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The pandemic is worsening negative thought patterns, but with mindfulness, we can help the mind help itself

from Aileen Lalor, special to The Globe and Mail: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/article-the-pandemic-is-worsening-negative-thought-patterns-but-with/

It’s probably a bit facile to wonder why our device-dependence has increased as a result of the pandemic (one U.S. survey from last September says average daily screen time for adults has gone from four hours to six).

We’re all anxious about what’s going on in the world and are constantly seeking the latest information. Or we’re bored, confined at home so much of the time. Or we’re obliged to use our devices for work, or we want to use them to connect with other people. Or all of those things. And the everyday or pleasurable things we used to do – a trip to the grocery store, team sports or a haircut – now seem fraught and dangerous. Better to stay at home and surf social media, lest we encounter COVID-19 at the nail salon and have to confess our frivolity to some stern-faced contact tracer. At least, that’s how I feel.

And so I seem to seek out as many inputs as possible: A podcast while I’m running, reading Twitter while waiting for my oven to pre-heat, watching some dumb celebrity gameshow on YouTube and simultaneously Googling the contestants’ heights.

I’m not alone. A friend admitted he’s developed a crick in his neck from looking up at the TV screen, then down at his phone all evening. Another told me she’d settled on the sofa one evening to relax, rosé poured and fluffy slippers on, only to find herself scrolling social media with one ear on the TV news, wondering why the heck she wasn’t feeling blissed out.

I know deep down why I’ve developed this dependency: I’m afraid to be alone with my thoughts. I’ve always been a little fretful – I need to be exhausted before I can drop off at night, because otherwise I pinball between real and imagined fears. And the pandemic has only ignited that anxiety. Our devices are instantly available, ready and willing to fill our minds with nonsense and block out our fears even as they add to them. Twitter is hardly a place of peace and reassurance, after all.

Using external sources to escape negative thoughts – what if I lose my job because of COVID-19?; what if this is screwing up my children?; what if I never see my parents again? – isn’t uncommon. “Sometimes that feeling of, ‘anything but this’ can be the mind’s way of trying to bring something in that’s less distressing,” says Vancouver-based psychiatrist Andrea Grabovac, an expert in mindfulness-integrated cognitive behavioural therapy. And because of COVID-19, “we don’t have our usual coping strategies – the things we would do to nurture and care for ourselves in the way that we were before.”

She says becoming aware of the process of our own thinking is the first stage of developing a healthier relationship with our thoughts. “It’s kind of like paying attention to our posture. Sometimes we can get away with not doing that, but if we have an achy back, it’s useful to keep posture in mind.” In the same way, she adds, it can be helpful to develop a skill called metacognitive awareness – staying aware of the flow of thoughts as just thoughts, one after the other, without getting caught in their content, because when we do, that fuels the stress cycle.

This technique is aligned with mindfulness. “With mindfulness, you’re training attention in a certain way – trying to recognize you have control over where your attention goes,” Dr. Zindel Segal, a professor at the University of Toronto, says. “Your attention could go to a scary report, an image on the internet, a thing you might want to buy. It’s there in front of you, but you can decide if you want to attend to it or not. You can decide if you want to feed it more or put your attention elsewhere.” The ultimate goal is to view thoughts and experiences with equanimity, not allowing them to excessively affect our moods.

Grabovac says by turning toward our internal experience in any moment, we’re training our capacity for interoceptive awareness – awareness of what’s going on inside our bodies. “Parts of the brain, such as the anterior insula, are so important in letting us know what we’re actually feeling – whether we’re happy or sad, hungry or in pain. For people under chronic stress, or with anxiety or depression, these parts of the brain shut down a bit and actually get smaller,” she says. “With just eight weeks of mindfulness training, the anterior insula can recover in size, and anxiety-generating parts of the brain, like the amygdala, become less active. When we shift the way we relate to our experience, it does change our neurophysiology.”

We can learn mindfulness from apps or online; Segal recommends the 10 Percent Happier app and YouTube videos from mindfulness guru Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. In particular, Segal encourages people to work with instructors (for example, through courses from the Centre for Mindfulness Studies) either virtually or in person since, he says, when people try to go it alone, their minds often push back and tell them they’re doing mindfulness wrong, leading them to abandon the practice.

Aside from strategies we learn over time, there are also simple practices that can be put into place immediately: Choosing to regulate phone usage, for example, whether that’s by putting devices in a different room while we sleep or limiting our social-media use to 30 minutes a day. I’ve gone back to reading books instead of doomscrolling at bedtime. And when I run, I switch off the podcasts and just try to be in the moment.

To be sure, I’m less informed ­­– though not about really important stuff. But I’m running faster, discovering ideas, observing what my mind is doing without judging. When my mind grazes a difficult thought or memory, I try to let it in and feel any co-emerging sensations in my body, all the while hearing the thud of my trainers on the pavement. It doesn’t mean I don’t get anxious. I’m still checking my phone the moment I stop running, wake up or turn off the mindfulness track. But I am learning how to let go, switch off and just see what happens.

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