It’s day who-knows-when of quarantine. Online it seems like people are painting their walls, baking beautiful crusty loaves of bread and getting their work done. But all you’ve been able to do is sleep, pick stupid fights with your family members, eat endless bags of Cheetos and binge-watch Netflix (at this point you’ve even watched the animated “Spy Kids” series your niece won’t even touch).
“Pull yourself together,” you might say to yourself. “You’re being lazy! You’re being weak. You’re going crazy.”
But science says you’d be wrong about all that. Even though your brain feels like it’s shorting out, it’s actually trying its best to protect you. And getting mad at your brain isn’t just unfair — it’s actually unhelpful.
Your brain is entering survival mode
When your brain encounters danger, it releases stress hormones into your body to help you enter fight, flight or freeze — concepts you’re probably familiar with. With stress and anxiety, your brain tenses your muscles and raises your blood pressure. It gets you ready to run or play dead. But it also reduces activity in your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that processes logical thinking, decision making, and moderation.
From a survival perspective, all this makes total sense. If a bear charges at you, you’re probably not going to think about how big the bear really is and whether it’s a male or a female and what it wants from you. The natural response would be: BEAR. RUN.
So, as you watch the painful consequences of a global pandemic on the news, fear switches off your rational brain, and your panic brain switches on, screaming, “How is filling out a spreadsheet going to save you from this bear attack?! EAT FOOD. PLAY DEAD. FIGHT ANYONE WHO F**** WITH YOU.”
Some of these responses aren’t necessarily bad. If you’re having a panic attack, watching a video of puppies sleeping in tiny shopping carts to calm down is a great coping mechanism.
But it’s also entirely possible to indulge in too much “self-care.”
When you find yourself unhealthily bingeing on things that comfort you — whether it’s food, TV, sleep or video games — you’re being avoidant with yourself. And in the long term, this can lead to dissociation, which is bad for your brain and body.
Dissociation can shut you off from the world, causing you to feel disconnected and helpless. It can make it hard to feel like you can bear others’ pain, which in turn can disempower you from doing good. And all of that can make your recovery from this trauma harder after things normalize.
So what *can* you do to feel more like your old self?
It’s vital to note that punishing yourself — telling yourself you’re a slob who just needs to push through it all — won’t work. Shame and guilt actually cause an increase in stress hormones in your body, which can trigger your panic brain even more.
In our society, we’re so often taught that speed and efficacy are always better. But to get your logical brain back online, you actually need the opposite: mindfulness, calmness, and silence.
And if you want to talk long-term productivity, doing 30 minutes of effective mindfulness techniques saves a lot more time than hours of mindless scrolling.
The first step is simple: Just sit in silence
Breathe. Take deep breaths in and very slow breaths out. If your eyes are open, try to take in the details of what you might see out your window.
What trees are blooming? What color are the cars parked outside? What are the squirrels up to? Can you hear any bird calls? What do they sound like?
Close your eyes and focus on the temperature of the air on your palms or the feeling of the couch on your butt. Maybe you light a candle or a stick of incense and try to pick out all the different layers of scents you can smell.
What you’re doing here isn’t just summoning some abstract form of inner peace. You’re healing your body and your brain.
When your brain is in panic mode, flooding your system with an excess of stress hormones, these chemicals can affect your physical health by lowering your immunity and causing inflammation. They can even change structures in your brain. Pulling your brain out of panic mode keeps your body operating at its best.
And mindfulness helps you turn down the knob on the default mode network (DMN), the part of your brain that causes racing, narrative, self-conscious thoughts.
The DMN is extremely internal. It can’t operate as well when you’re focusing really intently on external, narrativeless stimuli. In other words, your self-conscious head-babble tends to disappear if you’re able to focus on the present, sensory feeling of a breeze on your face.
If sitting on the floor isn’t stimulating enough, try mindful eating
Take a bite of something — anything! Go ahead and indulge in this, but eat each bite slowly — more slowly than you’ve ever eaten anything. I like to make a plate with a lot of small nibbles of things with different flavors and textures.
Answer all these questions with a single bite: What is the texture like? Does it change? How would you describe the taste? Does the flavor change in your mouth, from a first impression to an aftertaste? Does it change if you move the food from one part of your mouth to another?
You could try slowing down almost any everyday activity by asking these very present questions. In the shower: What does the water feel like at the very top of your head? On your hands? On your face? On your leg? What if you change the pressure?
If you’re doing a simple leg or arm stretch: Which muscles can you feel moving? Which muscles hurt? Which feel really good? Can you picture them engaging in your body?
