Mindfulness in the Face of a Pandemic

Introduction

COVID-19 is an exhausted topic which has received daily media coverage since it’s breakout in December. Even now as I write this article, I find myself attempting to not exhaust any talk if COVID-19. Yet, despite our frustration, the pandemic is still very real all over the world, and extended lockdowns are necessary in keeping the vulnerable safe and reducing the infection rate.

Unfortunately, pandemics are nothing new. The battle between humans and the invisible enemies of the microbial world has been ongoing throughout human history (Paul & Pal, 2020).

From the bubonic plague (1346 – 1353), to cholera (1852-1923), to the Spanish flu (1918-1920) and SARS (2002 – 2003), the world has seen its fair share of pandemics with each pandemic demonstrating its own specificities. For example, the Ebola pandemic (2015-2021) is quite aggressive yet less transmissible; SARS virus (2002-2003) on the other hand seemed to become eradicated nearly by itself.

Alongside the variance of pandemics throughout human history is the plethora of ways in which humans have reacted to such outbreaks. During the black plague, limited infectious diseases knowledge saw for rather eccentric remedies.  Bloodletting, lucky charms and witchcraft technique were all too common (Paul & Pal, 2020).

Moreover, with lack infectious disease knowledge some communities were deemed responsible for the pandemic (Jews, Samaritans, pagans and heretics) and forced to self-isolate by orders of the Eastern Roman emperor Justine (527AD – 565AD). Luckily, we have come a long way since witchcraft and disease-related xenophobia.

Nonetheless, COVID-19 presents its own challenges. Although not as fatal as the bubonic plague and Ebola; COVID-19 is highly infectious and can have devasting effects on the elderly and unhealthy. Therefore, social isolation is necessary in halting the adverse effects COVID-19 can have on a population’s health.

If social isolation wasn’t enough; concerns for the economy, public health and hopes for any prospect of baseline normality have increased reports of stress, anxiety and depression among the population; most notably in children, older people, frontline workers and individuals with existing mental health illnesses (Roy, Singh, Mishra, Chinnadurai, Mitra, and Bakshi, 2020).

Furthermore, since the pandemic began students have anecdotally reported having a difficult time focusing and being productive in school (Boals and Banks, 2020).

Despite our newfound limitations, there are still elements of day to day life we can control, this article suggests the cultivation of mindfulness can potentially act as the lowest rung for a smoother and less chaotic quarantine.

What is mindfulness really?

Mindfulness seems to be this buzz word that has gained traction among the popular press, psychotherapy literature and social media influencers alike, over the past decade (Didonna, 2009; Shapiro & Carlson, 2009), but what is it? Simply put, mindfulness can be defined as the “moment-by-moment awareness” (Germer et al., 2005, p. 6).

This means focusing directly on the immediate experience and having feelings of acceptance towards whatever may arise in the torrent of consciousness (Verplanken and Fisher, 2013). Basically, noticing the current moment, without trying to do anything to it. One may be so entrenched in thought to not even notice they are thinking.

Take the example of driving a car after a rather tough day at work. You are driving along, ruminating on the whole day, things you should have said, things you should have done when an engine system light comes on in your dashboard urging you to get mechanical assistance immediately.

Instantaneously, you have ripped away from any internal chatter in your head and made perfectly aware that you are driving a car. This is a quintessential example of not observing your immediate experience but rather being forced into it. It’s no one’s fault, we are woken up listening to our thoughts and these thoughts follow us until our head hits the pillow that night.

The human brain is an unsatisfied creature; with a constant need to plan and learn, it’s what makes us so great. But when ruminations of past or future events start to make us feel sad or anxious, it becomes pernicious

The Benefits of Mindfulness in a Pandemic

Cultivating mindfulness is a form of metacognition which aids us in concentrating on the moment to moment experience. In this way, practicing mindfulness can have a plethora of benefits. For one, experimentally induced mindfulness can help develop emotional regulation (Corcoran, Farb, Anderson & Segal, 2010; Siegel, 2007).

In accordance with Corcoran et al., (2010) mindfulness meditation decreases rumination through disassociation from preservative thoughts. Thus, enhancing attentional capacity and improving emotional regulation (Davis & Hayes, 2011). Further mindfulness research conducted by Verplanken and Fisher (2013) found experimentally induced mindfulness aided habitual worriers in becoming more tolerant to viewing distressing images.

