Tips and Lessons from lockdown

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. Welcome, Reeva. I’m so glad you’re here.

Reeva Misra: Likewise, I’m really looking forward to the discussion and hopefully presenting some useful tips and tools that people can take with them afterward as well.

AB: Fantastic. Now tell me, what is wellness to you?

RM: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question because wellness to me, it’s not necessarily about the action you’re doing. So, there are lots of different activities that could count as wellness, but I think the most important is the association that you get from it. And I think ultimately, being in a state of wellness or well-being is really more about being conscious of every act, of every action you’re taking. So, from the things you’re putting in your body, to the food, to the exercise, to what you’re doing with your life, and it’s more about being conscious of every movement and every action you’re taking. And I think that’s important because these days we just become so disconnected from our lives in the sense that we’re just constantly rushing past our lives in a distracted, absent-minded way. And I think, actually becoming more present, becoming more aware is what wellness means to me. And it’s the inspiration behind the name ‘Walking on Earth’. That is, it’s from a 94-year-old Zen Buddhist, peace-activist, writer called Thich Nhat Hanh and he says that people often think of walking on water or walking on air as a miracle. But to him, the real miracle is walking on Earth. And how every day we’re engaged in this miracle that we don’t even realize, like the blue skies or the green leaves, the air around us. And actually, his whole mission is that every step we take on this earth should be seen as a miracle and we should all ultimately experience the joy in our everyday lives, which I think is so true and really inspired me and stuck with me till this day.

AB: I think what I love is what you said about being conscious, because that’s what I think a lot of us lost somewhere along the way. We were just doing things automatically. We weren’t thinking. And that’s why I was so excited about having you here today, because a lot of you, your generation, you’re so conscious. And I see that. And I was saying that last time when I met you in Bhavani, that you people are so conscious about every step you take, about every move, which is incredible. Reeva, what are you finding are the effects of lockdown?

RM: I think there are two sides— that are the positives and the negatives. But I think the mental health effects that we’re seeing from the lockdown are really quite shocking, and to me are really worrying, as the teacher. I think people are talking about obviously the terrible physical effects and the health effects. But I do think we’re seeing this huge pandemic as just a second wave for a long time, to come in terms with the mental health effects. And a lot of researchers and psychologists have been busy warning us about this second-wave pandemic that we need to be aware of and I think we’re seeing it in lots of different areas. So, for example, a recent poll showed that seven out of ten employees or workers report that it’s the most stressful time in their entire career. And it’s really no surprise when you think about how all our normal working practices and life practices have just been thrown up into the air. But I think to me that’s something that we really need to be spending more time thinking about in terms of governments, public health bodies, funding, and attention.

AB: So, in context of the lockdown, what have you found to be the science behind the whole uncertainty, stress, and anxiety? Why is it happening? What can help?

RM: I think it’s interesting because uncertainty and stress are two, kind of different areas in terms of the science but they play into the same kind of mechanism. So, first taking uncertainty. So, I think uncertainty is bad because it triggers fear and fear in itself is not bad. It’s our innate survival mechanism that’s built inside each and every one of us to protect us from danger. And historically, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s good because when our fear response is triggered, when we perceive danger…

AB: Flight or fight response… yes.

RM: …and we like start running away or reacting appropriately. But the issue is that when fear is combined with uncertainty, that’s what leads to anxiety and that’s what leads to panic. And I think now that we’re seeing this constant torrent of doomsday headlines, people just being unsure, we’re seeing uncertainty in all different areas of life— from not knowing when we’re going to go back to work or to see our family to when we’re going to be back in safe hands again. So, this constant level of uncertainty is like throwing this innate survival mechanism almost into overdrive. And I think that when anxiety comes into play… From a neurological perspective in terms of your brain, our prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that’s associated with higher-level functioning; so, things like decision making, being able to plan and predict for the future. And when we’re faced with anxiety and uncertainty, essentially what’s happening in our prefrontal cortex is that we’re trying to simulate predictions about the future. Our brain is trying different possible scenarios for the future but we’re unable because of this uncertainty. We don’t know what the right answer is so we’re unable to make a decision. And that’s what leads to the kind of rumination, all the negative thoughts and uncertainty and anxiety that occurs.

AB: Don’t you think uncertainty is a good thing to get used to or not.

RM: Well, I think it’s less about the actual uncertainty and it’s more about our response to it. So, I think the uncertainty is fine, but it’s then the anxiety that gets…causes the result that’s bad. So, I guess it’s more about how we view the uncertainty. And so rather than viewing it as something that’s leading to panic and responding in behaviors such as panic buying toilet paper, instead, we should view the uncertainty as a time to maybe just pause and reflect and think about our life and actually realize that uncertainty is beyond our control. Because I think a lot of it comes to control as well. And one thing is to have control over the future and our lives.

