Even outside of a pandemic, many people struggle with maintaining healthy amounts of quality sleep and managing stress. The good news is that neuroscience offers interventions to help improve our physical and mental health. Professor Huberman discusses ongoing research from his lab, including practical applications that everyone at any age can use to manage stress and sleep better.
Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist and associate professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He has made numerous important contributions to the fields of brain development, nervous system function, and neural plasticity (the ability to rewire our nervous system). His lab’s most recent work focuses on understanding the human neural circuits that underlie states such of stress, focus, sleep and non-sleep rest states. Much of that work is done in collaboration with David Spiegel, Willson Professor and associate chair of psychiatry & behavioral sciences.His work with Jeff Goldberg, chair of ophthalmology, involves a clinical trial to promote visual restoration in diseases that cause blindness such as glaucoma.
"Mindfulness provides us with a means of cultivating greater and more objective awareness of our own emotional landscape, the emotions of others, and of external circumstance.
In doing so, it gives us more choice in how we respond to challenges we may face and the ability to more consciously choose where we place our attention.
Wherever you are in the world we sincerely hope that you and your loved ones remain safe and healthy. In the words of one of our favourite meditation teachers: “Moment by moment we can find our way though” - Sharon Salzberg.
Mindfulness in the time of a pandemic, by the 'mother of mindfulness Ellen Langer.
Fear, anxiety & denial
Acknowledging that feeling fearful and anxious at a time such as this is not only normal but appropriate. Given the nature of the threat we are facing, fear and anxiety are adaptive responses as they alert us to the fact that we need to be taking appropriate action to keep ourselves and others as safe and healthy as possible.
It’s also important to recognise that fear and anxiety can quickly escalate and reach a tipping point beyond which they are no longer helpful and can affect us in negative ways. When the acute stress response, otherwise knowns as the ‘fight or flight’ response, kicks in we’re not as able to think clearly or make good decisions; we become more reactive and less responsive; and our thinking can quickly spiral, becoming increasingly negative and difficult to unhook from.
Jon Kabat-Zinn - Mindfulness, Healing, and Wisdom in a Time of COVID-19
Mindfulness helps us get better at recognising and understanding our own personal signals that tell us we’re close to our tipping point. We can think of mindfulness as being like our own personal ‘fear and anxiety thermometer’ helping us get to know our own warning signs and recognise them as they’re kicking in.
a sense of urgency
inability to focus
eating or drinking more than usual.
In addition to knowing and recognising our warning signals, mindfulness gives us the opportunity to respond by taking steps to settle and soothe our nervous system, which in turn enables us to think more clearly, make better decisions and respond as opposed to react.
It can also be tempting to turn away from and deny the seriousness of what’s happening. Denial may be particularly appealing given the significant impact that this outbreak will have on so many people financially, emotionally or physically. While temporary distractions can be useful for giving our minds a break, on the whole denial is not a helpful approach. It can leave us vulnerable and exhausted as it may lead to not taking appropriate precautions and it’s difficult to sustain in the face of reality.
Mindfulness can help us see things more clearly, which in turn helps us strike a balance between staying informed and making sensible choices without becoming overwhelmed.
Healthy brain breaks
Giving your brain a break when you’re nearing your tipping point can be a helpful way of deactivating the acute stress (‘fight or flight’) response. Even short moments of reprieve are beneficial as they help reset enabling us to find the middle ground between overwhelm and denial. It’s in this place that we’re able to make better choices and are best placed to support ourselves and those around us.
We recommend trying out the following as often as you need to:
Any kind of physical movement is a great way of releasing the build-up of excess energy that accompanies the acute stress (‘fight or flight’) response – take yourself for a walk or run outside; do some stretching, yoga or some other form of mindful movement; or crank some uplifting music and dance around the house for a few minutes.
When you slow your breathing rate down the uncomfortable physical sensations of fear and anxiety start to subside. Try the following:
Stop what you’re doing, take three long, slow deep breaths.
