As the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted our lives through shifting workloads and drastic lifestyle changes, many of us have experienced significant stress as we try to adapt to uncertainty and manage responsibilities in our personal and professional lives.
Unsurprisingly, this stress can impact our emotional health, well-being and job performance. So if you notice an uptick in depression or anxiety symptoms or find that it is harder to concentrate than before, the stress of the pandemic could be affecting you.
The stress may impact our immune system as well. One study found that self-reported stress predicted more symptoms in volunteers exposed to influenza virus. Another study found that individuals who reported high levels of stress over a period of at least a month were two to three times more likely to develop colds than those reporting less stress when challenged with a cold virus.
These results suggest that people who experience more stress are more likely to be susceptible to viruses like COVID-19.
“Stress can be mitigated by good sleep, activity and nutrition,” says Col. Deydre Teyhen, Commander of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which works to identify and overcome infectious disease and brain health threats to Soldiers.
“How we ‘think’ about what’s stressing us influences how much the stressors in our lives will actually impact us. Being present and understanding mindfulness not only builds our emotional resilience and our mental skills, but also helps us manage stress.” says Teyhen.
Mindfulness as a stress-mitigation strategy
Mindfulness is a mental strategy that focuses attention on the present moment without elaboration or judgement. According to a WRAIR study, Soldiers who reported being more mindful reported fewer mental and physical health problems than Soldiers who reported being less mindful, especially when they had experienced high levels of combat stressors.
Training Soldiers in mindfulness is a topic of growing interest to the military. A range of studies have shown that using mindfulness strategies can result in better performance, mental focus, attention and emotional regulation.
“Basically, practicing mindfulness can help you recharge and enhance your performance and decision-making during periods of stress,” says Amy Adler, acting director of the WRAIR’s Research Transition Office, which bridges the gap between laboratory and field setting to bring research advances into Army training. “It’s important to demystify mindfulness—it’s something everyone can practice.”
What can you do? Here is a basic mindfulness practice that you can try for two to three minutes every day.
· Take a moment to get comfortable
· Feel free to close your eyes
· Settle in and let go of any unnecessary tension
· Take deep and slow breaths
· Focus your attention on the inhale and exhale
· Notice when your mind wanders to a thought, feeling or sensation then gently bring your attention back to the present moment
· Continue this exercise for a few minutes
· Gently bring movement back into hands and feet, as you complete the practice and return to everyday life
This will feel strange at first so it is important to be patient with yourself. “Let go of trying to “do” mindfulness—instead strike a good balance between being alert and relaxed; some effort is needed to sustain attention but too much can hinder your practice,” says Capt. Thomas Nassif, a WRAIR RTO research psychologist and mindfulness expert studying mindfulness training implementation in the military.
“Mindfulness strategies are applicable to any situation, not just the COVID-19 pandemic. In studies we’ve conducted with operational units, they overwhelmingly agree that these skills will help them thrive as a Soldier and as an individual,” says Nassif.
So take a few minutes every day and figure out what works best for you. There are mindfulness apps and mindfulness classes you can try—the key is to practice regularly a few times a week to experience the range of benefits. The benefits of mindfulness could help you to stay safe from infection, improve your overall health during these times of uncertainty and be a better Soldier.