AB: Okay, what we’ve been doing is putting out tips every day. And we put out a whole bunch of tips at the beginning, and then we’ve been explaining each one just to hold people’s hand through lockdown. Tell me, can you give us some tips and tools that you found have been really helpful?

RM: Yeah, well, I didn’t know where to start. I think…

AB: Pick two or three because I think more than that gets too much.

RM: It does get a lot, and I think it’s very personal. So, there’s no one tip that works for everyone. It really is like, I think the most important thing— which is to enjoy doing the activity rather than doing it because you think it’s going to be better for you. The age-old antidote to stress, to the fight or flight response to uncertainty— is meditation. And that’s something that, as we both know, has been practiced for thousands of years in the east. But now, recently, science is also coming out to back up the practice. And I think just thinking about meditation, it makes sense because through meditation, you’re just taking the time to pause. You’re taking the time to take, you know, even if it’s just ten long, deep breaths. So, you’re allowing your system to go from this sympathetic nervous system, which is, you know, in overdrive, where your bodily function is all taken towards preparing to fight. And you’re acting reactively towards stepping back through meditation, to really go inward to reflect ,and to then start becoming more intentional about your actions. I think psychologically you can see the results. Physiologically, you also see it in terms of decrease in heart rate, decrease in blood pressure, bodily functions being restored, so increase in immunity. And then they’ve also done really interesting brain imaging scans, and they’ve done them with monks who’ve been meditating for decades, but even for people who meditated as little as an eight-week daily meditation, they showed that practice led to significant changes in brain structure, which shows that it really is accessible to everyone. So, in that study, they found increased activity in the hippocampus, which is associated with memory; increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area that we were talking about— associated with decision-making and higher thought, so you’re able to think more rationally and decisively; and then a decrease in activity in the Amygdala, which is the area of the brain that’s associated with fear and anxiety.

AB: Amygdala? What did you call it?

RM: The amygdala. Yeah, it’s one of those quite old areas of our brain that’s associated with fear and stress, and a lot of these negative emissions.

AB:  Which is probably overactive in a lot of people at the moment. But you know what would be really helpful, Reeva, is what are you finding very helpful? If someone’s having a panic attack. Do you have any tips for that?

RM: Yeah, I would really say that, again, coming back to your breath because it really is, again, trying to bring your system back from this really reactive state of overdrive into this state of moving backward into a more intentional restorative state. So, I think meditation does help a lot, and even if it’s just breath work, so going inwards, closing your eyes, trying to simply just concentrate and slow down your breathing, and trying to block out any other noise or distractions in your environment, I think is okay.

AB: So, one more question for you. What positive lessons have you learned from the lockdown and why?

RM: Actually, I have two more tips.

AB: Sorry, go ahead.                                                                                                     

RM: Well, I think personally, one that I found is really important is prioritizing social connections, because I do think that even though we’re far apart, there are various ways of still connecting. And I think loneliness, people often underestimate, but it leads to a huge host of diseases. And we’ve seen various studies that have shown that they actually studied… There’s one by this professor called Robert Waldinger who has done, actually, the longest study in history. It’s been going on for 75 years. And it’s from the, I think it’s a Harvard study of adult development. And they’ve been studying like 700 men over the age of 50, 75 years. So, those who had strong social connections, where they were really fulfilling meaningful social connections, were the ones that lived longer and were happier. And that’s something that this other surgeon, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is the former US General surgeon, just published about in his book called “Together” which is all about basically the importance of social connections. And when he was the US General surgeon, he did a lot of research around the US and went and saw a lot of patients. And he found through all of this work, the number one factor that kept coming up in all these patients that were sick was loneliness. 

AB: Wow, I can imagine. Now, tell me, what would you suggest at the moment… Because people are not able to physically meet people, what would you suggest they do? How do we get around this? Because, I don’t know if you’re finding out that people are having Zoom exhaustion.

RM: It’s true, I think it is pretty hard. But I think Zoom exhaustion also doesn’t have to be an excuse for seeing, for still speaking to people. And I think there are various different ways of doing it. So, actually, one really effective way of connecting or increasing happiness is expressing gratitude. And that’s the most meaningful way of increasing personal happiness.

AB: That’s my favorite, by the way. I love that. 

RM: Yeah. Because people think personal happiness has to be an act that’s done to you, but actually when you do an act to others, you feel much, much more rewarded and the effects are much more long-term as well. So, this positive psychologist called Martin Seligman, who was actually the person who coined the term positive psychology, performed an experiment where he tested various measures of happiness and he found that writing a letter of gratitude to friends was the greatest increase in happiness levels. And also, the happiness level effects lasted for a month after the act. 

AB: Wow. That’s amazing.

RM: An old school way of writing a letter to someone and saying how much they mean to you.

AB: Oh, that’s lovely. I know that Deepak Chopra has been doing these meditations, these gratitude meditations recently, so yeah, that’s lovely.

RM: Yeah, he has. What about you? What have you found as being useful tools and tips that have helped you during lockdown? 