If you’re cooking: What does this ingredient smell like when you chop it? What does it sound like?
Take a slow, mindful walk if you can. If you live with someone, ask them to give you a shoulder rub and actually, really enjoy it. And even though making a gratitude journal feels like such a cheesy suggestion (it sounded so corny that I put it off for years before I actually gave it a shot), try it. It’s a cliché for a reason.
If you feel like none of these are working and you’re really freaking out:
Count all the blue things in the room. Now count all the red things.
That’s it. That’s all. It sounds ridiculously easy, but this can actually be really effective in slowing down your panic brain for a few seconds and helping your logical brain get back online.
Lots of people feel like they hate meditation, including me when I first started. Sitting uncomfortably for 15 minutes with just the sound of your annoying brain can be a lot. But all the above techniques are actually gentle forms of meditation. Yes, you can be meditating while eating chocolate!
The things I mentioned above are just baby steps toward eventually seeing if traditional sitting meditation can work for you. There’s plenty of evidence that meditation increases focus, calms the panic centers of the brain and reduces symptoms of trauma.
One of my favorite steps that helped transition my progress to sitting meditation was restorative yoga. It’s basically lying down in pleasant positions, bolstered by pillows. I really like this YouTube video, which feels like a beautiful marriage between comfy, cozy nap time and guided meditation.
Speaking of guided meditations…
They’re an amazing tool to keep your brain from wandering around anxiously while you sit.
YouTube and Spotify playlists
Podcasts like Dharmapunx
Apps like Headspace or Insight Timer (Headspace is currently free for health care professionals and has a page with free meditations created specifically with New York in mind.)
Checking to see if your fave on Instagram is hosting a live guided meditation
If traditional sitting meditation continues to bum you out, but you find that walking, eating or even cooking meditations are grounding for you, do those instead. Everyone’s different, and you’re not getting graded on how well you meditate.
Traumatic feelings can be exacerbated when you feel like you don’t have any sense of control
In uncertain times like these, it’s true that you don’t have control over who gets sick, how sick they get, the stock market or international politics. But you do have control over a lot of small things in your life. Seize that control to do something to create a bit of joy in this world.
If you’re good at cooking, maybe make some soup or a loaf of bread and drop it off on the doorstep of someone you love. Make your quarantine partner their favorite food. Write someone a thoughtful letter about how much they mean to you and mail it — they probably need to hear it right now.
Draw someone a picture. Sew a mask. Call a friend with a child and offer to read them a story or teach them a small skill. I gave a lesson to some preschoolers about dung beetles and taught them to draw a giant ball of poop. It was easy and fun and… yay, poop!
Not all of us are politicians or doctors, and that’s OK. You don’t have to save the world. You don’t have to save a life. If you make a few people feel loved today, that is beautiful and graceful and utterly needed right now.
Of course, if you really find yourself unaffected by these techniques and feeling really low, by all means find a therapist. If you broke a bone, you’d go to a doctor, right? So if your brain is causing you deep pain every day, it isn’t weak to see a therapist. It’s just the smartest thing to do for your health. Almost anyone can benefit from a professional who is trained to teach you how to be happier.
Most therapists are available for Zoom calls, and services like BetterHelp and Talkspace even allow you to message a therapist throughout the day.
But even if healing comes slowly or doesn’t seem like it’s coming at all, be gentle with yourself. We are living in painful times, and your feelings aren’t wrong or illegitimate or crazy. Look at yourself, you marvelous thing. You’re surviving. That’s enough, some days.
After all, this is just the beginning
It’s becoming clear that even once a cure for our physical health is complete, there will be a lot more healing to do socially, financially and emotionally. So if you think finding mindfulness in quarantine is painfully slow, think of this time as an incubation period.
Your growth now will strengthen the logical parts of your brain and calm your body while you witness real pain and fear in the world. It will help you process all this healthily and intelligently. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you’ll understand what to grieve, what to let go of, and what you can take action with. And in that comes enormous power.
If you take good care of your mental health, when the time comes for us to exit our homes and do the real work of helping others, you’ll be able to get more work done, calm down more quickly, and treat the people around you with more kindness.
You might even find yourself becoming a beacon of hope in this pandemic instead of a curled-up ball of fear. Because when the time comes, you won’t jump, you won’t flinch, and you won’t run. Darling, you’ll look the bear right in the eye and take him down.
We need you, but we need you healthy, inside and out. You’ve got this.