All organisms in nature can handle short term stress- we’re built for it. The brain sends out the distress signal, and the body responds: adrenalin is pumped into the blood stream and all the energy is summoned to deal with the perceived threat. It’s a brilliant adaptation that served us well for thousands of years, but in this time of great uncertainty it’s working against us.
If weeks of lockdown have you feeling anxious and afraid your body is releasing a steady stream of stress hormones that are suppressing your immune system.
Luckily, there’s a way to turn it around. You have to take it to heart.
Neuroscience tells us that the mind can’t distinguish emotion from reality; if you’re feeling it, it becomes real, and it creates a response in your body. If you can start to feel better, your body will respond. Your thymus gland, located next to your heart will kick in and send signals to the T-cells. By choosing heart emotions like love, appreciation and gratitude you can actually activate your immune system!
So- how do you get out of your head and into your heart? Here are a few strategies:
Get some exercise: Literally get the heart pumping, and put your awareness there. Feel it. Listen for the sound of your heartbeat. Sense into your pulse. Inhabit your body fully in the moment and appreciate its magnificence.
Get some sleep: When our lives are busy, sleep falls down the list of priorities but it’s critically important for physical, mental and emotional health. Well rested people are more optimistic and experience more happiness. Now that we have the time, put rest and sleep at the top of the list. If you’re having trouble sleeping, don’t make that another cause of stress. Remind yourself that rest and relaxation are good too.
Get still and meditate: Sit comfortably and close your eyes, sensing into your heartbeat. Visualize the heart itself, or if you prefer you can bring to mind the colour of the heart centre; the most beautiful green you find in nature. On the inhalation, picture the heart centre growing bigger, and on the exhalation see it getting brighter. After a few minutes the heart energy will envelope your entire body. While you are in this space, you can choose to do a loving kindness meditation. Send love to someone you wish you could see in person, and wish them joy. Or send love to the whole world.
Get some evidence: We do this unconsciously all the time; we ascribe to a belief and then look for the evidence that supports it while ignoring evidence to the contrary. You can purposely choose to believe in love, and then look for the evidence. Focus on the stories about the helpers and the heroes. Feel appreciation for all the good things that are happening in the world.
Whenever you are experiencing uncomfortable emotions, bring your attention straight to the heart. What you focus on expands in your experience, so focus on love and more will into your life!
“What do you get when you squeeze an orange?” self-help guru Dr. Wayne Dyer asked from the stage at a speaking event in Toronto.
“Duh! Orange juice!” shouted a little girl sitting in the front row.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because that’s what’s inside!” she exclaimed.
I love that anecdote, and it sprang to mind when I was thinking about the wildly different reactions people are having in response to our changed lives in the face of COVID-19.
The way I see it, like the orange, we’re all being squeezed by external circumstances, but unlike oranges, with people there’s no guarantee as to what will come out. While we’d all love to ooze nothing but calm, optimism and joy, chances are that fear, despair and anger are just as likely to pour out.
This is a time of great uncertainty. We have no way to predict how long these extraordinary circumstances will continue to test us. But with focus and intention we can start to change what comes out of us when the pressure is on.
The virus has forced us to create space, and if we choose to embrace that space we can use it to get still and clear. In stillness and clarity, we can start to reprogram old habits of thought.
Can you be still, or does your mind demand that you get you back into your comfort zone of perpetual motion? Try calming your mind with this; research shows that if you can sit in meditation for 10 minutes 3 times a day and bring yourself to feeling hope and love, after only four days, your immune function will improve by 50%. If meditation is something you have always resisted in the past, this may convince you to give it a try!
Set yourself up for success; make sure you sit in a comfortable position, and start with just a few minutes. To slow the mind, try focusing on your breath or on a constant but benign sound like the whirr of a fan. Don’t expect your mind not to think- that would be like asking the lungs not to breathe. You will have thoughts. What you’re looking for are the spaces between the thoughts-that’s where the magic happens!
If the word “meditation” throws you, try substituting words like “contemplation” or “familiarization” instead.
The essence of the meditation practice really is about familiarizing yourself with elevated emotions like peace and love. The more you practice and the more familiar those emotions become, it will be easier and faster for you to summon them when you sit. In time and with dedicated practice, they can become your natural response as you go about your day- even when you’re being squeezed.
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