Micah Bucey is surprised by how well guided meditations work over Zoom. Bucey, an associate minister at New York’s Judson Memorial Church, usually leads in-person meditations once a week. But since the coronavirus outbreak, Bucey’s gone digital. “I actually am quite taken by how intimate Zoom feels,” says Bucey, who now leads about 30 participants through guided breathing and meditation every day. “I feel a little bit more vulnerable as a facilitator, because people are actually sitting in front of a screen and my face is on that screen, not 20 feet away in a room.”
Bucey’s is one of dozens of online offerings meant to help Americans handle the stress of Covid-19. Sure, we had worries and anxiety before. But the era of coronavirus has brought with it a whole new set of fears about running out of food, masks, and ventilators, plus escalating economic woes and concerns about the well-being of loved ones. To help people cope, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is offering an online Morning MeditOcean, during which jellyfish soothingly undulate across the screen. Chefs are creating quarantine cooking shows, and #quarantinebaking has become so popular that Amazon is sold out of popular brands of flour and chocolate chips.
But these are more than desperate attempts at self-soothing. It turns out that homekeeping and self-care activities like meditating, cooking, cleaning, and even just stocking the pantry can help stop cycles of anxiety and depression by changing how the human brain self-regulates. Here’s why stress-baking or cleaning feels so good, neurologically speaking.
When humans perceive a threat or stressor, our amygdala—a small region of the brain associated with facilitating fear, anxiety, and emotion—jumps into gear and becomes more active. This activation can have physical consequences, too. Sometimes people who are anxious report feeling short of breath or have an increased heart rate. That’s because the amygdala is also involved in regulating our blood pressure, breathing, and heart. So when the amygdala gets going, those systems do too.
But while that part of the brain is ramping up activity, the prefrontal cortex, which normally regulates emotions, is getting deactivated and working less. So while our emotions and the systems associated with them are getting triggered, the systems that keep them in check are slowing down.
From an evolutionary perspective, this anxiety-response system was vital. “If you’re not afraid of tigers, you’re not going to last very long,” says Fadel Zeidan, associate director of the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness. Zeidan says that while these systems are crucial in certain contexts, like, say, a global pandemic, they can become destructive. “The media is overwhelming. We’re in friggin’ lockdown,” he says.
Some people can process those environmental stressors pretty well, but for other people, these triggers cause their amygdalas to run wild. Their brains can become fixated, ruminating on worrying thoughts, without the prefrontal cortex regulating those intense feelings. Those brains need a reset: a way to get the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain regulating that fear response.
Mindful meditation sessions like the one Bucey leads, which teach participants to focus on their breathing or on specific words or actions, can be one way of getting back to normal brain regulation. As meditators focus on their breathing, they train their brains to stop ruminating on stressful thoughts. If their focus starts to shift to worries, practitioners are taught to notice those thoughts, then recenter their focus on their breath. “You’re stabilizing the mind by enhancing cognitive control, and then you’re also teaching yourself how to self-regulate emotions,” says Zeidan, who studies mindful meditation. “And that’s critical.” The more the brain is trained to focus, the better it becomes at this task.
This is different than just sitting and breathing for a while, which will also feel nice and relaxing. Zeidan’s studies show that while simply breathing will slow the body’s respiratory rate, it won’t change any mechanisms in the brain. Mindful meditation can. Zeidan used an MRI machine to examine meditators’ brains before and after meditating. Even after one session, he found that meditation reduced subjects’ anxiety by reactivating the prefrontal cortex and other higher brain areas that regulate emotions, while deactivating the amygdala and other regions that facilitate those emotions.
“What we see is that mindfulness can dramatically reduce anxiety and stress after just one 20 minute session, even if you’ve never meditated before,” he says. That nice feeling won’t last forever, but it’s a start. The more meditation people do, studies show, the more effective it is. Eventually, with regular meditation, Zeidan says people can lower their baseline anxiety. But it takes time. He compares learning mindfulness to making an omelet: The recipe isn’t that complicated, but it takes years of practice to do it perfectly.
Mindful meditation is a great way to start turning those cognitive mechanisms around, “but you can’t spend the whole day meditating,” says Jacqueline Gollan, a clinical therapist and professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University. Gollan includes meditation in a larger therapeutic strategy called behavioral activation that employs pleasurable activities as a way to motivate people. The promise of doing something enjoyable as a reward pushes patients to tackle the stressful but necessary things they have to do, like going to work or, during a pandemic, reading the news.