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9 mindfulness exercises to help you manage COVID stress

53% of adults in the U.S. say their mental health has worsened because of Covid-related stress and worry.

From the pandemic that brought you the terms “social distancing” and “Zoom fatigue,” here’s another one to add to your vocabulary: Covid stress. Google Trends shows that searches for the term were nonexistent in February, peaked at the end of March, fell at the start of summer and are again on the rise as we head into winter.

And it’s no wonder. With many of us facing our ninth month of juggling work, family and schooling from the chaos of our homes—we need a label for the overwhelming stress that we’re feeling.

If these unprecedented times have you feeling unprecedentedly frazzled, we’ve got some mindfulness exercises to help you deal with Covid stress. But first, let’s look at how pandemic-related stress has affected people and what science says about how mindfulness might help.

Table of contents

11 statistics on managing COVID stress that show the pandemic’s mental health toll

1. 53% of adults in the U.S. say their mental health has taken a hit due to Covid-related worry and stress—up 21 points since March. [1]

2. 36% of adults in the U.S. report difficulty sleeping during the pandemic. [1]

3. 12% of adults say they’ve increased their alcohol consumption or substance use because of Covid stress. [1]

4. More than one in three adults say they’ve had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, compared to more than one in ten before the pandemic. [1]

5. 13.3% of adults reported having started or increased their substance use to deal with Covid stress. [2]

6. 45% of people new to remote working have experienced a decreased sense of belonging since working from home (86% of them started working remotely because of the pandemic). [3]

7. The average stress level in the U.S. in 2019 was 4.9. In 2020, it’s 5.9—the first significant increase since the Annual Stress in America Survey began in 2007. [4]

8. 70% of employed adults cite work as “a significant source of stress in their lives,” higher than in 2019 (64%). [4]

9. In the UK, 18- to 30-year-olds, people with low income and adults living alone—all groups considered to be at high risk for loneliness—were even more at risk for loneliness during the pandemic. [5]

10. Millennials (ages 24-39) were among the most likely to feel lonely before and after Covid. [6] 

11. The rate of depression in American adults has tripled since the pandemic began. It’s particularly high in people with financial worries. [7]

5 promising statistics on mindfulness exercises

What is mindfulness? My favorite definition comes from the meditation app Headspace:

“Mindfulness is the idea of learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, aware of your thoughts and feelings without distraction or judgment.” 

With so many of us worried about the future during this pandemic, learning how to be more attentive to the present could help. And there’s plenty of research supporting mindfulness as a way of improving well-being. Let’s go over some studies below.

1. Mindfulness may reduce stress. 

Participants who did eight weeks of a guided body scan mindfulness practice showed decreased signs of biological stress compared to participants who listened to an audiobook. [8]

2. Mindfulness meditation may help decrease dwelling on negative thoughts. 

Twenty novice meditators took part in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. Compared to the control group, which did not do any meditation training, these 20 meditators showed decreases in rumination and depressive symptoms. [9]

3. Mindfulness meditation may help you sleep better. 

A study of older adults (average age of 66) looked at two groups: One group completed a mindful awareness practices (MAPs) intervention, while the other completed a sleep hygiene education (SHE) intervention. 

The mindfulness group ended up showing improved sleep quality, with fewer insomnia symptoms and less fatigue. [10]

4. Mindful acceptance may reduce feelings of pain and negative emotions. 

A study published in 2019 tested how mindfulness training might affect emotional regulation in people who don't meditate. Researchers subjected participants to negative images and painful temperatures and asked them to either react as they normally would or practice mindfully accepting what was happening. 

Mindful acceptance was linked to a decrease in reported pain and negative emotions. [11]

5. Mindfulness meditation may reduce anxiety and depression. 

A literature review of 47 trials and 3,515 participants found that mindfulness meditation displayed “moderate evidence” of improving anxiety and depression. [12]


9 effective mindfulness exercises to try today

With substantial evidence pointing to the benefits of mindfulness, you might want to give it a try. To get you started, below are some favorite mindfulness exercises from various health care professionals. Test them out to shake off that Covid stress!

Please note that the following is not medical advice. Consult with a physician or other licensed health care professional if you’re experiencing any symptoms of anxiety, depression or overwhelming stress.

