Zencasts: Mindfulness during a pandemic with Dr. Mary Freitag

Stressed? Follow along on some guided mindfulness exercises for reducing stress

Two swans on a lake.
Follow along as Dr. Mary Freitag leads mindfulness meditation exercises to help reduce stress, accompanied by scenes and sounds of birds from Wolsfeld Woods Science and Natural Area.
Evan Frost | MPR News
Evan Frost | MPR News

Managing stress can be tricky, even when we’re not facing down a global pandemic. Many of our routines and day-to-day lives have been disrupted, and we’re spending less time with other people than ever.

This can be especially difficult for people who have lost work, have underlying mental health issues or are spending increased amounts of time with children or family under social isolation.

Dr. Mary Freitag has worked as a clinical psychologist for more than two decades, specializing in mindfulness-based therapies. We spoke with her about how to use mindfulness to stay well while living through a pandemic.

Watch the video above for a guided exercise in mindfulness.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What is mindfulness and how does it work? How does it help with managing stress and staying well?

The practice of mindfulness is becoming aware of all that is around you and all that you are experiencing without resistance. We tend to resist that which we don’t like. But mindfulness asks us to be with what is. Not what we think is, not what we hope it might be, but what truly is. And sometimes what is is difficult.

When we are under stress, we are inundated with cortisol, the stress hormone. Our central nervous system is on high alert. And sadly, many of us — if not most of us — are living that way day to day.

Now, we often wake up and are inundated with negative news. We are talking to our employers, or coworkers, or neighbors and friends and hearing one frightful story after another. We are asking to live in a very different way than which we are used to living. And we still have to maintain healthy relationships with our children and partners, get dinner made, pay bills ... All to be started again the next morning.

When we practice mindfulness, we reunite ourselves with our natural state of calm. It reunites us with learning how to be with what is. When we can allow ourselves to be with what is without resistance, we can then participate fully in whatever it is we are engaged in. As a result, we can be effective and do what works by responding healthfully to whatever issues come our way.

This outbreak has caused disruption to many of our routines, how can we incorporate mindfulness into our lives at this time?

A wonderful way to incorporate mindfulness into our lives during this time of change is starting with a simple exercise of becoming aware of our breath.

One of the gifts that we have that is constant during this time of change is our breath. Throughout the many disruptions of our routines, we can set time aside to be reminded that our breath grounds us.

For example, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk who brought mindfulness to the United States, invites us to follow the practice of setting a mindfulness bell every 30 minutes. At that time, you are to pause and breathe in and out three times. This brings our attention, our awareness, to our breath and to what is. This practice can reunite us with our ability to be present when we can so easily be hijacked by emotions of distress and anxiety.

With schools out and parents working from home, families are together more than ever. How can families, couples, or people living together practice this, or even just have some more patience with each other?

This is an interesting, I’m going to say gift, that this pandemic has brought us. I have had a variety of responses working with my patients. Some have reported gratitude as they never would have been able to share this time together had social distancing not been enforced. That said, this new time together might begin to feel overwhelming, especially if you are one who is more introverted and energized by going within or having some alone time.

It’s important to schedule your day so that you can share time together, reap the benefits of sharing at least one meal a day and give some predictable structure in what feels like an unpredictable world right now. Also schedule time for everyone’s own self-time.

This is a wonderful opportunity to practice mindfulness together. So if you have a mindfulness bell, the entire family can respond to stop in that moment, breathe three full breaths, become aware of the present moment, and return to what you were doing with a greater sense of awareness and participation in what is.

This in itself can provide us with more patience for one another. It also can enhance self compassion — a very important emotion to maintain during this challenging time.

One of the biggest things we’re all getting used to is social distancing. For people who get their energy from spending time with others, what can you do to feel more connected and manage feelings of isolation and loneliness?

We need to take care of ourselves physically, and do that with social distancing.

Social distancing indeed is an adjustment for those who are more extroverted in nature. To take care of ourselves emotionally and mentally we have to think outside the box.

Many psychologists and physicians agree that it’s very important that you talk to one or two people every day. There are many avenues to take besides the telephone. In particular, online connecting is becoming more creative.

Using apps like FaceTime and Zoom allow you to engage in more “social“ activities now that are being fostered by Facebook, Meetup.com or Next Door social networking.

I am impressed with the number of activities that they are coming up with, everything from sharing board games, to book clubs, to cooking classes.

Remember that faith communities and 12-step support groups are also available online. Check your local parishes and programs. People are doing their best to reach out with and for one another.

All of us are probably worried about someone, from our elderly relatives to a friend who works in health care and even ourselves, how can we process these worries without letting them take over our lives?

We have to remember that we are all in this together. If we are worried, it’s likely we’re looking too far into the future. We have to take hold of our mind to bring it back to the present moment. We have to focus on what we can do and what we are doing. Is there a loving message we can send? A phone conversation to share? A story to be told?

The elderly in particular can benefit a great deal from simply being heard. If you can go online to see each other face to face, all the better. But even if it’s just over the phone, be curious about their history. Learn from them. Let them tell their story. Let this be a time where you can join together in love. Let this be your present moment. Don’t write the conclusion out ahead of time.

For people with preexisting or underlying mental illness, how can they or their friends and family help them manage during this time of heightened stress?

For those with preexisting medical concerns or underlying mental illness, their experience will be even more heightened than the rest of ours. It really depends on what the issue is, but it’s important for us to remember That the feelings are the same. It’s important for them to know that they belong. It’s important that they be heard. Don’t be afraid of their mental illness. Be mindful of their needs, listen openly and reassure that we are in this together. Reach out.

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