The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new fears, worries and stressors into our lives. Given what we know about the detrimental health effects of chronic stress, it will be vital to keep your own in check and to help your family, your loved ones, and your patients attenuate theirs.
Obviously, COVID patients and the clinicians who treat them are under extreme duress, as are their family members. Yet everyone is affected to some degree by the psychosocial fallout of the epidemic.
Immediate concerns about catching or transmitting the virus are compounded by looming financial woes, social isolation, a constant stream of disturbing media messages, work disruptions, homes full of kids, travel constraints, and reduced options for recreation.
For many people, the health risks from pandemic-related stress—let’s call it “Coronoia”—are as real and potentially harmful as the virus itself.
It is essential for all of us to do whatever we can to mitigate viral spread. It is equally important to mitigate the contagion of panic and worry.
“Nobody thinks well when we’re in fight-or-flight mode. The blood is shunted from the brain, and we don’t make good decisions,” says Medical Support Hypnotherapist, Lisa Ludovici. The potential risk of coronavirus infection is real and significant, and requires caution and vigilance. But it need not lead to despair and paralysis nor the chronic fight-or-flight states that result in panic-buying and supermarket brawls over toilet paper.
Fight-or-flight states create major physiologic changes, including suppression of digestive, reproductive, and immune system function. When it becomes constant, this renders an individual more susceptible to infections of all sorts.
Ludovici—who has used hypnosis techniques with a wide range of clients including veterans with PTSD and severe chronic pain—says the key is for people to understand how their subconscious minds work, to recognize the role that hypnotic suggestion already plays in their daily lives, and then to use that knowledge to guide their own systems back into balance.
“To say to somebody, “Don’t worry. Just calm down,” that’s just not helpful,” Ludovici says. “You have to give them tools.”
She described a set of simple daily practices that anyone—from a doctor or nurse on the front lines to a shelter-in-place parent with a maxed-out credit card and a house full of antsy kids—can use to stay sane amid the madness.
The First 10 Minutes of the Day
“When we first come into wakefulness, our subconscious minds are most open to suggestion,” Ludovici says. “Start the day with positive thoughts, positive self-messages. It can be as simple as, “I’m OK. I’m here. Thank you for this day.”
She recommends keeping a pad and pen near your bed. Immediately on awakening write down 5 things for which you are grateful. “It could be anything—your pillow, the warm sheets, the sun in the window, your spouse, your children, your pet, your breakfast. Whatever it is, write it down.”
The act of writing—especially handwriting activates multiple parts of the brain and nervous system, and brings greater focus to the ideas, thoughts, or feelings you’re writing about. “To write them down, you have to be present to them. You focus attention on them. And what we focus on, we experience.”
Separate “Self” from Thoughts
“Think of a blue square. You are not the blue square. You are the thinker who is thinking of the blue square. You are not the thought. It is exactly the same with more emotionally-charged thoughts like, “These are bad times” or “I know something terrible is going to happen,” or “Things never go well for me.” They are just thoughts,” she says.
Being able to recognize and acknowledge thoughts and feelings, while also recognizing your separateness from them puts you in the driver’s seat of your life. This is especially important to practice in relation to negative self-defeating thought patterns that perpetuate fear and worry.
Return to the Present
Throughout the day, in whatever situations you may find yourself, to return your awareness to the present moment. This is all that really exists, all that any of us really ever have. In most situations—even stressful ones—we really are OK in the present moment, even if things are not as we wished they were.
“When in doubt focus on your breath. Just simply focus on the sensation of your breath in and out of your nose, the temperature of the air above your lip. When the mind wanders—and it will—just bring it back to that sensation.” Do this as often as possible.
Staying present does not mean becoming oblivious to the realities around you. Nor does it mean there are no problems or risks. But it can help to counter the tendency to ruminate and worry in ways that distort perception and cloud the mind.
See Things as They Are
When taking stock of yourself and your situation, look at things just as they are: not better, and not worse.
Ask yourself simply, “How is it now?” Not, “How might it be?” Or, “How should it be?” Or, “What’s going to happen next?” Just simply, “How is it now? How am I now?”
Of course, you also need to think ahead and make decisions for the future. But it is best to do this with a clear mind and a realistic assessment of the current situation, not from a mind scattered by fears, many of which may be unfounded.
Stay Informed, Then Step Away
The non-stop media stream is a mixed blessing: It helps us stay aware of what is going on, allows us to stay connected to others, and gives access to helpful information. But it also exposes us to a flood of misinformation, half-truth, outright falsehood, manipulative advertising, and stressful signals.
