Mindfulness and Social Connections Soothe Anxiety and Boost Immunity

Posted Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Elder Care, Psychology, Seminars

By Andrea D’Asaro, MBSR

It is normal to be scared and even paralyzed in the midst of so much uncertainty around the Coronavirus (COVID-19). That’s where simple mindfulness practices can help us stay grounded and connected despite recommendations for social distancing and work at home for many Americans. Deep breathing can slow anxiety, depression and keep our nervous system stable. Reaching out to others can boost our sense of connection, increase oxytocin (the love hormone), and maintain our immunity, which can fall when stress rises.

1. Come back to the moment with five mindful breaths

It’s easy to immerse oneself in the constant stream of on-line and often conflicting information. This can also increase our anxiety. With stress, the rational part of our brain can spin out of control into survival mode or fight, flight and freeze.

Whenever you notice yourself ruminating, worrying or feeling overwhelmed, try 5 mindful breaths:

Sit in a comfortable seat with your feet on the ground (lying down or standing are also options) breathe slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth to slow the nervous system, count five breaths with in and out, counting as one. Pause at the end and check your body and mind to see if anything is different. Continue to 10 or 20 breaths, as you wish. You may want to count your five breaths on your fingers, tracing each digit while taking one breath as an additional grounding with the body.

2. Reach out to friends and boost oxytocin

Social distancing is not emotional distancing! We can increase our happiness when we make real-time connections with others and bring ourselves a spurt of oxytocin, “the bonding hormone.” Try calling distant relatives, friends and others who may feel isolated at this time, using an old-school technology–the phone! When we take the step to converse with relatives or friends, we are boosting our own mood with activation of serotonin, according to research from Stanford University School of Medicine. Such social support is associated with a decreased risk of infection and reduced stress hormones, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University.

Many senior living communities are limiting visitors and keeping elders apart from each other to avoid spread of the virus. Older people, who may not use email or social media, are already at greater risk for depression or anxiety. We know that loneliness is deadly too. Real- time phone calls allow us to hear emotion in another voice and exchange concerns and pleasantries; it’s much more engaging than texting, according to research from the University of Wisconsin.

In this time of the elbow bump, we are advised to avoid hugging. No worries, the self-hug can also enhance the oxytocin, also called the “bonding hormone”.

Try the self-hug: Open your arms wide as you take a breath in, then cross them over your chest and you breathe out. Gently grasp your upper arm with the opposite hands and give yourself some kind squeezes. If it’s comfortable for you, close your eyes and bring to mind your personal “circle of caring.” Imagine the faces of those people or pets who care deeply for you (living or decreased) around you, smiling tenderly. Or envision your favorite happy place like a fireplace or a cozy bedroom. Remember to hold your hug for 20 seconds or more for the best benefits.

3. Strengthen self-care with mindfulness

Mindfulness is all about paying attention on purpose. This means observing how you feel, what your body and mind is craving and how you may best care for yourself. Instead of reaching for social media, a new video, or a less nutritious treat, consider the best way to nurture yourself–what you might recommend to a good friend.

During these anxiety-provoking times, remember the tried-and-true stress reduction strategies. Do you best to get adequate sleep, exercise regularly, spend time in nature and employ relaxation techniques on a daily basis.

Meeting a friend for a brisk walk in nature while bringing your attention back to the moment can bring multiple benefits. You might also consider slow mindful walking where you bring attention to each foot as it touches the ground. It’s helpful to say, “heel, ball, toe” as you notice the movement of the foot against the ground. Enjoy your slow walking and remember, there’s wrong way to bring yourself mindfulness.

Prioritizing these behaviors during the coronavirus crisis can go a long way toward bolstering your immune system and increasing your psychological well-being. Caring yourself in these ways may be a new habit to build over time, so start with one practice at a time and add on as you go, with kindness. Giving yourself kindness allows you to extend it to others who are struggling at this time.