Ready for a Mental Reboot?

The global pandemic has thrown many of us off of our routines, increased our stress and kick-started some unhealthy habits. The length of time it has lasted, and the reduced access to familiar ways to cope and recharge — exercise, visiting friends and family — has made a bad situation even worse.

“We’re not built to keep that level of hyper vigilance and survival paranoia for long periods of time without recharging,” explains Aron Steward, Ph.D., chief of psychology at University of Vermont Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital. Our brains are built to deal with very short bursts of stressors, not a year-long threat. “A long period of depletion leads to fatigue and exhaustion, which can increase emotional and physical sickness.”

So while binge-watching Netflix may help us tune out and relax, it’s not helping us tune in to ways to keep our bodies healthy or boost our immune system. The solution? Look inward.

Start with Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the first step to developing the coping skills needed to better navigate this phase of the pandemic, according to Dr. Steward. “People can’t generate new and different coping skills without being self-aware, which involves slowing down and turning inward,” she says, emphasizing the need to carve out the time to check in with yourself at least once every 24 hours.

Steward suggests practicing mindfulness, the simple act of paying attention and being completely in the moment of whatever you’re doing. Meditation is good, too: Identify a point of focus – your breath, the sound around you, an image, object or a word or phrase – and when your attention strays, gently return your mind back to that point. Evidence-based research has found that these practices reduce stress levels and lead to increased resilience, something we could all use more of right now. Mindfulness can also increase focus and attention, decrease depression and anxiety, and decrease physical feelings of fatigue, allowing you to more fully rest and rejuvenate.

One Minute for Improved Immunity

At first, you may find it uncomfortable and slightly stressful to sit still and focus, Dr. Steward says. But the more time you invest, the more relaxed you can become. “Start with a minute,” Dr. Steward recommends. “If you feel uncomfortable with the concept, start with 30 seconds. For somebody who has a hard time sitting still, even 30 seconds can feel like a long time in the beginning.”

Research suggests that some people may start to feel the benefits of decreased depression and anxiety after practicing mindfulness for just a minute a day. For others, it may take longer.“Right now people feel like if they relax or take the time to try these practices, they will be soft and weak. I tell them that they will actually improve their focus and attention, their productivity and their ability to respond to stressors in a more controlled way,” says Dr. Steward. In other words, a little time and effort now could save a lot of time and effort later. Recharging in small, incremental steps pays off, says Dr. Steward, improving wellness, immunity and resiliency for when big challenges arrive.

7 Tips to Get Started

  • Reduce expectations: Understand that benefits will add up over time
  • Start small: Try 30 seconds daily for a week, then increase to one minute, etc. Need support? Try apps like Calm or Headspace that will help guide your mindfulness practice. Or, explore the Guided Mindfulness Series from the Center for Health and Wellbeing at the University of Vermont.
  • Choose the timing: Identify the best time of the day to be able to access more calm
  • Use your senses: Consider aromatherapy, guided imagery or a weighted blanket to assist
  • Practice gratitude: Ask yourself:
    • What am I grateful for?
    • What do I love in my life?
    • What am I thankful for?
  • Cultivate self-compassion: Observe with compassion rather than judgment
  • Be yourself: When do you feel best? How do you like to feel? Do you prefer to write, share with others or just silently think? Personalize your preferred tool of relaxation, repair and restoration.

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