As well as aiding emotional and stress regulation, mindfulness practice has also been shown to support increased immune functioning (Davidson et a., 2003) and reduce psychological distress (Ostafin et al., 2006). Lastly, mindfulness cultivation decreases the frequency of mind wandering (Jha, Morisson, Parker, & Stanley, 2017) and negatively valanced mind wandering (Banks, Jha, Hood, Goller, & Craig, 2019).

In summary, viruses and pandemics are unfortunately nothing new to human history. However, the novelty of COVID-19 and its public health requirements have brought about new challenges to us all. 2020 has been an incredibly tough year and people have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses.

Meanwhile, those of us less adversely effected have remained in and out of lockdowns to keep ourselves, friends, family and strangers alike safe. Persistent internal chatter and ruminating is not always obvious and can have adverse effects on an individual’s mental health. Although lockdown can be isolating and anxiety inducing, the ‘symptoms of quarantine’ can be made less severe using mindfulness practice

I, in my own admission, am an amateur mindfulness cultivator. Therefore, I will leave links below this article on how to develop mindfulness from knowledgeable and amazing individuals who are more experienced than myself.

On a last note, although very helpful, please do not feel pressured to count breaths in order to remain mindful. Engulfing yourself in a tough run, a good book or a brilliant TV series are all things which require you to live in the moment-to-moment experience. Wishing you and your family a better 2021.

Best of luck, Shane.

I graduated with a BA in Psychology and Sociology from University College Cork in 2018. After completing my BA, I took some time to work and plan my next step in my education my career path. In 2019, I went on to study an MA in Psychology in the University of Limerick. Currently, I am now employed in a homeless service working alongside some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals in society. In recent years, I have developed a profound interest in the topic of mindfulness, its use and benefits. Furthermore, in a brave new world which is entrenched in a pandemic, media (of any kind) and click bait, mindfulness was something I had to monitor as one day lead to another in quarantine. This article aims to discuss and highlight the necessity for mindfulness in a pandemic. I hope you enjoy, Shane.

Recommendations

  1. Article on what Mindfulness is: https://mindfulness.ie/about/what-is-mindfulness/
  2. Jon Kabat-Zinn – The healing power of mindfulness lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_If4a-gHg_I
  3. Sam Harris guided mediation; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5oIEKjMdmA
  4. Sam Harris and author of Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari discuss meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pORbAOBan8
  5. Richard J. Davidson Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pORbAOBan8

References

Banks, J. B., Jha, A. P., Hood, A. V. B., Goller, H. G., & Craig, L. L. (2019). Reducing the tuts that hurt: The impact of a brief mindfulness induction on emotionally valenced mind wandering. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 31, 785–799. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/20445911.2019.1676759

Boals, A. and Banks, J., 2020. Stress And Cognitive Functioning During A Pandemic: Thoughts From Stress Researchers.. [online] Available at: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000716> [Accessed 14 January 2021].

Corcoran, K. M., Farb, N., Anderson, A., & Segal, Z. V. (2010). Mindfulness and emotion regulation: Outcomes and possible mediating mechanisms.

Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy48(2), 198.

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine65(4), 564-570.

Jha, A. P., Morrison, A. B., Parker, S. C., & Stanley, E. A. (2017). Practice is protective: Mindfulness training promotes cognitive resilience in high-stress cohorts. Mindfulness, 8, 35–58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/ s12671-015-0465-9

Ostafin, B. D., Chawla, N., Bowen, S., Dillworth, T. M., Witkiewitz, K., & Marlatt, G. A. (2006). Intensive mindfulness training and the reduction of psychological distress: A preliminary study. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 13, 191–197. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2005.12.001

Paul, R. and Pal, J., 2020. A detailed history of pandemics. Journal of Indian Medical Association, [online] 118(5), pp.45-65. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341787641_A_detailed_history_of_pandemics> [Accessed 10 January 2021].

Roy, A., Singh, A., Mishra, S., Chinnadurai, A., Mitra, A. and Bakshi, O., 2020. Mental health implications of COVID-19 pandemic and its response in India. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, p.002076402095076.

Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.

Verplanken, B. and Fisher, N., 2013. Habitual Worrying and Benefits of Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 5(5), pp.566-573.

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