Body & Mind

Body & Mind

4 tips for living through difficult times

April 14, 2020
Stressful life events

At the time this article is written, half of the United States is in “shelter in place” where the government strongly encourages you to stay home so we can all help flatten the COVID-19 curve.  With that said, many of the places that encourage gathering have been closed – restaurants, bars, beauty salons, and even schools.  It also means that many of those workers do not have a job while we are in shelter-in-place.  The country is quickly slipping into an economic decline. 

I am writing this article fully understand that I am in a very fortunate situation – my work is only somewhat affected by the current global crisis, my family’s health is in tip-top shape, we have some protective gears at home for when we go run essential errands.  So, I’m writing this with a humble heart and the best intention. Having gone through 2 dot com crashes and currently going through this global crisis, I now have grown just a bit wiser, a bit more introspective and accepting of my current circumstances despite how uncomfortable it feels.  So, when I share these 4 tips, it’s not because I know more than anyone.  Those are the tips that are helping me adjust to this new reality while fighting the temptation to completely panic.  Here we go:

1.) Create your own ritual and routine

I am someone with the same schedule pretty much every day of the week.  When I’m in San Francisco climbing with my climbing partner, I know it’s Wednesday.  On the nights when I have to pack before going to bed, it’s Sunday and Tuesday (I had to leave the house at around 5:30 am to catch the 6:22 train to get to work by 8:40 am).  Routines ground me and calm me.  Needless to say, when my routine is disrupted, every day feels the same and I see myself slipping into a mild depression, losing track of what day of the week it is. 

When I was in my early twenties, I was diagnosed with depression.  I was on medications with the craziest side effects to the point I felt powerless and even more depressed.  So, a friend of mine suggested that I plan out my day in detail, down to 15 minutes increment.  Her rationale was – when we are going through a crisis, we feel that our circumstances control our lives, leaving us powerless.  When we live by the schedule we create for ourselves, it tricks our brain into believing that we do have control over our lives.  Although I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate that advice, that is exactly how I live my life now – I plan what I want to accomplish daily the day before.  I decide if I’ll do yoga in the morning or my high-intensity workout; I set aside time to write my blog before work.  I set aside time for a bike ride after work.  Next, I’ll begin to plan my meals.

In retrospect, that advice not only saved my life then, but it continues to save my life to this day.  It’s advice as such serves the cornerstone we need to continue to rebuild our lives.

2.) Keep yourself healthy physically

In the absence of a routine schedule, it’s easy to slip into a lazy mode, sitting all day working from home, and sit all night watching Netflix.  We’ll probably be fine for the first week, but after a week, you will begin to lose muscle mass, especially around your lower back, which makes you are more prone to back injuries even when you’re not doing anything! 

I’m not suggesting to order heavyweight sets and start lifting weights at home, but I am suggesting taking online exercise classes or even go on a mental health bike ride/walk.  In times of a national crisis, we should refrain from intense workouts that might result in any physical injury mainly because the hospitals are already overburdened.  However, many of the gyms have begun to offer online classes during the same time as their regular classes; many others are offering them for free.  You can easily find those classes on YouTube.  For me, I use the Down Dog app for my in-home Yoga and Hight Intensity Workout sessions.  There’s an annual fee to it but you can try it for free for the first month.  Each of those apps only cost about 20 USD/year. What I like about that app is that it randomizes your workout, so each day’s workout is different.  You can also select intensity and focused areas.

Here’s a link to the app: https://www.downdogapp.com/

3.) Keep yourself healthy mentally

There are two mental exercises I practice almost daily: 1.) Meditation 2.) Limit my news time. 

First, we are inundated with news about the impending recession and the potential cyclical nature of this COVID-19 virus.  Personally, I have the proclivity to go into a full panic mode. There’s a saying in the meditation community that the feeling of regret comes from living in the past and anxiety comes from living in the future.  The problem with living in the future is that it creates unnecessary stress, which will impact our health negatively.  The way I think about it is – many of us are already paying a hefty price for this virus now, I don’t have to reap its effect again down the path.

The concept of meditation sounds intimating to many, especially to those with a crazily active monkey mind.  I used to believe that meditation is for those who are calm and zen, and it’s impossible for someone like me to achieve.  In retrospect, that belief is as ludicrous as believing that only people who are physically fit should workout in the gym.  Yet many of us think that way.

As someone with a very active monkey brain, it has taken me years to develop the habit of meditating daily, even if it’s for 5 minutes.  Nowadays, there are many free apps out there that can spur you on easily. An app I have been using for years is Insight Timer (https://insighttimer.com/).  If you are a meditation practitioner and hope to up-level your meditation practice, I am reading this book called “The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness,” by John Yates, Mathew Immergut and Jeremy Graves.  In summary, this book breaks down the different levels of meditation and how to achieve the next level of your practice. 

Second, since my partner is, in my opinion, overly diligent in following the news, I have to tell him that I can only handle a dose of twice-a-day news summary.  It does mean that he has to put on his headphones while watching any sort of news, whether it be MSNBC or news adjacent YouTube channels.  At the same time, I also commended him for his diligence. Because of him, we have been preparing for this crisis since mid-February and have slowly implemented social distancing since mid-February. 

If you are deep into the YouTube rabbit hole, you can feed into thousands of hours of videos about this virus and experts’ opinions of the stock market parallels it with the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919.  While I believe that we are descending into that reality, I cannot control how it will spin out of control.  But I can control my mind and how I react to it. Therefore, I have to be diligent in protecting my mind.  If you live with someone who keeps telling you that the sky is falling, find a spot in your house that is your sanctuary and communicate your boundary with the other person.

4.) Be disciplined but be kind to yourself at the same time

I was thinking of splitting this into two points, but after all the tips I’ve shared so far, I simply don’t feel right about dedicating one more point on the idea of discipline without balancing it with being kind to yourself. 

I firmly believe that a time like this self-discipline is incredibly important. After sitting in the same seat for 8-10 hours, the last thing I want is to go on a bike ride, going on the same route for the 5th day in a row.  I really don’t. I want to pour myself a glass of wine and indulge in my series of YouTube cooking clips.  OR instead of getting out of bed the moment I wake up to meditate and practice yoga, I really want to just stay in bed longer.  I mean…I don’t have to catch a train to get to work.  Why not just roll out of bed and straight to my workstation?  The reason that’s not a good idea is that it’s not necessarily good for my mental and physical health. 

We are all living in the Groundhog Day situation.  By forcing ourselves to repeat our routine daily just because it’s good for us can only make this experience worse. So, we should be kind to ourselves in a time like this.  At the same time, I am aware that this term is super vague – what does it really mean by being kind to yourself?

This is what I usually do – delay the juxtaposing feeling of doing the right thing (what my mind tells me) and doing what I’m tempted to do (what my heart tells me.) I don’t have to act on either one of them, nor do I have to convince myself to do either one of them at the moment. Instead, I close my eyes and place my hand on my chest.  Then focus on my breathing.  When I breathe in, feel the sensation of the rising chest on my hand; when I breathe out, feel the sensation of the lowering chest on my hand.  Repeat for about 2-3 minutes.  At the end of the exercise, I’ll reconsider what I really need, not what my monkey brain/heart tells me.  You may end up sleeping in a little bit. Who cares?  In the end, you know you are doing it because your body needs it and not because you are caving into an impulse.

This is a strange time for many, and I don’t believe that any of us have all the tips in the world to deal with what we’re going through right now.  But one thing I firmly believe – we are resilient.  The new experiences we are gaining right now will only help us get ready for the future. 

Thank you for reading my blog.  Please share in the comment below how you are dealing with this new reality.