Impose a rhythm on your breathing so that your out-breath becomes longer than your in-breath.
Try a 4-2-6 rhythm – e.g. breathe for 4 counts, hold your breath for 2 counts, and breathe out for 6 counts.
If that doesn’t feel comfortable, try imposing a 3-1-4 rhythm. The main thing is that your out-breath is slightly longer than your in-breath.
Connect to what is happening in this moment right now more consciously engaging your senses. Try the following:
Take a moment to enjoy a cup of tea – really pay attention to the aroma and taste
When we’re fearful and anxious it can be hard to sleep. Given the importance of sleep for our mental and physical wellbeing, including immunity, establishing good habits around sleep is particularly important at the moment.
Consider creating a pre-sleep routine by turning off news and screens at least an hour before going to bed. If you wake during the night and find you can’t sleep, rather than sit lay there and worry, try a meditation from the ‘Sleep’ program in the Smiling Mind App.
While social connection may be tricky during this time when many people are physical distancing, staying connected to others is more important than ever as we are wired to connect and seek comfort and care from others. We are fortunate to have so much technology at our fingertips enabling us to stay connected to family, friends and colleagues.
Try using video conferencing technology so that you can see each other, as we communicate best when we can see each other’s body language and facial expressions. Do your best to listen and interact as mindfully as you can with others – really pay attention to the people you’re interacting with.
Contributing to the wellbeing of others helps shift our attention from ourselves onto what we can do for them. This helps us connect with others; gain a sense of agency, even if only in a small way; plus helping others also positively impacts our own wellbeing.
Consider how you might help others at this difficult time. For example, you could support a local business you value that is likely struggling at the moment or check up on an elderly friend or relative.
Create healthy habits
Mindfulness can help us create healthy habits to keep us and others as safe and healthy as possible. For example, washing your hands mindfully and taking care not to touch your face.
Article by Sharon Salzburg via Beyond Blue
This article was originally published by Smiling Mind.
After a day's walk, everything has twice its usual value. G.M. Trevelyan
It's a hugely challenging time, we are all faced with lockdowns, restrictions and border closures. For some of us, our regular exercise program may be being challenged, adding to our stress.
What form of movement do you enjoy? Most days I walk between 5-12 ks, and love it. But with the social distancing rules prohibiting dancing at venues, I've found I'm missing my dancing life. I've been noticing it affects my level of well-being. In this talk Kelly McGonical shares why movement matters.
"Movement will give you access to joy, that will dramaticalllly improve the quality of your life. Help support mental health and create more meaning and belonging." Kelly McGonical PHD.
So how's your stress levels right now? Mine go from feeling fine to feeling anxious. The days I'm feeling fine are the days when I stop to take time to do my yoga practice, or do my yoga breathing or go for a walk. What about you, do you notice when you are feeling the stress of this current situation? Do you notice when you are feeling OK - Are you feeling OK?
After visiting the supermarket this morning, and witnessing the panic in the faces and the movement of many there, I'm going to suggest that we all need to practice Mindfulness right now. Mindful of keeping space between us, mindful of being kind to ourselves to another.
There's an age old practice called keeping space or holding space. It's that we give another person, unconditional positive regard. With social distancing we can move with one another in a form of dance, respecting the space and flowing with one another and it can actually be quite fun to do. As long as we aren't absolutely focussed on having to plow along mindlessly.
Take some time to play with the distancing when you are in the supermarket, pretend you both have magnets on, that push each other away, move with the energy. Smile even if you feel like you don't want to, something shifts in our brains when we smile. Somedays when you smile and you don't feel like it, it can feel like you're lifting concrete with your cheek bones! Recall a funny time, and then go from there.
Here are two videos by two of the leaders in the mindfulness field. There are also some meditations and mindfulness practices in the videos.
I'm available to talk face to face via Skype or WhatsApp - just a matter of booking a time to connect.