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Mindfulness in the Time of Coronavirus

Two specific practices for negotiating extreme uncertainty in challenging times.

Source: Manuel Darío Fuentes Hernández/Pixabay
Source: Manuel Darío Fuentes Hernández/Pixabay

To say these are unusual times is a gross understatement. For many people, daily life has been turned upside-down as they try and figure out how to adjust to the new realities imposed upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stresses of physical and financial fall-out have extraordinary mental and emotional impacts. The profound levels of personal upheaval combined with the apparent absence of coherent government action make it easy to catastrophize, fueling an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Whatever emotions you're experiencing during the uncertainties inherent in this disorienting time—anxiety/fear, frustration/anger, sadness/depression, etc.—as uncomfortable as they may be, mindfulness practices can be beneficial in helping to turn down their intensity, rendering them less terrifying and at least somewhat more tolerable.

The human mind produces a continuous waterfall of thoughts and images that grab our attention and run with it, dragging us from one thought to the next, often in rapid-fire succession. This unremitting mental activity regularly takes the form of stories that trap us in the web of their narratives, seductively monopolizing our attention.

Many of these stories are gripping tales that pull us back into the past—to events from yesterday, last month, last year, or many years ago; or propel us forward into the future to things that might or (in all likelihood) might not happen—later today, tomorrow, in two weeks, in six months, or years from now. They invariably distract and detract from our ability to pay conscious attention and respond skillfully in the here and now.

Related to the coronavirus, the stories that swamp most people's thoughts are focused on the future—both the immediate future and further out. Make no mistake: This is not to minimize the very real havoc the pandemic and its health and economic consequences are wreaking on people's lives and livelihoods. That said, in many cases, the cascade of worry spun by self-generated stories rapidly churns unrelenting worst-case scenarios that trap people in a vicious circle of anxiety and fear.

These catastrophic thoughts are like a song we don't want to hear that's stuck on replay in an endless loop. They can immobilize and separate us from others, convincing us that we are all alone.

Mindfulness cultivates the ability to witness one's own experience, both internal and external, without becoming caught up in and attached to the content of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations or trying to avoid or suppress them. Although meditation is one of the best-known practices to achieve a state of mindfulness, there are many others, including those that create present-moment awareness and expand empathy and compassion.

There are two specific mindfulness practices I recommend that can help you find greater calm and connection (with yourself and with others), even in the swirl of the extraordinary uncertainties currently confronting us all.

1. When you wash your hands with soap and water (soap and water work better than hand sanitizer on viruses), following the CDC guidelines to make sure to get between your fingers, underneath your fingernails, and cover the back of your hands as well as your palms over the course of the recommended 20 seconds, you can use this as an opportunity to anchor your attention in the present moment—right here and right now—and allow it to rest there. Immersing your awareness in the act of washing your hands in the same way that you are immersing your hands in the water provides valuable and healthy respite, a brief but essential break from the waterfall of stress-inducing stories. For, in this moment, all is pretty much OK. Used in this way, handwashing becomes a beneficial twofer: helping to protect both our physical and mental/emotional well-being.

2. Whatever it is that you're feeling, notice it—consciously. Observe it. Be present with it. Make some space for it. For this is the only way to begin to make peace with experiences and emotions with which we struggle.

  • The next step is to recognize that there are many other people on the planet at this very moment feeling just like you do.
  • Just like you, everyone is trying to find contentment.
  • Just like you, everyone is trying to avoid suffering.
  • Just like you, everyone has known sadness and feelings of depression.
  • Just like you, everyone struggles with anxiety and fear.
  • Just like you, everyone is challenged with frustration, anger, and resentment.
  • Just like you, everyone has known guilt and shame.
  • Just like you, everyone is trying to find their way in the world.
  • Just like you, everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.
  • Just like you, everyone is learning how to live.

In their own ways, everyone is trying to find happiness or contentment, and everyone is trying to avoid suffering. In this way, we are all equal and connected. However uncomfortable, painful, or tormenting our emotional experiences may be, mindfulness practices equip us to bear them more consciously and skillfully—to observe them, be present with them, make space for them. Making some semblance of peace with our internal experience is the only way to make peace with ourselves during such profoundly challenging circumstances.

Copyright 2020 Dan Mager, MSW