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Calming the Pandemic Mind: Answers to Webinar Questions

Find peace and happiness

Ivy League trained and board-certified psychiatry specialist Alexander P. Miano, MD, joined the Boca Grande Health Clinic and the Boca Grande Health Foundation on March 4 for a Grande Rounds presentation on recognizing stressors, learning ways to eliminate risk factors and discovering how to cope with pandemic-induced stress.

As a follow-up to the discussion, Dr. Miano responds below to questions submitted prior to and during the webinar. View the webinar, Shielding Stress in the Age of COVID-19.

What age groups have been affected the most in coping with changes brought by COVID-19?

Each generation has been affected in its own way and is coping in its own particular fashion.  The common denominator, the “ultra-stressor” for all has been the abrupt isolation called for in battling the pandemic. Any individual in any age group can be and has been affected by that.   However, our Seniors population is historically more vulnerable to this particular stressor. As a group, our Seniors suffer loneliness, isolation, and solitude more so than any other age group.  It is this age group that has been called upon to cope the most because of the nature and global needs of this particular population.

What are one or two things I could be doing to reduce my stress?

There are a number of ways to reduce stress:  

  1. Staying connected and connecting with people has been among the most useful. Human connection is of primary importance.
  2. The other important tool is to stay in the moment, recognizing that is all we can change.  The past cannot be changed and must learn to tolerate/accept and perhaps forgive. The future is not at hand and we can only speculate.

Can you give me some practical advice or tools to learn or practice mindfulness or meditation? 

Learning to actively still your mind takes a little time and effort.  Mindfulness brings you in the moment; makes you aware of the now. It distracts the brain from all the thoughts that can cause/activate anxiety, tension. 

Prepare yourself and your place

  1. Set you timer for 20 minutes.
  2. Sit/lie down in a comfortable position, eyes closed in a quiet environment.
  3. Place hands with palms up, interlock your fingers and relax your hands on your lap.  
  4. Pay active attention to your breathing: slow deeper in breaths and slow out breaths.

Begin

  1. Start Your Timer.
  2. Actively focus on the air going in and out of your body.
  3. If your thoughts wander, bring them back to the breaths. 
  4. Don’t get discouraged if it does not feel like it’s initially doing much. Like a new language, give yourself time and practice.

Can stressors affect your sleep patterns? What about your weight? 

Assuming that stressors are causing significant stress, absolutely yes on both counts. Looking at the physiological/medical side of stress, it is experienced as a result of the activation of our innate fight-or-flight system, which has been embedded in our genes at least since our invertebrate ancestors came into the picture. Adrenaline, among other secretions of the brain/body network, keeps us on our toes, with heart pumping and brain firing, assuring we are aware, focused, awake and ready to pounce the pray or flee the scene. Chronically activated, it also can cause prolonged anxiety and panic attacks.   Stressors – real or perceived – can activate the fight-or-flight response, which in turn will interfere with the calm, quiet, peace and tranquility needed to fall and stay asleep. Cortisol is also synthesized and secreted during stressful situations. It is a powerful chemical that can slowly cause an increase in our body weight in a number of ways. 

Can stressors cause long-term damage?  

Chronic stress is a risk factor for cardiovascular ailments (high blood pressure, chest pain/heart attacks, strokes, etc.), gastrointestinal difficulties (irritable bowel syndrome, gastric ulcers), skin rashes, mental health challenges, chronic insomnia (which in itself is quite problematic) and more. The longer stress is present, the higher the risk factor.

How has weather played into stressors especially in the colder parts of the country? 

It seems it has been a mixed blessing. Generally, in larger cities, frigid weather makes it easier for people to stay home. However, this opens up more opportunity for proximity contamination, cabin fever, family quarrels and disagreements and immobility, among others.    The cold-loving sports crowd, on the other hand, has had a blast dissipating stress while having plenty of fun outside on the slopes and slaloms, with more than adequate distancing.

I used to volunteer, and it gave me a lot of happiness.  What are suggestions on how I can serve my community without risk?

Volunteering embraces a great many positives in providing happiness and a feeling of satisfaction all around. It is quite the giver/provider of psychological wellbeing. Along with proper use of masks, face shields, gloves, and hand washing, getting the vaccine will seriously decrease chances of transmission/contamination. Safely carried out, I wholeheartedly endorse it.

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