It is crucial, during the coronavirus pandemic, to do everything we can to enhance our health and well-being, our immunity, and our resilience, and to affirm the values and relationships that give our lives meaning. This work begins with using tools and techniques that can reestablish the physiological and psychological balance that is constantly disturbed by the fears the pandemic brings. As we come back into balance, we can optimize our physiological responses, including our immune response, and maximize our intellectual, imaginative, and interpersonal capacities.
The biological mechanism that comes into play when we’re threatened is the “fight-or-flight” response, a life-saving, evolutionary mechanism for contending with or escaping predators. This response, which is mediated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, is designed to be quickly turned on and off. When it persists because of enduring traumatic memories, or because the threat is continuous (as the coronavirus is), or when we experience loneliness (as so many of us who are sheltering in place are), it disrupts virtually every physical and psychological function—increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones, decreasing immunity, and causing the anxiety, agitation, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and irritability that so many of us are experiencing.
Meditation is the time-honored and, now, scientifically validated antidote to fight-or-flight. There are an almost infinite variety of meditative techniques. The one I like to begin with is a non-denominational “concentrative” meditation that I call “Soft Belly” breathing. A concentrative meditation like Soft Belly activates the vagus nerve, the major part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which balances sympathetic nervous system overactivity.
As our meditative minds and relaxed bodies allow us to move more easily, satisfyingly, and kindly in this trauma-heavy world, we are likely to discover, along with new capacities for self-awareness and self-care, deeper connections with others, and perhaps new meaning and purpose.
It’s simple. You breathe slowly and deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth, with your belly soft and relaxed, focusing, concentrating on your breath, on the word “soft” as you breathe in, and “belly” as you breathe out, and on the feeling of relaxation in your belly. Fifty years of research demonstrates that if we do this, or similar “concentrative” or “mindfulness” meditations, we can quiet an ongoing fight-or-flight response that is serving us poorly and restore balance: lowering high blood pressure, improving immunity, decreasing anxiety, enhancing our capacity for concentration and our mood, and making us more compassionate toward ourselves and others. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that as little as 20 minutes of meditation a day can reduce activity in parts of the emotional brain responsible for fear and anger, and rebuild areas of the frontal cortex that have been damaged by chronic stress and trauma, areas responsible for thoughtful decision making, self-awareness, and compassion.
You can beneficially do Soft Belly breathing for three to five minutes, two to five times a day. You can see me demonstrate this on The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s website and read about it in my book The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing after Trauma.
Physical exercise is also powerfully effective in reducing fight-or-flight. Exercise raises calming and feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. For many people, “expressive” meditations—highly active but non-goal-directed physical movement and verbal expression, like “Shaking & Dancing” (you can check this one out at www.cmbm.org) are even more effective ways to release the physical tension that ongoing trauma brings. It can break up fixed, self-doubting, and self-destructive mental patterns that may preoccupy us when we’re experiencing ongoing stress.
Combining Soft Belly breathing with physical activity creates a biological and psychological balance that enhances immune functioning and enables us to make optimal use of our intellectual and intuitive capacities, and other available tools and techniques of self-care.
We’re no longer so agitated and fearful. We become more mindful, more tuned into the kinds of movement our bodies need, and the kind and quantity of food and drink that’s best for us. We feel more connected to the natural and man-made world and, often, more grateful for what we do have, and this gratitude promotes physical health, as well as psychological well-being.
As our meditative minds and relaxed bodies allow us to move more easily, satisfyingly, and kindly in this trauma-heavy world, we are likely to discover, along with new capacities for self-awareness and self-care, deeper connections with others, and perhaps new meaning and purpose. Modern psychologists have identified this process as “post-traumatic growth.” The ancients always understood that trauma can be the doorway to transformation.