Mindfulness has been a popular topic throughout the pandemic. It’s clear that everyone has felt some kind of stress because of the pandemic and there are those who suggest mindfulness as a tool to help people cope. Often people think of meditation and yoga when talking about mindfulness, but there are so many different ways to be mindful. The question is; what is mindfulness? How does it work? And who does it work for? Some people find it doesn’t work for them, others feel it’s something everyone should try. One expert is Vicki Kennedy Overfelt.
Vicki Kennedy Overfelt used mindfulness to get through the worst of her COVID-19 symptoms. By focusing on how she felt physically, she could better understand how she felt emotionally. In early March 2020, Overfelt was diagnosed with COVID-19. She watched case counts and death tolls rise as she got worse. There was nothing she could do except live in each of her symptoms. She had to focus on how her lungs felt, how tired she felt and all of the anxiety that came with it. Overfelt said that mindfulness helps her with the lingering symptoms of COVID-19, but it isn’t a cure.
“One of the long-haul symptoms is depression and getting professional help was important for me. To realize that mindfulness is a wonderful compliment,” she said, “but I needed to understand when I needed a little extra help.”
Mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises were helpful, but Overfelt says that it has its limitations.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is commonly defined as “moment to moment non-judgemental awareness”. The goal is to be able to focus on how you’re really feeling and analyze your emotions without criticizing yourself. There are countless ways to practice mindfulness that all try to achieve that goal. There are meditation apps, mindfulness therapists, mindful arts and crafts and everything in between. You can try breathing exercises on your own, yoga classes with your friends or virtual lectures with a group of strangers.
Mindfulness is a popular topic these days because of the rise in anxiety during the pandemic. Apps that promise to teach you mindfulness are booming. Numerous studies show the practice can reduce anxiety, depression and help people cope with traumatic experiences. However, experts argue that mindfulness is more complicated than trendy apps for meditation, yoga and breathing exercises. Experts say that mindfulness is about the concepts of acceptance and understanding and finding any practice that helps you apply those concepts to yourself.
Some mindfulness practices have been around for hundreds of years, like yoga and meditation. But they have become so popularized that not everyone doing yoga is connecting their practice with the ideas of acceptance and understanding. In order to have mindful practice, experts say it’s important to recognize what you are trying to get out of your practice and to find the best ways to achieve your goals.
If you want to find out a bit more about the history of mindfulness and meditation practices this article has more information on the history of a great destination for yoga and meditation.
One expert researching different ways to teach mindfulness is Dr. Diana Coholic. She has been focusing on using art to teach people the core concepts involved with mindfulness.
Mindfulness and art.
“What I find is a lot of people don’t understand, they think it’s just meditation, they think it’s just breathing and it’s not, it’s a lot more than that,” said Dr. Diana Coholic, a mindfulness researcher at Laurentian University.
Coholic has been studying the benefits of arts-based mindfulness since 2005. Her program, called the Holistic Arts Program, uses arts and crafts to help teach people to focus on understanding their emotions rather than avoiding them. Each arts and crafts activity is designed to teach a different concept related to mindfulness.
One such artistic activity is called “Me as a Tree”. The instructions are simple, everyone in the group draws themselves as a tree, then explains their drawing to the class. Coholic says the activity can give a lot of information about a person’s thoughts.
“Quite a few years ago we had a girl who drew a tree and she drew it entirely in pencil and the tree just sort of looked like it was dead and she put it behind a barbed wire fence,” she said, “when the facilitators were talking to her about that tree it did come out that she was feeling suicidal.”
She says that “Me as a Tree” helps the participants express themselves and learn about self-awareness.
The Holistic Arts Program is focused on children who have experienced trauma, but it’s also been tested on university students and adults looking for therapy. Coholic’s studies show that the concepts of mindfulness are beneficial and the arts can help people express themselves and learn those concepts.
“The fun activities enable these kids to learn these practices because otherwise I don’t think they would be able to. Because it would be frustrating and it wouldn’t be fun and they wouldn’t engage in it,” she said.
If you want to know more about Dr. Coholic and her practice, you can find out more at the echoresearchcentre website.
Coholic says that there are a lot of cases where anxiety and depression are reduced because of mindfulness practices, but they aren’t helpful in every situation.
How mindfulness can help with pandemic stress.
“I was so sick that I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch television,” said Overfelt. She said that by focusing on her symptoms, mindfulness helped her separate her physical symptoms from how she felt about her situation.
