Keep Calm and Carry On amidst COVID-19
These sure are unprecedented and uncertain times. With all of this giving that we’re doing, I figured a blog about mind and body self-care would be a useful complement. So I thought I’d share some practices.
These practices are really helping me to observe what is going on without being panicked by it, and still do good work .
What is self-care
Self-care is the building block for keeping well and calm during these times. Self-care includes good habits of looking after oneself. Good habits include getting: regular exercise, enough sleep, a current and reliable view of what is going on, and sustaining a healthy food regime.
The above image is of calm waters, with Rangitoto, an icon of Auckland, in the background. We each will have our own images that calm us. We may not [yet] be consciously using those as a strategy for ‘coming home to calm’.
What is calm?
The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines calm as peaceful, tranquil and free from disturbance. Calm describes ‘a human state of neither excitement nor upset, even when there is ‘cause’ for it’. A state of calm feels the opposite of fear and anxiety, and cannot be present at the same time as calm.
The neuro-chemicals related to calm are well known. Here’s a good explanation of the interplay of neuro-chemicals in everyday language. It also covers the big benefits of exercise in balancing out neuro-chemical imbalances:
So why keep calm?
When we’re free from disturbance we have access to all of our capacities: head heart and gut. Having access to head heart and gut means we’ll continue to make good decisions, especially in the company of anxious others who may be relying on their limbic system to ‘survive’ to just get them through to the end of today.
Calmness means that we have enough energy for others and for ourselves. Conversely a state of fear is both exhausting for us and for those around us. Prolonged anxiety about what may happen, and a sustained fear about it and where we’ll end up, is energy-depleting and reduces our immunity to fight infection. So all in all, prolonger anxiety and fear are really bad for us!
Ways of keeping calm amidst COVID-19
Below I share some practices for self-care. I started this journey a couple of years ago when my husband and I set out on a 2-year ‘silver-nomad’ overseas travel experience. The reason I started it, was that I wanted to be more conscious of our travel experiences. That is, to really notice things ‘as they are’, and to try to be free from judgments or expectations that the experiences ‘would be fun’. I find that the latter can be a real source of misery.
Our pathway to calm is unique to each of us
Self-care truly is a journey and some things work better than others, and at different times in our lives. The spirit of curiosity and relaxedness helps hugely in ‘playing with’ these practices.
Once you do find something that works for you, practice it, one idea at a time rather than trying to practice them all at once. When getting used to the practice, little coloured sticky dots put on familiar items like inside one’s I-phone cover work well as reminders to practice. Linking the practice to existing and regular behaviours also works. For example, I did my yoga practice (on the bed in our retrofitted van), every morning before we took off to our next travel stop. That way I remembered to do it.
I originally began my self-help journey with deep relaxation practice. I have only recently discovered the power of breathing in my ‘coming home to calm’. In hindsight, I would have focussed first on the power of breathing in my journey.
1. A daily DEEP relaxation practice teaches one’s nervous system how to relax.
Even after just a dozen practices, I find that one’s body builds up an association between the practice and time out. Away from the recording, one can also focus on a particular part of one’s body to invoke calm . Eg. the breath, the abdomen.
A ‘functional’ deep relaxation (what I call ‘body scan’) that is recommended by Dr Andrew Huberman (Flow Research Collective webcast on 28.3.20) is
A more ‘encouraging’ 10 min body scan is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obYJRmgrqOU
You can download a free MP3 version (Ie. no ads) on: MeditationCoach.com/bodyscan.html
Speaking personally, it is good to have a bit of variety in one’s practices to keep being mindful about them.
Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness is my favourite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODlFhOKahmk It has really increased my ‘whole’ thinking (integrating head, heart and gut). As a result, I believe I ‘react’ far less and ‘respond’ far more.
Nowadays we’re spoiled for choice if we look on-line. Eg. the popular app. ‘Headspace’ https://www.headspace.com is colourful and accessible, and many of my clients use it to provide calm and time out.
2. Yoga and Pilates
Yoga and Pilates vary hugely in the types of practice available. Generally speaking they give the mind an opportunity to stop thinking about work distractions and focus on the activity itself, along with attention to breathing. It was the mind break that both of these disciplines gave me, that I especially enjoyed.
Before I left for our travel experience, I had regularly practiced yoga at Les Mills World of Fitness for several years. In hindsight, it was the kind of yoga that was strength-based, rather than necessarily calming. In my self-care journey, I followed that by a 2-year one-on-one learning of Pilates. Thinking about it, I would have benefited more if I’d learned Pilates before Yoga. Pilates gave me a new respect for how I need to sustainably move and use my body with both integration and respect. Typically I do a morning combination of Yoga, Pilates and Isometrics. I vary the actual exercises to keep it interesting. Half an hour is all it takes for a mind-and-body boost! Sometimes I only have 10 minutes. The important thing is to get on the mat.
3. As mentioned, I came to understand the benefits of breathing pretty late in the piece.
Breathing is big in its link to calm. It is the gateway between body and mind.
Dr Huberman recommends a double-nasal inhale followed by long exhale repeated just 3 times. It is a simple and effective way to balance the ratio of O2 to CO2 in the lungs. That’s all the time it takes. This is especially so, when the body and mind get used to the good habit.
When I went as a client to Breathing Works in Auckland, they recommended a 4-0-6-1 for when I’m lying down ie. breathe in for 4 secs, no hold, breathe out for 6 secs and hold for 1 sec. This is very calming I find, just before sleep. The free ‘Breathe+’ app: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/breathe-simple-breath-trainer/id1106998959 has visuals as well as sounds if you want them.
Importantly, one ‘holds’ one’s breath through putting slight internal pressure on the glottis valve at the back of the throat, rather than ‘halting breathing’. This was a happy revelation to me! ie. less stressful than ‘halting breathing’.
Navy SEAL breathing is pretty good too, with a pattern of 4-4-4-4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJnJ4xTkEOY This works amazingly quickly to ‘come home to calm’. This particular video I find more educational and low key, than other videos by Mark Divine. But each of us have our own preferences!
I choose daily from these breathing exercises, and do them upon waking, then throughout the day. It’s great to have a bit of variety. The big benefits I have found to be creating mind space, increasing mental clarity, and feeling rejuvenated.
4. Sights and sounds
Each of us have our own images that calm us down. (See this blog’s image). Now’s the time to explore those that work for you, or to add to your existing ‘go-to’s.
In times such as these, certain types of music can become havens of calm. Re-discover or curate yours for easy access!
5. Daily movement
There are now 100’s of at-home/equipment free workouts. One of the latest gifts is from NZ’s well known Les Mills World of Fitness on TV on demand. I re-discovered BODYCOMBAT® just the other day, and it really does help with a sustained ‘feel good’ and knowing that you are working on what you can control.
6. What not to do
Finally, it’s also about having regular media fasts. This habit gives us balance in our lives. Listening for a limited time to reliable sources of information provides a balanced menu that we really need in this times.
Now is the time to try out ideas for self-care to see what works for YOU, and to re-visit good habits that we may have forgotten. We are creating new neurological connections and building our own calm pathway. By developing and / or embedding good habits, we’ll be setting ourselves up for success for when our work routines ‘return to being more normal’. This is because the habits will be embedded and we can continue to practice these as part of our being, that is, as we go about our day, rather than have to get up three hours early ‘to do everything’!!!