1. The big shrug

“If you've ever been stuck in traffic and noticed you were gripping the steering wheel tight, or your shoulders were creeping up to your ears, you know what it's like to have your body react to stress,” says Dr. Nicole Byers, a clinical neuropsychologist in Alberta. “When our bodies react with tension, this signals our brains there is a reason to be stressed, which keeps our minds racing with worry and puts our brains on high alert.” 

Dr. Byers has a favorite mindfulness exercise to ease this pent-up tension.

  1. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Focus on the muscles in your shoulders and neck, where many of us hold stress. Notice how they feel.
  4. Tighten your shoulders, bringing them as close to your ears as possible. Think of it as a big shrug.
  5. Hold this position while counting to five. As you count, notice the feeling in your shoulders. 
  6. Relax and drop your shoulders as low as you can. Focus on how different your shoulders feel now.
  7. Repeat this five times.

“You will likely be surprised how relaxed your shoulders and neck feel after,” Dr. Byers says. 

2. The four questions

Kathryn Ely, a national certified counselor in Alabama, does the following mindfulness routine every morning, which she also recommends to her clients. Before beginning the day, she asks herself these four questions:

  1. How do I want to show up to those I love today?
  2. How do I want to treat myself today?
  3. What do I want to accomplish today?
  4. What actions will it take to accomplish this?

“We feel good about ourselves when we like who we are and we feel a sense of accomplishment,” Ely says. “Clients have found this exercise to help them cut down on worry about the future and things outside of their control.”

3. Thoughts as clouds

Sometimes, our stress is caused by rumination—being unable to let go of a negative thought that distresses us. Other times, it’s the opposite—a thought is so distressing to us that we try to push it out of our mind, only to find that it won’t go away.

So how can you prevent your thoughts from ruling over you? 

“I encourage clients to distinguish between the thoughts and feelings they’re having about a situation and the reality of that situation,” says Jennifer Hamady, a therapist and performance coach.

She recommends the following exercise.

  1. Turn off your phone.
  2. Sit comfortably.
  3. Close your eyes or gaze at a fixed point.
  4. Observe your thoughts as though they were clouds in the sky. “I ask [my clients] to view them as external entities, as clouds passing over a mountain,” explains Hamady, “which helps to reinforce the idea that our thoughts and feelings come and go, largely involuntarily. They are not who we are.”

4. Sensory toolkit

Mindfulness doesn’t always involve sitting with your eyes closed. This fun and interactive mindfulness exercise is recommended by Melissa Wesner, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland.

Create a sensory toolkit, complete with calming items that involve each of your five senses. Need ideas? Wesner offers these suggestions:

  • Sight: A picture of your friend, pet, or child; a meaningful card; an email; an affirmation.
  • Smell: Lavender oil, scented candle, lotion
  • Hearing: Nature sounds, your favorite song
  • Taste: Peppermint gum, your favorite tea, ginger hard candy
  • Touch: Kinetic sand, silly putty, Play-Doh, a smooth stone

“Put each of these items in a bag or small box on your work desk,” Wesner says, “and pull them out to use when you're feeling stressed.”

5. One-minute breathing exercise

“We don't always recognize it, but when we feel internal or external conflict, like that which comes from stress, our body kicks into the ‘fight or flight’ mode,” says Jason Wilkinson, a marriage and family therapist in Oregon. “One of our body’s reactions is to start taking short, shallow breaths. This increases the tension in our body, which is one cause for increased anxiety.” 

His favorite mindful way to combat that reaction is this quick breathing exercise: 

  1. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for two seconds.
  3. Exhale for six seconds.
  4. Repeat five times.

“For something so simple, it is amazing the results that people tend to receive,” he says.

6. Mindful acceptance

Earlier, you learned that a 2019 study found that mindful acceptance decreased pain and negative emotions. Remember, the participants were shown aversive pictures or subjected to painful temperatures and were instructed to accept the negative feelings as they came. 

In the instructions given to them, the participants read this analogy: 

“Suppose there is a bus and you're the driver. On this bus there are a number of passengers. The passengers are your thoughts. Furthermore, assume for the moment that all the passengers riding on your bus are intimidating, and each is yelling directions about where you have to go. "You've got to turn left," "You've got to go right," and so on. The threat they have over you is that if you don't do what they say, they're going to come up front from the back of the bus and start trouble. So you feel as though you must obey these passengers and follow their directions to avoid trouble.”

