By: Victoria Albanese
A new decade is a symbol of a hopeful future and a fresh start. In the case of the 2020s, this decade has begun inauspiciously. The tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, the locust swarms in East Africa, increased tensions with Iran, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all occurred within the first three months of 2020. In the past four weeks alone, nearly seventeen million Americans filed for unemployment claims, approximately 1,918,855 people worldwide have been infected with COVID-19, and upwards of 119,588 people have died. If things were normal, people would be able to talk to others face-to-face about their concerns or fears. In this time of social distancing, it is easy for individuals to feel isolated and alone. These negative thoughts of anxiety and fear can manifest and have detrimental effects on mental health. For these reasons, it is imperative that people remain positive during these challenging times. Even though so many horrible things have happened in such a short period of time, society can do nothing more than to persevere and to believe that this will pass. Each generation has had their own set of challenges. The Baby Boomer generation survived World War II and the Vietnam War. Generation X lived through 9/11. We can stay positive during this pandemic through limited COVID-19 information intake, and the practice of gratitude, meditation, and exercise; with these practices, we can get through our generation’s Herculean struggle.
Coronavirus updates have been almost constant for weeks. They have been on every news channel and all over social media. Taha Yasseri, a computational social scientist at the University of Oxford, stated that negative news typically spreads faster, further, and deeper on social networks. As a result, people are often bombarded by negative news and scary headlines much more than they are with wholesome, feel-good stories. This can perpetuate anxiety and contribute to negative, pessimistic thinking. Mindfulness experts such as Tamara Russell from Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at King’s College London suggest that people should gain their information from one or two reliable sources and only check them once or twice daily. I can say from personal experience that this is the best approach. At the beginning of this quarantine, my parents had the news on the television all day because they wanted to stay informed. All the negative information we obtained from the news caused me and the rest of my family to feel very anxious. Now, we obtain most of our knowledge on the pandemic from the frequent updates from Governor Cuomo, and we feel much more at ease. Mindfulness experts also suggest using the internet to engage with things that are uplifting. While there is countless information about the COVID-19 pandemic, there are also websites like Netflix Party and Zoom that allow us to connect with our loved ones while we are physically apart. Jillian Martin, Sarina Tan, and I have had “girls’ nights,” where we watch movies on Netflix and spend time together, even though we cannot see each other in school or spend time together on weekends like we used to. By limiting the amount of negative information we read or watch about COVID-19, we can spend more time focusing on the things that make us happy.
Even though there is much fear and uncertainty during this time, practicing gratitude can bring the focus back on the good things in life. In a study at University of California – Davis, participants who wrote letters of gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives after ten weeks than those who focused on sources of aggravation. Optimism is an important characteristic to have during these difficult times, so by writing or verbally expressing gratitude, we can help ourselves in the long run. In another study at the University of Pennsylvania, participants who wrote and personally delivered a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores; these benefits lasted for about a month. In health class, we were tasked with the same assignment: write and deliver a letter of gratitude to a loved one. I wrote my letter to my mother, and it made me so happy to see how happy the letter made her. It is so easy to express gratitude, and it is a great tool to spread positivity. For grandparents who may be living alone or in a nursing home, they may feel extremely lonely, and a phone call from a family member expressing gratitude could mean the world to this individual. There are also thousands of nurses and doctors who risk their lives every day for our safety, and a letter of gratitude can remind these health professionals that people care about them and are thankful for them. If one is religious, he can say a prayer to thank God or whomever he believes in for his health and safety.
Meditation has the power to quiet minds and reshape thoughts. Buddhists, mindfulness experts, and neuroscientists believe that meditation has the power to reshape the brain. In a study by Sara Lazat, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, a group of participants who had never meditated before participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. At the end of the eight week program, brain scans revealed that several regions of the brain had been thickened including (but not limited to) the left hippocampus and the temporo parietal junction. Both of these structures play a key role in emotions. Lazar concluded that daily meditation can significantly increase the ability to cope with uncomfortable and difficult situations. Even five minute meditations make a difference in handling stressful situations. I found that when I was stressed about online learning or the coronavirus, a five minute deep breathing exercise helped me calm myself and clear my mind. Meditation and mindfulness can help us be positive because it has the power to reshape our negative thoughts into positive ones. Doctor Fadel Zeidan of Wake Forest School of Medicine stated that the brain is rewired with meditation: as feelings and thoughts morph toward a more pleasant outlook, the brain begins to make this way of positive thought more of a “default setting”.
While exercise has obvious benefits for the body, it also has numerous benefits for mental health. Exercise provides a positive focus that lessens other stressors in life. When one exercises, endorphins are released. These endorphins are neurotransmitters which reduce pain and boost pleasure. This leads to a “runner’s high” that promotes a very positive feeling. Also, when one is exercising, he or she has a clear objective: do a certain amount of reps or exercise for a certain amount of time. As one focuses on this goal, his or her worries are no longer given any thought. There are also great benefits from exercising outdoors. Even though we may not be able to meet other people, we can still exercise in the great outdoors. By riding a bike, taking a walk around the neighborhood, or working out in the backyard, the combined Vitamin D exposure and the endorphins greatly lessen the likelihood of depressive symptoms. I have exercised quite a bit during my time at home. I have ridden my bike around the neighborhood several times, I have taken family walks, and I have done at-home workouts. Not only was it a nice change in scenery from my bedroom walls, but it felt amazing to get my blood pumping and to work up a sweat. I felt like I had been productive with my time, and I felt motivated to complete some other project during the rest of the day. Exercise can help us be positive during this time because it chemically changes us to be more positive.
These last few weeks have been stressful, tiring, and rapidly changing. Even though it may feel as if things are spiraling around us, we can ground ourselves by being optimistic and positive. Through limited COVID-19 information intake and the use of the internet for positive purposes, we can make sure we are not bombarding ourselves with negative information. Instead, we can use the countless services the internet provides to connect with our loved ones. Through gratitude, we can make ourselves happier and promote positivity in our communities by thanking people important to us. Through meditation and exercise, we can change our brains to become more positive, and we can alleviate any anxiety we may have. As Charles Swindoll once said, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” We, as civilians, had no control over the outbreak of this pandemic, but we can choose to make the most out of this difficult situation.
Photo courtesy of Selah Neary