Things are reopening. Are you nervous about going out?
Society’s starting to reopen after a year of pandemic safety precautions, and that’s a good thing, right? A chance to see friends and family again, attend a movie or a game, return to workplaces and schools, maybe even travel.
But as positive as a resumption to something similar to our pre-COVID lives may seem, it can spark feelings of uncertainty and fear. Will vaccines make us safe? For how long? Could I unwittingly be a carrier and hurt someone I love? How will I adjust to new work and school schedules?
“Any transition, any change can cause stress,” said Manny Marrero, an occupational therapist at the Center for Mental Health at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, and a certified mindfulness instructor.
“The last year has been stressful,” he said. “We’re all dealing with a collective grief for the way of life before the pandemic. We’ve lost loved ones.”
Mindfulness can help us face the stress and anxiety of the past year of isolation and upheaval, and accept the shift toward reopening, Marrero said.
“Mindfulness is about being present and tuning into yourself,” he said. “I think it’s important not to judge what you notice.”
“It’s a coping skill for life,” he added. “Allowing ourselves to be OK, even though everything may not be OK.”
People spend a lot of time “ruminating about the past, worrying about the future,” said Stephanie Goley, a mindfulness instructor with Calmer Choice. This South Yarmouth-based non-profit teaches mindfulness to young students and adults to help them better manage their reactions to stress and improve their sense of self-control. The goal is that it will lessen harmful ways of coping, such as violence and substance abuse. Calmer Choice works with schools and community organizations on Cape Cod and elsewhere in Southeastern Massachusetts.
The more time spent in anxious thoughts about past situations or possible future problems, “the less happy we are,” Goley said. Mindfulness can break us out of this pattern, which she called being “stuck in the default mode network.”
Mindfulness practice often starts with a few deep breaths, while sitting upright with your feet on the floor. Paying attention to the sensation of the breath, a sound or the sensation of your feet on the floor, can help ground the person in the present.
“We call these anchors. Just like a boat anchor that stops a boat from drifting away, the breath, sound and body sensations are a place to come back to when, inevitably, your mind drifts away,” Goley said.
Thoughts appear, are recognized, met with curiosity and put aside, Marrero said. Focus remains on breathing, staying calm and experiencing the present.
“The sweet spot is 20-30 minutes once or twice a day, according to research, but five minutes is better than nothing,” said Marrero, who also sits on the board of Calmer Choice.
While the concept of mindfulness may seem simple, it takes time to learn and practice to maintain.
“It’s like taking tennis lessons,” Goley said. “You need to continue to practice, to know how to play.”
Mindfulness Instruction for Dementia Patients and Caregivers
Recognizing reopening may cause stress for older residents, the Alzheimer’s Family Support Center of Cape Cod is working with Calmer Choice to offer a series of online mindfulness training sessions for people with dementia and their caregivers. Each of the monthly sessions is a standalone presentation, said Melanie Braverman, co-founder and cultural director of the Brewster-based non-profit.
“People with cognitive loss are living in a low-level anxiety soup all the time,” she said.
They may be experiencing stress, but not know why or how to express it. Meanwhile, their caregivers have had their stress heightened by the isolation the pandemic imposed – day respite programs have been cancelled and senior centers closed. Trying to keep their loved ones with dementia safe can be difficult when they don’t understand the need to maintain social distancing.
“As soon as they see someone they know, they take their mask off and go to hug them,” Braverman said.
The first of the free online Zoom video sessions was held April 2, but two more will take place on May 7 and June 4 from 11 a.m. till noon. Anyone needing help with Zoom or getting access to a tablet or computer to participate may contact the center for help. Registration is required. Provide your name and those of anyone joining you, your email address, phone number and home address by calling 508-896-5170 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Just sitting and breathing deeply is really good for people,” Braverman said.
The sessions grew out of one of the center’s Arts & Ideas events held a few months ago with Calmer Choice, she added.
A related online discussion organized by center co-founder and executive director Molly Perdue will be held on May 24 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Titled “COVID-19 and Your Mental Health: Challenges and Strategies for Re-Integrating Post-Pandemic,” this free 90-minute Zoom event is designed for professional and family caregivers, people in the early stages of cognitive impairment, and anyone else who’s interested. You must email or call the center to register to participate.
Calmer Choice offers virtual instruction to adults through two options: A standard course of eight weekly two-hour sessions called “Mindfulness: Cultivating Resilience and Well-Being” and or a new shorter course of four weekly hour-and-15-minute sessions titled “Everyday Mindfulness,” which is more informal in approach, Goley said. The longer course costs $200 and the shorter one $99; Calmer Choice offers full scholarships to qualifying applicants for the 8 week course.
Mindfulness is “not a silver bullet,” but can be used as a valuable tool to combat everyday anxiety and stress, Goley said. “It can really help diminish that fight, flight or freeze reaction when things are out of control.”