The instructions said that, just like passengers on a bus, negative feelings and thoughts are temporary. They arrive, and then they leave. Instead of fighting with the passengers (or your thoughts and feelings), accept them as they are. They will eventually go away.

So the next time you’re experiencing something unpleasant—a noisy house while you’re trying to work or a rude email, for example—give this evidence-based exercise a try. Rather than fighting your negative feelings, accept them, recognizing that they are only temporary passengers.

7. Body scan

This next mindfulness exercise comes from Dr. Afrosa Ahmed, a medical doctor and mindfulness coach in the UK. She uses this with her clients, followed by some reflection work.

  1. Lie down with a cushion underneath your head for support. Dr. Ahmed does not recommend doing this in your bed since you might fall asleep. Opt for a couch instead. 
  2. Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
  3. Focus on each part of your body, starting from your feet and working your way up. Continue breathing in and out.
  4. As you scan your body, pay attention to any part that feels tense. Breathe into those.
  5. You’ll end the practice after focusing on your head.
  6. The entire exercise should take 20 minutes. 

“A lot of tension is caught up in our muscles,” explains Dr. Ahmed. “We clench our jaws or feel tense in our lower back, upper shoulders. This practice brings gentle awareness to those areas.”

8. 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise

Have you ever gotten so stressed out about something that you hardly noticed anything around you? Next time that happens, try a grounding exercise to help you return your focus to the present moment and reality. Here’s one recommended by Grace Dowd, a licensed psychotherapist in Texas.

“This exercise helps people get out of their heads and into their environment by focusing on their five senses,” she explains. “It also taps into our parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system.”

  1. Take a few deep breaths and settle into your body.
  2. Name five things you can see.
  3. Four things you can touch.
  4. Three things you can hear.
  5. Two things you can smell.
  6. One thing you can taste.
  7. Continue breathing deeply.
  8. Repeat as necessary.

Allyssa Dziurlaj, a licensed professional counselor in Ohio, also likes to use this mindfulness exercise with her clients, adding, “If a client finds this method at all overwhelming, I recommend that they just focus on finding things they can see. This simplifies the method and can still put them in the present moment. I recommend they take time to notice each object, find things they haven't noticed before and take in all the details they can.”

9. Hobbies

How about just doing something fun as an act of being mindful? According to Stephanie Korpal, a therapist in Missouri, hobbies are a perfectly legitimate way to bring yourself back to the present moment.

“Hobbies are usually mindfulness activities,” she says. “They just haven’t always been called that. I encourage clients to walk through Michael’s, or Hobby Lobby, or any other craft store and see what catches their eye and try it out. Learning about new enjoyable hobbies can be fun, and it all leads to the opportunity for mindfulness.”

Be mindful, be kind, be well

As you can see, mindfulness exercises are a free and simple way to get some relief from Covid stress. As the research has shown, there is evidence that this practice can reduce biological signs of stress, decrease feelings of pain and even help you sleep better.

While mindfulness exercises may be able to provide stress relief during these trying times, they are not a cure-all. Mindfulness won’t make very real problems—a global pandemic, job insecurity, an economic recession—go away. It simply gives you a tool to cope with what you cannot control.

As the National Institute of Health website advises, “Don’t use meditation to replace conventional care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.”

Stress affects everyone differently. Its symptoms can be physical and psychological. So be sure to connect with a doctor or a therapist who can help you if you need it. You might check your organization’s employee assistance program to see what mental health resources it can provide. Another great resource is online therapy since you can attend sessions virtually during the pandemic. BetterHelp and Talkspace are both options I’ve used this year.

These days, we all need a little extra help. Reaching out for assistance is a brave thing to do, and it’s the only way we’ll all get through this pandemic together. In the meantime, let’s look forward to the day when the term “Covid stress” is no longer needed.


--

This article does not provide medical advice. Please consult with a physician or other licensed health care professional if you’re experiencing mental or physical distress. Below are some resources for you:

  • If you’re in danger, call 911.

The following crisis support services are completely free and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week:

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