Call it the winter of our discontent. While the first round of COVID-19 vaccines bring hope that we will beat back the pandemic, most Americans are weary from months of sadness, sacrifice and isolation. The days are short and dreary; the holidays are a distant memory and spring seems far away.
More over, in much of the country, the outdoor gatherings and activities that helped us through the warmer months are not as much fun in below-freezing temperatures. Add to that the continued anxiety about job loss, the pressures of balancing work and childcare and news of a more contagious strain of the virus– it’s enough to make anyone feel stressed out and overwhelmed.
“The world is so crazy right now. It calls for ways for us to regulate ourselves,” says Amy Shuman, LICSW, an Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) master trainer. “And while we’re really good at using the thinking parts of our brains, there’s a part of our brains that we can further develop to help us regulate our emotions: the prefrontal cortex.”
Science Proves the Power of Mindfulness
Studies show that people who regularly practice meditation or mindfulness have a better developed prefrontal cortex and, presumably, are better at handling life’s ups and downs. In one study, researchers performed MRIs on participants before and after an 8-week course in mindfulness. At the conclusion of the study, those who had taken part in the mindfulness training had shrunk their amygdalas (the part of the brain that controls the fight-or-flight response) and a increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex.
“I love it when we find scientific evidence that backs up what Buddhist monks have been saying for thousands of years,” says Shuman. Studies show that regular mindfulness or meditation practices can reduce depression and anxiety, improve concentration and sleep and even boost the immune system. “If everyone meditated, we would have an amazing change in the health of our society, physically and mentally,” Shuman says.
It has never been easier to develop a meditation practice. There are many websites, online courses and apps that can lead you through guided meditations. Shuman often recommends the Headspace app to the clients she works with in the counseling center at Western New England College in Massachusetts.
Apart from using an app or enrolling in an online course, one way to become more mindful is by focusing on the sensations of daily life, Shuman says. For example, when you brush your teeth, focus on the sound of the water, the smell and taste of the toothpaste and the light streaming in the bathroom window.
“Eating breakfast, taking a shower, walking the dog– you could turn all of these into an opportunity for mindfulness,” Shuman says. Shuman says her clients are routinely surprised by how much they enjoy mindfulness practices. It also helps prepare clients for Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) sessions, she says.
Help is Available
If you consistently feel overwhelmed, sad, anxious or are facing other mental health challenges, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Look for a therapist near you, contact your primary health care provider for a recommendation, or, if you are contemplating self-harm, contact a suicide prevention hotline.
ART is an evidence-based, fast and effective treatment for PTSD, trauma, anxiety, prolonged grief and other mental health conditions. Most clients report a complete or near-complete reduction of symptoms in an average of four sessions. To find a therapist who specializes in ART, visit ART International’s provider directory.