Micah Bucey is surprised by how well guided meditations work over Zoom. Bucey, an associate minister at New York’s Judson Memorial Church, usually leads in-person meditations once a week. But since the coronavirus outbreak, Bucey’s gone digital. “I actually am quite taken by how intimate Zoom feels,” says Bucey, who now leads about 30 participants through guided breathing and meditation every day. “I feel a little bit more vulnerable as a facilitator, because people are actually sitting in front of a screen and my face is on that screen, not 20 feet away in a room.”
Bucey’s is one of dozens of online offerings meant to help Americans handle the stress of Covid-19. Sure, we had worries and anxiety before. But the era of coronavirus has brought with it a whole new set of fears about running out of food, masks, and ventilators, plus escalating economic woes and concerns about the well-being of loved ones. To help people cope, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is offering an online Morning MeditOcean, during which jellyfish soothingly undulate across the screen. Chefs are creating quarantine cooking shows, and #quarantinebaking has become so popular that Amazon is sold out of popular brands of flour and chocolate chips.
But these are more than desperate attempts at self-soothing. It turns out that homekeeping and self-care activities like meditating, cooking, cleaning, and even just stocking the pantry can help stop cycles of anxiety and depression by changing how the human brain self-regulates. Here’s why stress-baking or cleaning feels so good, neurologically speaking.
When humans perceive a threat or stressor, our amygdala—a small region of the brain associated with facilitating fear, anxiety, and emotion—jumps into gear and becomes more active. This activation can have physical consequences, too. Sometimes people who are anxious report feeling short of breath or have an increased heart rate. That’s because the amygdala is also involved in regulating our blood pressure, breathing, and heart. So when the amygdala gets going, those systems do too.
But while that part of the brain is ramping up activity, the prefrontal cortex, which normally regulates emotions, is getting deactivated and working less. So while our emotions and the systems associated with them are getting triggered, the systems that keep them in check are slowing down.
From an evolutionary perspective, this anxiety-response system was vital. “If you’re not afraid of tigers, you’re not going to last very long,” says Fadel Zeidan, associate director of the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness. Zeidan says that while these systems are crucial in certain contexts, like, say, a global pandemic, they can become destructive. “The media is overwhelming. We’re in friggin’ lockdown,” he says.
Some people can process those environmental stressors pretty well, but for other people, these triggers cause their amygdalas to run wild. Their brains can become fixated, ruminating on worrying thoughts, without the prefrontal cortex regulating those intense feelings. Those brains need a reset: a way to get the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain regulating that fear response.
Mindful meditation sessions like the one Bucey leads, which teach participants to focus on their breathing or on specific words or actions, can be one way of getting back to normal brain regulation. As meditators focus on their breathing, they train their brains to stop ruminating on stressful thoughts. If their focus starts to shift to worries, practitioners are taught to notice those thoughts, then recenter their focus on their breath. “You’re stabilizing the mind by enhancing cognitive control, and then you’re also teaching yourself how to self-regulate emotions,” says Zeidan, who studies mindful meditation. “And that’s critical.” The more the brain is trained to focus, the better it becomes at this task.
This is different than just sitting and breathing for a while, which will also feel nice and relaxing. Zeidan’s studies show that while simply breathing will slow the body’s respiratory rate, it won’t change any mechanisms in the brain. Mindful meditation can. Zeidan used an MRI machine to examine meditators’ brains before and after meditating. Even after one session, he found that meditation reduced subjects’ anxiety by reactivating the prefrontal cortex and other higher brain areas that regulate emotions, while deactivating the amygdala and other regions that facilitate those emotions.
“What we see is that mindfulness can dramatically reduce anxiety and stress after just one 20 minute session, even if you’ve never meditated before,” he says. That nice feeling won’t last forever, but it’s a start. The more meditation people do, studies show, the more effective it is. Eventually, with regular meditation, Zeidan says people can lower their baseline anxiety. But it takes time. He compares learning mindfulness to making an omelet: The recipe isn’t that complicated, but it takes years of practice to do it perfectly.
Mindful meditation is a great way to start turning those cognitive mechanisms around, “but you can’t spend the whole day meditating,” says Jacqueline Gollan, a clinical therapist and professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University. Gollan includes meditation in a larger therapeutic strategy called behavioral activation that employs pleasurable activities as a way to motivate people. The promise of doing something enjoyable as a reward pushes patients to tackle the stressful but necessary things they have to do, like going to work or, during a pandemic, reading the news.
Activities like taking a bike ride or stress-baking a pan of cookies give people a sense of accomplishment and control. While they’re exercising or cooking, they can focus on the smaller tasks at hand and take a break from stressors like social media or the news. Gollan says these activities don’t have to be big projects. Just opening the window and enjoying the breeze, or taking a break with a good cup of coffee, count too.
Studies suggest that behavioral activation can help reregulate brain activity much the way mindful meditation does, by engaging the prefrontal cortex. “In a lot of ways, behavior is the method of changing brain function,” says Gollan.
Many people already find repetitive chores like washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, or chopping vegetables to be a kind of meditative practice, their own way of quieting the mind. Culinary therapies for grief and anxiety have started appearing across the country, and some evidence is emerging that it does work, though the neuroscience is still not well examined. Julie Ohana runs a practice called Culinary Art Therapy, where she uses cooking to help clients improve communication, manage stress, and improve self-esteem. She wasn’t at all surprised to recently find that her local grocery store in Michigan was completely out of flour and yeast. “The idea of cooking, and baking in particular, really requires a certain level of mindfulness, of putting aside everything else that’s going on around you and being present in the moment,” Ohana says.
Right now, being forced to focus on kneading, mixing, and measuring is particularly important. And there’s a certain practicality to this kind of mindful task. “We all need to eat,” Ohana says. “Why not really put your all into that dish you’re cooking and really get everything out of it that you can?”
Gollan agrees, though she thinks there is another impulse behind #quarantinebaking: avoidance. All those cooking projects and Marie Kondo-inspired clean-outs can also be procrastination schemes that people use to put off doing things they don’t want to, like keeping up with email or checking the latest Covid-19 developments. Avoidance patterns can start off harmlessly, like watching a little TV, cooking a nice dinner, or having a beer to relax. But those behaviors can devolve into binge watching or over-indulging.
Feeling good is important, but people can’t just focus on the things they want to do. “The world doesn’t work like that all the time,” Gollan says. Gollan says behavioral activation is about achieving balance and getting people to use those moments of enjoyment as motivation to follow the structure they need, like using an end-of-day baking project as a reward for doing the laundry, or holding off on an extra round of videogames until after a work call is finished.
For Micah Bucey, his morning Zoom meditation has become more than a moment to breathe. Now, it’s a way to structure the day: something he has to get up for each morning. It’s also a forum, where he makes time for people to talk about their fears and to share practical solutions and resources. It’s a way to feel empowered during a scary time. “I meditate and I pray not because I think it's affecting some god out there,” he says. “I meditate and pray because I know it will have an effect on me. It gives me a reminder that I have the tools to deal with that anxiety, to deal with that fear, in different ways.”
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