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Isolation, mental health and meditation in times of Covid-19

To stop the new coronavirus from spreading, many countries have gone from social distancing to full-on lockdowns. The focus of the whole world is on protecting us from the new virus. In the weeks and months to come, Covid19 will not remain a medical issue. We will increasingly have to face the effects on the economic situation, unemployment, impacts on mental health, social changes, but also other aspects of physical health such as lack of exercise.

How can we keep ourselves safe and sane during a pandemic? “Unprecedented” has become a word that seems to appear in every other sentence. Never before has the world been locked down like this, and we don’t know how things will develop from here. There is no guidebook we can rely on, so we need to learn from other contexts to deal with this situation as well as possible.

My own research is on meditation, especially on how mental health problems can develop or worsen through meditation practices and retreats. This might at first glance not be relevant for a pandemic, yet there are some important links that are worth looking at—also for those who do not meditate.

Meditators often go on retreats and thereby voluntarily self-isolate. Monks sometimes live in caves for many years. There are obviously huge differences between meditation retreats and enforced lockdowns and self-isolations. Yet we can nevertheless learn some important things from comparing the two.

Both forms of isolation involve a decline in social contact. In meditation retreats, which vary in length, practitioners often refrain from social media and phone calls, as well as from looking people in the eyes if they are practising silence. In my research, many reported that this can be unsettling, as it can bring up fears of disconnection and rejection.

What effects do lockdowns have on people regarding the lack of social contact? This varies greatly from person to person, depending on if they live with somebody, how the relationship to the people is they live with, if they are prepared to and used to using social media, if they have a well-established social network, if they are more extrovert or introvert, if they are still working, etc. Some people use the time of isolation to reconnect with people from further away and enjoy virtual get-togethers. Others, whose social contacts consisted of the people who they met while doing activities without regularly communicating with them via phone or by meeting up one on one might find themselves completely alone. Some feel depression creeping in on them and feel utterly disconnected, others are pleased about having more time for themselves. Sometimes we can make changes by reaching out to others and trying to connect virtually, at other times we might be able to change our mind-set and use our alone-time in a positive way, but sometimes we are stuck with sadness, fear and anxious insecurities.

Being alone and being lonely are two different things. This difference partly comes about by choice—whether we choose to be on our own or whether we are forced to be— and partly by how we are connected to our self. Hannah Arendt argues that when we experience loneliness, we are disconnected and feel deserted, but when we are in solitude, we are connected to our self, which is in dialogue with itself. The important question, therefore, is how we can find ways to remain connected: To ourselves, to others, to our tasks or passions, or to whatever else could be of importance to us.

When people begin and end meditation retreats, they often go through struggles around adjustment. Many experience alienation from everyday life. The role of their self might change, which can be difficult to come to terms with. Going into and out of isolation can create similar effects. Creating new and healthy routines as well as exploring one’s concepts of self and the roles we take on can help.

Something that has a huge impact during self-isolation, as well as meditation retreats, is how we deal with our emotions and thoughts. This can be really difficult. When we become still and the busyness of our usual life cedes, our emotions and thoughts can more easily come to the surface. In this time of the pandemic, when people all full of anxieties, fear and insecurity about their health and their financial situation, and when people are grieving the loss of normalcy, activities and people, the emotions that rise up can be overwhelming. Some people might develop problematic thoughts and habits to deal with this, ranging from circling deeper into anxious or depressive thoughts to addictive behaviour, or getting lost in magical thinking such as believing that we are punished by a higher power and that if we do certain things we will be fine, or obsessively cleaning their hands and surfaces.

A lot of mental health advice recommends meditation and mindfulness to learn to deal better with these emotions and thoughts. Through these practices, people learn to be aware of their emotions and thoughts, to be able to witness what is happening and to respond to them skilfully, rather than reacting unconsciously. If we have learned to do this, it can help to give us stability in the face of adversity.

However, if we begin to practice while we experience difficulties, mindfulness and other meditation approaches are not always safe for us. Recent research has looked into the risk of retraumatization through mindfulness. When memories of trauma or other difficult emotions and thoughts rise up through mindfulness, it is possible to either become overwhelmed and stressed because our brain goes into a fight or flight mode, which leads to us becoming more distressed and unable to calm down, or to enter into the opposite mode and shut down, unable to access our emotions and go numb. Both reactions will not enable us to process and integrate what is going on, and we might be left feeling worse than before. If we want to work skilfully with difficult emotions and memories, the first step is to establish stability. Only when we remain in the so-called “Window of Tolerance”, which lies in between the two problematic states I just described, are we able to be properly aware and rational enough not to be carried away or avoid looking at what is going on. Trauma-sensitive mindfulness uses a wide range of techniques to help practitioners to stay within this window of tolerance. If you have a history of trauma or struggle with strong emotions, it can be necessary to be helped by a therapist to be able to learn to meditate without provoking more difficulties.

Some of the problems that rise up in us might have been around for a while. When we are still or meditate, these unhealed parts of us might come to the surface, and are then compounded with all the new anxieties, fears and worries. Our window of tolerance might shrink, and it can become difficult to think rational about what is going on. Having support can be crucial in this time. Therapists are currently preparing to offer more and more services online, and helplines such as Samaritans cannot offer therapy but at least an open ear to those who struggle.