Overfelt has been practicing mindfulness since she was 17 and has been a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction therapist since 2006, so she has experience with using mindfulness to cope with anxiety.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction uses a combination of meditation, breathing exercises, and other ways to focus on the current moment and accept how you feel. She recommends different activities for different people. For example, if someone has a busy schedule, they can try daily life mindfulness where they do something they were going to do, but rather than thinking about something else, they concentrate on how that activity makes them feel.
“We can practice mindfulness in different ways and we have to understand our own temperament and mental health and wellbeing before beginning,” she said.
Overfelt says trying to meditate for a long time without guidance or experience can do more harm than good. People with pre-existing mental health conditions or severe anxiety and depression can dissociate and lose control of their thoughts further.
“I think it’s really important to consult with a skilled mindfulness instructor before beginning. It’s just a note of caution, in the years that I’ve been teaching I’ve seen it backfire,” she said.
If you are looking to find some new ways to engage with your time in lockdown in a meaningful way, there are so many different activities that can get you to be mindful of your time. Here are some ways that you can enjoy your time at home without having to commit to an introspective exercise like meditation and yoga.
Mindfulness isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Matthew Tonner, 20, tried meditation in high school on his own and downloaded the yoga app Yoga Down Dog when the pandemic first began. He was looking for a way to relax during lockdown and the meditation backfired in the past.
“It was not that successful,” said Tonner about his attempt to use meditation to cope with his anxiety. “I just couldn’t control my thoughts, you know, I was sitting trying to reflect and focus on things that had been happening, trying to reflect, my mind would race, I couldn’t focus on one thing.”
He said using the yoga app was better than meditating on his own because he was guided through personalized exercises. The app allows you to choose the difficulty, from beginner to expert, which part of the body you want to exercise and what you hope to get out of your yoga practice.
Over 300,000 people downloaded Yoga Down Dog during it’s free trial for two weeks in April. There are dozens of mindfulness apps similar to it getting millions of downloads, advertising mental health benefits.
Overfelt says although mindfulness can be helpful for some people, it is not a cure for mental illness or pandemic induced stress.
“We always have to check in. Just because somebody tells us it’s good for us doesn’t mean it is,” she said.
COVID-19 and anxiety
Most people have felt anxious or worried because of the pandemic at some point. Research has shown people have become more anxious and depressed because of the pandemic. Reports of anxiety and depression have risen from 20 per cent to 25 per cent since the first lockdown, according to a national survey done by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health.
Hoda Seens is a PHD student who is researching the levels of anxiety and depression who has found similar results that agree with the CAMH survey and she believes that the effects of the pandemic may only get worse.
“What we’ve found is anxiety has increased 56 per cent after COVID and depressive symptoms have increased 67 per cent,” said Seens, “people have told me that if I were to fill out the survey today my anxiety would be even higher.”
Different ways to practice.
Sophie Heldman is a McGill student who has been doing yoga for years and says she’s been trying other mindfulness exercises to cope with the added stress of COVID-19.
“Yoga is a way of meditating through movement,” Heldman said, “but I do some different exercises to try to relax, like I do a body scan before bed sometimes, or brushing my teeth with my left hand,” she said.
A body scan is where you start at your toes and work your way up your body, making mental notes about how each part feels.
Heldman also thinks even having a flip phone is an exercise in mindfulness in 2020, because when she wants to distract herself with her phone she has to focus on what’s going on and why she wants to distract herself.
“Also, I have this stupid phone which I guess is kind of mindfulness, because it’s kind of a thing where in awkward moments everyone just pulls out their phone but I have to sit in it it’s awkwardness,” Heldman said. “It’s also like during quarantine it’s so easy to be mindless scrolling and consuming media that you can ignore how you’re doing.”
There are so many different ways to practice mindfulness. It can be fun and engaging, like making art. It can be an everyday lifestyle choice, like owning a flip phone. Or it can be classically introspective, like yoga and meditation.
In some places it feels like the pandemic is coming to an end. Businesses are opening up again and people are going back to work. But I think it’s important for everyone to remember the things we learned about ourselves and our mental health during the pandemic. Mindfulness, or self-care of any kind, doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment, like meditating for half an hour. It can be catching up with friends and seeking help when you feel you need it.
For Overfelt, mindfulness helped her cope with the stress of COVID-19, but she realized that she also needed to reach out to her friends.
“I needed to understand when I needed a little extra help,” she said. “I was just on the couch, didn’t wanna get off, I cried. There’s a lot to cry about. But there’s a lot to be joyful about at the same time. I think it’s going to take work on our part to recognize what we’re facing is big and we can do this and we can’t do it without one another.”
There is so much to learn when it comes to mindfulness and the history of yoga and meditation. There are thousands of articles and books you can read. But if you want to learn more about the history of meditation and mindfulness and don’t want to do hours of research, you can read more about it in this article.