaches the mind to simply be attentive to the present and not dwell in the past or project into the future.
Easing non-clinical anxiety: Well, that’s most of us. A 2013 study revealed that meditation-related anxiety relief is a real thing as far as the brain is concerned. It took 15 healthy volunteers, and taught them mindfulness meditation. Brain scanning revealed the parts of the brain associated with controlling worrying was more active during meditation – therefore, helping control anxiety levels.
Improved problem-solving capabilities: We are in an era of adaptation to new circumstances. This means we have to draw on our problem-solving capabilities. A 2012 study found that mindfulness meditation can help people dig themselves out of a stubborn hole (more formally known as cognitive rigidity) and change strategies for problem solving.
Sharper thinking, less emotional reactivity: In 2018, researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity discovered how breath-focused meditation directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline.
This may explain why breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices has long been associated with increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions and decreased emotional reactivity.
Boost energy and brain function in the kiddies: Whether your children are at school or confined at home, their energy levels and learning ability are bound to be flatter than what we think of as the good old days (a few weeks ago).
A 2017 study found that practicing just 25 minutes of Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation per day can boost the brain’s executive functions, cognitive abilities linked to goal-directed behaviour and the ability to control knee-jerk emotional responses, habitual thinking patterns.
A 2013 study demonstrated that meditation before class seemed to help students focus better and retain information. A random selection of students followed basic meditation instructions before a lecture, and the students who meditated before the lecture scored better on a quiz that followed than students who did not meditate.
May we suggest that families put 20 minutes aside each day and give this stuff a try.
There are plenty of resources online. Another scientist The New Daily spoke to recommended the Smiling Mind, a free daily meditation and mindfulness app, that speaks to the coronavirus generation.
Mindfulness Meditation, step by step
- According to mindfulness.org: Take your seat. Whatever you’re sitting on – a chair, a meditation cushion, a park bench – find a spot that gives you a stable, solid seat, not perching or hanging back.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion on the floor, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. (If you already do some kind of seated yoga posture, go ahead.) If on a chair, it’s good if the bottoms of your feet are touching the floor.
- Straighten – but don’t stiffen – your upper body. The spine has natural curvature. Let it be there. Your head and shoulders can comfortably rest on top of your vertebrae.
- Situate your upper arms parallel to your upper body. Then let your hands drop onto the tops of your legs. With your upper arms at your sides, your hands will land in the right spot. Too far forward will make you hunch. Too far back will make you stiff. You’re tuning the strings of your body – not too tight and not too loose.
- Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. You may let your eyelids lower. If you feel the need, you may lower them completely, but it’s not necessary to close your eyes when meditating. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it.
- Be there for a few moments. Relax. Bring your attention to your breath or the sensations in your body.
- Feel your breath – or some say “follow” it –as it goes out and as it goes in. (Some versions of this practice put more emphasis on the outbreath, and for the inbreath you simply leave a spacious pause.)
- Either way, draw your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest. Choose your focal point, and with each breath, you can mentally note “breathing in” and “breathing out.”
- Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you get around to noticing your mind wandering – in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes – just gently return your attention to the breath.
- Practice pausing before making any physical adjustments, such as moving your body or scratching an itch. With intention, shift at a moment you choose, allowing space between what you experience and what you choose to do.
- You may find your mind wandering constantly – that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with or engaging with those thoughts as much, practice observing without needing to react. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back over and over again without judgment or expectation.
- When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Pausing for a moment, decide how you’d like to continue on with your day.
- That’s it. That’s the practice. It’s often been said that it’s very simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. The work is to just keep doing it. Results will accrue.