Ludovici advises being very discerning about your media exposure.
“Get the information you need, and then step away. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked in for hours. Overconsumption of anything is overconsumption, and it is unhealthy. This is especially true of media.”
Broadcast and online media are inherently hypnotic. That’s a big part of their appeal—and their power. This is true regardless of the specific quality or nature of the content.
Regarding COVID, the media often send mixed messages: Leaders call for social distancing but huddle close together; News reports show overwhelmed hospitals followed by reminders to seek medical attention when symptoms get severe; Calls for wider testing clash with directives that people not seek tests unless they’re symptomatic.
This is just the nature of any fast-moving crisis in which there are many unknowns and multiple conflicting demands.
But in the subconscious, mixed messages create internal chaos, confusion, and stress. “If you have conflicting information, it is a general tendency to go the worst-case scenario,” says Ludovici. “But that may not be the realistic scenario.”
It is wise to stay informed, but wiser still to know when to logout.
Dedicated Worry Time
Epidemics are scary. Financial uncertainties are unsettling. Social isolation is stressful. It is vital to acknowledge your feelings and reactions. But do it consciously, in a way such that these emotions don’t overtake everything else in your life.
Ludovici recommends designating a 15-minute period every day for worry—no more and no less than 15 minutes.
During this time, give free rein to your biggest fears and anxieties. Imagine the absolute worst-case scenario. Let your mind freak out.
And write it all down.
Again, the act of writing calls you to be present to these emotions. In this way, you honor your inner truth by recognizing and accepting your fears rather than denying them. “Don’t just Netflix them away, or eat, or drink them away.”
Writing gets yours fears out of your subconscious and onto a page where your rational mind can look at them critically and sift the legitimate concerns from the exaggerations.
Once the 15 minutes is up, close the notebook knowing that tomorrow you’ll again be free to worry at full speed. For the rest of the day, if a worry pops to mind just jot a quick note to yourself to take up the matter in your next dedicated worry period.
Activate the Parasympathetic Branch
Learn to recognize the characteristic physiological changes associated with fear and fight-or-flight states. One of the most obvious ones is dry mouth.
This is part of the body’s natural suppression of the digestive system in response to a perceived threat. It happens reflexively, and creates a feedback loop in which the unconscious perception of the dry mouth signals to the brain that there’s trouble ahead.
This reflex also offers a key for shifting out of sympathetic overdrive and into parasympathetic activity, says Ludovici.
“When you realize your mouth is dry, consciously gather saliva. Suck it from your cheeks if you need to. Bring moisture to your mouth, let it sit on your tongue. This sends a signal to the brain that things are OK. It can shift you out of the fight-or-flight cycle.”
Another way to activate the sympathetic branch is to gently breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, imagining your lungs as two pink balloons. Hold the breath for 6 counts, then exhale out of your mouth over 8 counts. Push all the air out, then push a little more. The idea is to let the exhalation be twice as long as the inhalation.
“What this does, when we breathe this way for several repetitions, is to massage the vagus nerve, and we shift into parasympathetic. We bring calm to ourselves. Do this as needed. Learning how to stay in parasympathetic, to shift our physical and emotional states really is going to be a superpower in this current situation.”
Use the voice memo app on your phone to record yourself saying positive things about yourself, your world, and your life. Speak simply and directly as if you were talking to your friend.
“More than any other voice, we believe our own voices,” Ludovici explained. “That voice inside your head? It is your own voice, even if it is repeating something somebody else said. It’s your own voice, and you believe it.” This is why people believe their own worries.
The process here is to use the power of your own voice to give your subconscious mind supportive and nurturing messages. Listen to this recording often, especially before you go to sleep.
The Last 10 Minutes of the Day
“As you’re falling asleep. Your last waking conscious thought is what the subconscious mind works on all night long. So, if you’re ruminating about the worries of the day, or what you just saw in the media, your subconscious works on that all night long. Those last waking thoughts are very important. So, practice having thoughts that bring you a sense of comfort, joy, wellbeing, and grace.”
As with the morning practice, these can be about the people you love, favorite places, happy memories. It could be a prayer—either a traditional prayer or one you make up yourself. It can be anything that feels life-affirming to you. Practice staying with those thoughts as you drift off to sleep.
Whatever you do, refrain from falling asleep to the TV, the radio, or the internet.
These practices are simple and take very little time—5 to10 minutes for the morning affirmations, 15 minutes of designated worry time during the day, and another 5 to 10 minutes before bed.
“These things may seem insignificant or silly, but they are very powerful,” says Ludovici. “If you practice them every day, they can make a really big difference.