WHILE the threat of the coronavirus has forced us into isolated lockdown in our homes, the digital world has been offering a huge free support system, centred around taking back some control of our physical, emotional and mental health.
The online wellness community has always been there, but as Covid-19 has united us all globally in our anxiety, fear and vulnerability, there has never been a bigger need for the apps, podcasts, videos, livestream events and informative websites that can offer some solace in this time of great distress.
We are all in this together yet we were never so apart. And it’s in this unprecedented space that technology has come into its own; to reach out across global borders into our homes.
There has been a significant increase in downloads and usage of meditation apps throughout the pandemic, as we reach out to find tools to support ourselves. According to Store Intelligence, a US-based platform that tracks mobile app performance, the top 10 mental wellness apps accumulated almost 10 million downloads in April, 2m more downloads compared to January.
One of the pioneers in meditation and mindfulness apps, Headspace, which boasts 65m users in 190 countries, has reported such an upturn in download numbers since the quarantine measures took effect.
Deborah Hyun, Headspace’s global vice president of marketing, told MediaPost, late last month: “Install rates of first-time users have doubled, compared to before mid-March. And there’s a spike in absolute volume of usage, as well as length of time per session.”
You can download the app’s basic pack for free, with additional content available for a paid subscription, but because of the Covid crisis that fee is being waived if you are out of work. Another global leader in meditation apps, Calm, which has 80 million downloads and works on the same basis of free and subscription content, has been using the hashtag #CalmTogether, to unite users during the crisis.
Calm’s head of mindfulness, Tamara Levitt says:
We have handpicked some of our favourite meditations, sleep stories, movement exercises, journals and music. All the resources on this page are free to use and to share. May they bring you and those around you, peace.
That’s the tone reflected in myriad free teachings, practices and other resources which are being shared by compassionate teachers and organisations.
The response was so enthusiastic, for instance, to Deepak Chopra offering a live global meditation session “for healing and transformation, in the midst of this global pandemic”, at the end of March, that the video site crashed.
While our lives are dictated by the fear of contracting Covid-19, Chopra says:
Emotions are more contagious than any virus and a pandemic of panic and stress and uncontrollable fear and anxiety can compromise our immune system.
And he says “meditation is far more than just a way to relax, it has profound benefits that will help you navigate the Covid-19 outbreak.”
It’s not a new message, but it is perhaps being heard in a more urgent way now and by a far wider audience, as we reach out for some sense of control and connection.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in bringing the benefits of mindfulness into the field of science, has also generously stepped forward.
Since March 25, he has offered weekly guided meditation, sharing his wisdom and holding real-time discussions with participants from around the globe.
Kabat-Zinn, who created the stress reduction programme Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction, which has been adopted widely by health organisations, can be joined live online Monday to Friday, or you can afterwards tune into the saved video versions on the website www.wisdom2conference.com/live
At the core of meditation, of course, is the practice of training our attention and awareness. With mindfulness meditation we are encouraged to follow our breath and be present in the moment.
The theme of the weekly sessions he says, as he invites us to stay present in ourselves, from one breath to the next, is “not losing our minds”.
And in one session inviting us to meditate, he asks: “How can we best make use of this moment in time, in the midst of this pandemic, to in some sense regulate our own situations, emotions, thoughts and actions, in the world; to optimise wellbeing and minimise disruption, harm — the various kinds of challenges we are all facing — all of us, of course, being in uniquely different situations?”
Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction programme has been one of the main drivers behind scientific research exploring the benefits mindfulness meditation practice offers to help us cope with stress, anxiety and pain.
Managing our stress can help us cope daily with the unknown coronavirus landscape, but it also helps us fight off illness, says Trinity College neuroscientist, Sabina Brennan: “Broadly speaking, scientific research suggests that mindful meditation interventions can have physical, mental and brain health benefits — all which can help us through the Covid-19 crisis.”
The role of mindfulness in our lives is actually a theme the neuroscientist discusses in her recent Super Brain podcast at
Poorly managed chronic stress — widely being experienced during this pandemic — can be detrimental to the brain, which is why meditation and other relaxation routines are important to incorporate into our lives right now, she tells Feelgood.
“Such stress inhibits the growth of brain cells and the connections between them in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, attention, emotional control and self-awareness,” says Brennan.
“At the same time chronic stress ramps up the fear centres in the brain, increasing neuroplasticity — that is growth of new brain connections, and neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells in that region.
“So, managing stress during these strange times is critical and mindfulness meditation is an effective means to do this. There are lots of ways to meditate or be mindful — it doesn’t have to mean sitting in a lotus position repeating a mantra,” she says.
Learning to use our breath to de-stress, is just one of the beneficial self-help therapy skills that are taught in a six-part HSE-run community programme, which has gone online, as a result of Covid-19.
Called Stress Control, the cognitive behavioural therapy classes, led online by the creator of the programme, consultant psychologist Jim White, had previously been used extensively here and in Britain in community settings and with great success.
Co Donegal-based HSE senior clinical psychologist with the mental health services, Christina Corbett, who piloted the community-based programme here, says the online version was so popular when it started in April that more than 6,500 people tuned in with 62% from Ireland.
It’s expected those numbers will be higher for May and for those who don’t get to tune into the livestream sessions they can access all the content, the booklets, self-assessment, relaxation and mindfulness skills, in the ‘Free zone’ section of the website at http://stresscontrol.org
Participants in the livestream video sessions so far have been aged from 18 to 80, but the majority are in the 35 to 64 age group.
“The feedback we’ve received so far is that the programme gives people the skills to take back some control because unsurprisingly there is a lot of anxiety, panic and fear in the community,” says Corbett.
“We would be talking about our fight-flight response being switched on all of the time; it should be just when we are in a stressful situation and then turned off again,” she says.
But now we are stressed going to work, stressed going to the shop, stressed at home, stressed about the children washing their hands.
“And of course people have added pressures like working from home, while your children are there running around; trying to make sure that your job stays if you have one, or if you lost one, worrying about that.
“Then if you have elderly or vulnerable people in your family, will they mind themselves? We would hear a lot of those kinds of worries from people both on the comments online from the programme and in the mental health services,” she says.
Corbett is a mother of two teenagers, one of whom was due to sit the Junior Cert, the other the Leaving Cert, and she has parents in their 80s living in Dublin whom she regularly visited prior to Covid.
“What I would love to say to parents for instance, who have been trying to balance everything, is that they need to give themselves a break.
“It’s never been more important to prioritise a bit of time for something that helps reduce our stress whether it is getting out for a walk, but also doing the breathing when things get particularly stressful. So within that, I would say be kind to yourself and take a break and breathe.”