Staying Mentally Fit During COVID-19
Five days had gone by since I sent the first email to her. We had met in one of my classes during my training as an integrative health coach. I was worried about her, because she suddenly disappeared, just as class was coming to an end and humanity’s new threat was descending. Then finally I got a response from my 73-year-old friend. She told me she had been struggling with her mental health. I totally understood. Staying mentally fit during COVID-19 is as difficult as staying physically fit.
Mental fitness and physical fitness are symbiotic states: they support one another. So, it’s no surprise that our restricted access to physical activity—gyms, walking, driving—can negatively affect our mental wellness.
How do we stay mentally fit now that it is tougher to access to the walking path, or the gym, or the bowling alley, or church services where we also would interact with our family and friends?
Just as it is important to be conscious about being physically fit, we need to be conscious about being mentally fit.
What does it mean to be mentally fit? Let’s answer that first.
The mind can be trained to be mentally fit by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system . The parasympathetic nervous system’s general function is to control homeostasis and the body’s rest-and-digest response. When the body is in a relaxed state, it conserves energy by doing the following::
- Eye pupils constrict
- Saliva is stimulated
- Heartbeat slows
- Airways constrict
- Activity of the stomach, gallbladder and intestine are stimulated
- Bladder contracts
- Muscles relax
On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system’s general action is to mobilize the body’s fight-or-flight response. When the body is extremely stressed, tensed, frightened, anxious or nervous, the opposite happens:
- Eye pupils dilate
- Saliva is inhibited
- Heartbeat increases
- Airways dilate
- Activity of the stomach, gallbladder and intestine are inhibited
- Bladder relaxes
- Muscles contract
Imagine being chased by a bear; it’s the sympathetic nervous system that prepares you to either fight or run.
Quite similarly, the COVID-19 is seen as a threat against the body. The physical, social and economic changes have affected our mental fitness.
Unless you have some good behavioral practices in place, you may resort to maladaptive behavior. You may feel like eating ice cream, chips, or cookies. You may feel like having several glasses of alcohol every night. You may resort to smoking. You may default to these activities in an attempt to relax the body. But these activities have devastating effects on the body, making it more difficult to handle the challenges of life.
So, in order to enhance mental health at a time of limited physical activity, we have to find healthy ways to relax the body. What are some healthy ways to relax the body?
Relax the body by distracting it
Here are some ways to distract the body:
You don’t need a lot of space to garden. Container plants are wonderful ways to create a garden when there is limited space. Even taking care of indoor plants can be of benefit. Indoor plants release oxygen into the air and remove carbon dioxide.
Read a book
Reading a book is ranked as one of the top ways to relax the body by distracting the mind. I remember that when I taught reading to kids years ago, I would always seek to find out what a child was interested in, because once that child reads a book of their interest, they are hooked. If you haven’t done so, find a book that interests you and that would be a good distraction from COVID-19 news.
I was reading Amy Cuddy’s book Presence where I came across this quote: “I’m happy because I sing.” Most of us are familiar with the reverse of this statement from the song chorus “I sing because I’m happy.” But Cuddy is showing that the right behavior can provoke the desired emotion. What happens if you sing? Certain emotions follow like joy. Eventually the soul is lifted. The soul is like a bird that loves to sing. Try it and let me know how it works for you.
Laughter has the same effect. Who says you need a reason to laugh? Laughter is a way to exercise the soul. I have done acting, so I have had a lot of practice faking a laugh—until I’m no longer faking. Laugh, and eventually, the emotions follow, and the body releases feel-good hormones. Laughter is known to decrease stress-making hormones. Why not intentionally create your own laughter therapy?
If there is something called laughter therapy, there is something called crochet therapy. According to the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, knitting has therapeutic potential. Many people who knit or crochet claim it is a stress reliever and is great for relaxation.
Relax the body passively
Sometimes you can relax the body by engaging in passive activity; for example, you can simply listen to music or to an audio book or watch a movie.
However, the most powerful way to relax the body is to be actively engaged and aware. In so doing, you are engaging the parasympathetic nervous system—that part of the system that is activated when you feel relaxed.
Relax the body with awareness
When you are actively engaged in relaxing the body, you are able to recreate the moment when necessary. The goal, then, is intimately getting to know your body and what it feels like to relax it. This calls for consciously engaging the parasympathetic nervous system as you pay attention to how you feel when you are relaxed.
Most of the time, when you are distracted or passively involved in relaxing the body, you are not aware of or do not understand how the body relaxes itself. You may say once you are relaxed, that’s all that matters. But do you know that by practicing daily you can strengthen your mental muscles just as you do your physical muscles?
Here are a couple examples:
- Squeeze your fists as tightly as you can for as long as you can. Hold the squeeze till it hurts, then let it go. Then squeeze your toes as tightly as you can. Then let the squeeze go.
- Every time you hold the squeeze, notice how your body feels. Then notice how your body feels when you release the hold. You are noticing how your body feels when it is tense and when it is relaxed.
You have the ability to relax the body, but it takes practice.
Now, intentionally add a long exhale when you release the squeeze.
This time try a different body part.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Squeeze them as hard as you can, then exhale as you release. Notice how your shoulders relax. People tend to carry stress in their back and shoulders.
- Now, try your face. The face contains many muscles. Tighten your facial muscles by frowning or making a funny face. Then exhale as you relax the facial muscles.
Mental fitness and physical fitness are symbiotic states: they support and feed off one another. But it’s difficult to stay mentally fit during a time when you can’t go to work, go for walks, go to the gym, to religious gatherings, to a movie. Nonetheless, you have to find ways to maintain your mental well-being; otherwise, you may develop maladaptive behaviors, such as overeating, drinking too much, smoking. To enhance your mental health at a time of limited physical activity, you have to relax your body through healthy means, and that calls for activating the parasympathetic system.
Relax your body by distracting it with gardening, reading, singing, laughter and crocheting. You can also relax your body through passive activity such as listening to music or to audio books or watching a movie. However, the most powerful way to relax your body is to be aware of what happens to your body when it is relaxed and to practice those simple squeezing exercises that relax you as you strengthen your physical muscles.
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