My meditation research has shown there are times that are better than others to open ourselves up to our inner difficulties. Inner defences are built up for a reason: to protect us. If we are well, it makes sense to let go of them in order to heal and integrate all aspects of ourselves and become whole. Yet sometimes, going deeper into that which is difficult and which is buried inside us can lead to more difficulties. This is particularly true if we are feeling unstable, alone or in a situation of uncertainty. In such cases, focusing on coping rather than healing as a first step is important. When therapists work with traumatized clients, for example, the first step is always to establish stability and a feeling of safety, before any attempts are undertaken that look at what happened and that try to integrate these experiences. If we are without therapeutic help but need to find stability and safety, we can do this by establishing healthy routines and finding positive ways to spend our time if we are stuck without much to do. It will be good to remember activities we have enjoyed in the past and go back to them, and use any other resources that feel right for us: Staying as active as possible and keeping our mind stimulated, for example through work and creative projects, exercise, reading, and relaxation.

In both meditation as well as self-isolation, the act of sitting still itself can lead to problems. If people are less mobile, they use less energy, which can change one’s appetite and sleep patterns. It can also lead to less stimulation of one’s senses, which can lead to changed experiences of one’s body, of the self or the world around them. If we are using our body less, this can make us be more “in our heads.” Making sure that we get enough exercise, even if we are stuck in the house, can be crucial. This is also true for a good diet and enough water, which is easily forgotten.

The number of people who try meditation is currently increasing, judging by the spike in downloads and consumer interest that meditation apps providers report.[1] People have more time at home, mental health advice often lists meditation, mindfulness and breathing techniques to help with difficulties, and many meditation apps offer free memberships at the moment. Also, research has shown that people often feel drawn to meditation in difficult times and during and after periods of change and crises. As I said before, mindfulness and meditation can indeed help, but it’s important to see if the time is right. Apps don’t offer the same support and help in times of distress that communities and teachers can. Teachers can also help to avoid misunderstandings of concepts, techniques and ideas, and can provide more context as well as personalize the meditation techniques.

My research has shown that some meditation practices are particularly dangerous, and have in extreme cases led practitioners to develop psychoses and other serious psychological difficulties. Such developments are most likely to happen when practitioners meditate too intensely in terms of length and frequency, or when they use techniques that include intense breath work or work with energy movement in the body. These techniques often promise to have faster effects in helping us to heal or awaken, but they also carry a high risk. Many of these techniques used to be secret and were only shared once the practitioner had reached a certain level. Yet, nowadays, we can find some of these techniques on YouTube without being given any information that they can potentially have negative effects on our wellbeing. Regarding intensity of practice, some recent meditation blogs encourage practitioners to go on a private retreat during lockdown, and to reduce one’s online time, busyness and distraction. This can potentially be positive, particularly if we have been practising for a while, but it can also cut us off too much in a time when we need connection.

To decide if meditation is right for us during a time of isolation, we need to check whether we have psychological problems, as this can make it more likely that we become overwhelmed or misunderstand certain practices and ideas. In such cases it might be better to be supported by a therapist or at least a good teacher while learning to meditate. Never push or strive and be unkind to yourself during meditation practice, as this is often one of the reasons why people develop problems. Practising self-compassion is of utmost importance. Also, recent research has shown that meditating while we’re upset can reinforce negative patterns. If meditation doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Some discomfort is normal, which will arise when we are getting used to sitting still, or when we are with our thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has wrongly been sold as just making us relaxed or happy. However, when we meditate on our own and without support, we need to be careful about not staying within our window of tolerance. Be aware of what is going on for you, tune into your body and mind about if this is feeling right or not. If you are in doubt, it will be better to get qualified support before you continue.

When meditators do encounter problems, the strategy they reported in my research as the most helpful is to ground themselves. This includes focusing on feeling the ground under our feet, but also to use one’s body more (for example through exercise, gardening etc.). Many meditation teachers and traditional advice also warns not to meditate for longer stretches in such times. One of them told me that we need to ask ourselves if we still feel physically, mentally, emotionally and socially grounded and connected and to find ways to deepen such connection if we are out of balance.

These strategies can also be of huge value to non-meditating people in isolation: Ask yourself if you’re connected to the different parts of yourself, to the world and to others and find a way to balance the different areas. Use your body through exercise and work in your house and garden, use your mind by learning new things or be creative, don’t avoid feeling your emotions, and connect with people from different areas of your life through phone, video calls, or emails.

Meditators work with awareness, insight and compassion. All three are crucial to the wellbeing of us all. We need to stay aware and mindful of what we are doing and feeling, which will help us to appreciate the moment and to find joy in small things. We need to use insight and discernment in how you use and react media, and to understand whether we are catastrophizing and generalizing rather than having a more differentiated view. And most importantly: We need to keep our heart open and compassionate—not only for others, but also for ourselves. Let’s not beat ourselves up for feeling the way we do, or finding things hard—instead, let us open our heart to all these hurting parts of ourselves and allow ourselves to grieve.

When we are able to do these things, our isolation can become a fruitful time. There is a potential in this time of isolation that we could tap into: a chance for creativity, for finding new ways to live or even to work, for creating new habits that are good for us, for clearing up our space, for connecting with people from long ago, and for having time for ourselves that we might have neglected for so long. Just like meditation retreats, isolation can mean hardship as well as potential for wonderful things. Let’s be mindful, insightful and full of compassion for others and ourselves to avoid the pitfalls, keep us safe and to make the best of this time possible.

NOTE: A shortened and referenced version of this post has been published here:

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