As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched into its fifth month in July, Joanne DeSanto Iennaco, ’05 MPhil, ’09 PhD, APRN, PMHNP-BC knew it was time to update her view of the problem. Drawing on her clinical and faculty experience as a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner and her second lens as an epidemiologist, Iennaco reframed the problem not as a temporary crisis, but as a new normal. And that change called for a different mental health strategy.
“During the different periods of the pandemic we have to constantly readjust how we structure our lives to improve our health and mental health. We need to ask ourselves ‘How does my routine change? What are my support systems and how can I adapt them? Are there ways I can recreate water cooler talk or the social interactions that are part of my normal life?’”
Iennaco points out that attitudes about pre-pandemic life have shifted drastically during periods of COVID-19 lockdown. Perhaps the biggest example is the process of getting to work.
“We don’t have commuting right now,” she said. “Commuting actually helps prepare us for the workday, but it’s very different now because you are immediately immersed in work. Perhaps there are ways to make the space to clear your mind and identify the priorities you will focus on today. A short walk, listening to music or a mindful exercise may be just the thing to help you focus and prepare for the day.”
Living with such high levels of change and uncertainty can be a tough challenge, Iennaco says, but mindfulness practices can help calm your body’s response to danger.
“We can take note of things and then let them flow away from us,” she said. “We are not becoming them, we are separate from them.”
Iennaco recommends cutting down on stimulation like scrolling through social media feeds and voraciously consuming the news. A pulled back approach can help calm the body’s alarm structure.
“Our brains are developed to go to the negative: your limbic system sounds the alarm and alerts you to danger,” Iennaco said. “Worrying about impending threats is how your brain is programmed. But we need to be mindful that not everything is a threat. Right now we need to take actions to bolster ourselves.”
At a time when brains can be racing a mile a minute to juggle work demands, childcare challenges, and health risk assessments, Iennaco shares several tips for quieting your mind. Timing is important.
“Evening hours are not our best problem-solving times,” she said. “It’s better to make a plan in the early part of the day and identify one small step toward progress.” Iennaco advises keeping a notebook next to your bed so that you can write down what’s bothering you and then pick it up the next day when you’re refreshed. This can help the issue leave your mind and help the brain focus on sleep instead of a running rumination.
You can also consider altering a few daily habits. For example, if you usually take an afternoon walk and listen to an audio book, try turning off the background noise and just being present in the moment, observing your environment.
Iennaco cautions against answering the siren song of constant productivity. “When we have free time we’re usually thinking ‘What should I be doing?’ Part of quieting our minds is that sometimes we shouldn’t be doing anything.”
Mindfulness strategies aren’t just for the general public, but can be immense benefit to healthcare providers, Iennaco says. “Nurses and healthcare workers are always at risk of secondary trauma, and they tend to have much higher rates of PTSD because those providers see traumatized patients every day. Using mindfulness and relaxation skills to clear your mind and release tension are important. Discussing the difficult patient care experiences we are part of daily with our team members helps to process the work we do.”
Acknowledging that the current moment is a hard time that might include setbacks along the way, Iennaco cautions against despair. “As we live through the next cycle of the pandemic, what we need to remember is that we have the experience of having worked through it once. Maybe it went well or not so well, but we have the experience to know better where to start next time. We can use what we’ve learned to help ourselves feel safe and plan for the future.”
Try one of Dr. Iennaco’s guided meditation exercises by visiting the Jo Iennaco YouTube channel or her blog, Quieting Minds, at quietingminds.blogspot.com.