Mental health experts point to meditation to reduce stress of pandemic

ENID, Okla. — With the coronavirus keeping many Americans cooped up at home, and stress and anxiety soaring amid the pandemic, some experts are pointing to the practice of meditation as a means to improve mental health.

The Oklahoma chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recently published an online flier promoting the practice of meditation, including tips on meditation from New York-based mental health advocacy nonprofit Mindful.

“When we meditate, we inject far-reaching and long-lasting benefits into our lives,” according to the tips from Mindful. “We lower our stress levels, we get to know our pain, we connect better, we improve our focus, and we’re kinder to ourselves.”

Karen Harris, an Enid-based integral psychologist, meditation and yoga instructor and owner of Karuna Personal Development, said meditation is especially important right now, because it teaches people how to bring themselves “back to the present moment.”

“We are in the midst of a trauma right now, and the effect of trauma is the inability to stay present,” Harris said. “Your mind keeps working and worrying. Meditation gives your mind an anchor to stay focused on, and to find pauses, which help create a sense of peace and presence.”

The pandemic is causing significantly increased levels of stress and anxiety, Harris said, triggered by constantly feeling like we’re in a state of emergency.

“Most people are in a hypersensitive state of mind right now,” she said, feeling like we have to “fight, flight or freeze.”

Harris said those reactions can manifest in rushing to the store and hoarding groceries or toilet paper, being agitated and anxious at home, or feeling depressed and lacking energy.

“Meditation helps soften those effects,” Harris said, “by putting the brain into an altered state of consciousness — and then the body follows.”

Harris said the calming effects of meditation help “bring the body pack to its parasympathetic nervous system” — the involuntary part of the nervous system that controls, among other things, heart rate, digestive and intestinal function and glandular activity.

Helping the body regain its natural parasympathetic processes can be achieved simply by slowing down, and focusing on breathing, Harris said.

The Mindful article shared by NAMI Oklahoma, available at https://www.mindful.org/how-to-meditate, also pointed to a focus on breathing as the key ingredient to simple meditation.

“When we pay attention to our breath, we are learning how to return to, and remain in, the present moment — to anchor ourselves in the here and now on purpose, without judgement,” the article stated. “We’re just practicing bringing our attention to our breath, and then back to the breath when we notice our attention has wandered.”

The article offered a simple, three-step process for meditation:

• Get comfortable and prepare to sit still for a few minutes … simply focus on your own natural inhaling and exhaling of breath.

• Focus on your breath. Where do you feel your breath most? In your belly? In your nose? Try to keep your attention on your inhale and exhale.

• Follow your breath for two minutes. Take a deep inhale, expanding your belly, and then exhale slowly, elongating the out-breath as your belly contracts.

NAMI also offered a resource for free meditation exercises, available at https://free.healthjourneys.com, and Harris offers a free meditation every Saturday morning, on her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/karen.harris.357622.

According to information provided by NAMI Oklahoma, meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, help reduce blood pressure and control pain.

Harris recommended people pair meditation with physical exercise, to help work the chemical effects of stress and anxiety out of their bodies.

“We still need movement to work that anxious energy out of the body,” Harris said, “and walks in nature are wonderful for that — and a walk can be a meditation in and of itself.”

While walking, Harris said you should focus on what you’re feeling, smelling and seeing, and that focus will occupy the mind and reduce stress. For children, in addition to walking, she recommended coloring or drawing to occupy the mind.

For more information on the mental and physical health benefits of meditation, visit https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation.

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