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Mindfulness Strategies for Healthy Living

Ekaterina A. Davis, LCSW, NBC-HWC

Pandemics like COVID-19 can make you think about your physical health and wellbeing. It is also important to pay attention to your mental health needs as stress on your mind and body can cause depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. Stress can happen at any time and without warning. A pandemic can add direct and indirect stress into your life.

Contracting an illness such as the novel coronavirus can add direct stress to your body. A few examples of direct stress include developing a fever, difficulty breathing, or getting hospitalized. Indirect stress can show up in different shapes or forms. You can experience indirect stress if someone close to you gets ill or you lose your job or experience other financial hardships. You can experience indirect stress if staying away from others makes you feel isolated, withdrawn, or sad.

When we experience direct and indirect stress we can develop unhealthy coping strategies. A common unhealthy coping strategy is heavy drinking of alcohol. For an adult man, drinking too much means drinking 15 or more standard alcoholic drinks per week. For an adult woman, drinking too much means drinking 8 or more standard drinks per week. Other coping strategies may be eating less healthy food or sleeping for longer than usual. The list of unhealthy coping strategies is vast and long.

Taking care of yourself, including your mental health, is essential. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. Many people may experience fear, anxiety, or feelings of depression. This is normal. There are things you can do to manage these experiences and practice good self-care.

Strategy #1: Be Present

Being in the present moment means that you are aware or mindful of what is happening in and around you from moment to moment. Start to pay attention to your thoughts. Don't try to change your thoughts or cling to them. Instead, observe your thoughts and allow them to pass by, just like a cloud on a warm sunny day might pass by.

Strategy #2: Practice Breathing Exercises and/or Meditation

You can download one of VA’s many free mental health mobile applications for on-demand support or daily practice reminders. One application designed to help build resilience, manage stress, and increase well-being during the crisis is COVID Coach. COVID Coach is for everyone, including Veterans and Servicemembers, to support self-care and overall mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Features include:

  • education about coping during the pandemic,
  • tools for self-care,
  • exercises for emotional well-being,
  • trackers to check your mood and measure your growth toward personal goals, and
  • graphs to visualize your progress over time.

The application is free and secure.

These mobile applications should not be used to substitute conventional mental health treatment including therapy with a licensed professional or prescription medications when necessary. If you are a Veteran in crisis or worried about one, VA responders are standing by to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the Veterans Crisis Hotline, call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1.

Strategy #3: Fill Your Cup

“Fill your cup” is a reminder to practice self-care and to understand why self-care is so important. To fill your cup means to refill your mental, physical, and emotional energy. “Filling your cup” is like recharging your battery. A car cannot run when the battery has no energy. People cannot be their best when their personal resources are exhausted. Start filling your cup today by creating a pause in your daily life. Schedule alone time and do something that will make you feel good.

If you have trouble deciding what to do, use the VA Whole Health model to come up with new or creative ideas for self-care. Go to the Whole Health website and take the Personal Health Inventory. If you enjoy writing, use the brief Personal Health Inventory as journal prompts.

Direct and indirect stress can show up in your life at any point. Whether you are experiencing stress right now or not, it is important to start practicing self-care today. By exploring and practicing self-care strategies, you are building a mental muscle and forming new neural pathways in the brain. Neural pathways are the building blocks of creating new and automatic responses. The time it takes to build a new neural pathway varies from person to person. It's never too early or too late to start creating healthy coping strategies.