AB: You can’t do everything right, but there are two-three, which are the ones that don’t take up too much time. One of them is a very simple one of grounding [yourself] every morning. It barely takes you a minute, a minute and a half. But I found that it’s so useful. You just kind of stand there, close your eyes, put your arms out and imagine you’re drawing roots into the earth. And I just find that it’s incredible. It decreases aches and pains; it keeps you mentally happier. You know how in ancient times we used to talk about Mother Earth and respecting Mother Earth and exactly what you said about being conscious of nature and everything? It’s literally that— it’s your connection to the earth. And it’s incredible, the benefit of something as simple as that has. And the other one is what you said about breathing, because sometimes the word meditation, which is incredible, but it frightens people, they think, oh, but I keep thinking about things, I can’t not think about it. But if you are sort of a beginner to it all, just breathing in calmly for 6 seconds and breathing out calmly is something which is absolutely…it just moves you from your sympathetic to your parasympathetic nervous system. You need one and a half minutes of that. I think it’s one of the universities in the US that proved that it works.

RM: Yeah, it’s one of those things that’s accessible to anyone. You don’t need a teacher for that.

AB: You don’t need a teacher for that. You don’t need classes for that. You don’t need to empty your mind, just breathwork. And as Indians, we’re lucky that we’ve had access to Pranayama for generations now. And now the whole world has access to it, like you were saying about meditation and yoga, that the whole world now has access to it. And these things are incredible. 

RM: I know. And I think the reason why they survived and persisted for so many years is because of the incredible power that they have. And even though there wasn’t science before to back it up, and it wasn’t a festival, it has survived a lot, through generations, I think, because of the power, the healing power.

AB: Yes. Now, let’s come back to you. You’re done with your three recommendations, right, or is there another one?

RM: Meditation, social connections and no, I haven’t done a third one.

AB: Gratitude, you were talking about gratitude.

RM: Yeah, gratitude. 

AB: They’re all lovely. And I think what you were saying about social connection is so true. I mean, that’s the reason so many people are going through loneliness and things like that. It’s because of all these issues with not having social connections. And what I found where I live in London, a lot of people go away on weekends and things like that to their country houses, and there’s not that much interaction. But during the first lockdown, I found that people were talking to strangers for the first time. You know, when we’d go out for our walks and people are out for their walks. And that was so lovely. And that was something which I just thought we’d lost. Those of us living in the West seem to have lost that. Just the fact that we talk to people, even if they’re not someone you know.

RM: I know, particularly in big cities like London. It’s just about knowing your community. I think that’s what clapping for the NHS also did. We went onto the streets and actually spoke to all of our neighbors for the first time and got to know each other. And everyone had the time as well.

AB: Yes, that’s right. So, life just slowed down. Which gets us nicely onto the lessons from lockdown.

RM: Yeah, I think in terms of the positive lessons…

AB: Yes, positive lessons, yes

RM: Yeah, I do think there are positives. I mean, I think all crises create opportunities for innovation because they put the current system into question. So, you have to really question all your ways of current thinking, all your ways of doing things …before it’s very hard to change the system. And I think that this pandemic has shown a whole load of issues. First with our healthcare system, so how weak they are, the inequalities, structural imbalances, how we’re facing this. I think it’s just shown us that health is almost like the new wealth. If you don’t have it, nothing else really matters, to be honest. And I hope now people are going to start putting their health first, above everything else and I think we should prioritize our healthcare system and then also our mental health. So, I think a lot of people have started talking about mental health, particularly in workplaces where they were not speaking about it before.

AB: You’re absolutely right. It was a taboo earlier.

RM: And now I think everyone is forced to talk about it and forced to address these issues that we’re facing. I think it’s shown most of all the kind of fragility of human life and how being healthy is the fundamental human right that we all thought we had and was secure, but actually it’s not. And I’d hope that people are now taking more accountability and more responsibility for their health. And I think having been forced into lockdown, it just forces you to really, on an individual level, go inward, to start thinking, start reflecting on how you’ve been living your life and taking that moment to pause and taking those lessons with you going forward. So, I think for a lot of people, it’s been really quite a stark moment in their life.

AB: The other thing I found was that a lot of people during the first lockdown picked up a new skill.

RM: Yes, that’s true.

AB: Which was pretty incredible because Andrew Scott, in his book, I think it’s called the 100-Year Life  or something, has talked about how we’re all going to live so long because of the medical system. Well, notwithstanding Corona, he said we will all be constantly retraining ourselves and picking up new skills. So, it’s interesting what people picked up, whether it was just different things, some people took up cooking, some people took up knitting or whatever it was, but people took up completely different skills and started excelling at it. My sister-in-law and niece in India launched a new business of baking and supplying cakes in India and that’s done really well through the lockdown. It was launched during the Delhi lockdown. So, it’s incredible how people have reinvented themselves to do exactly what they wanted to do, to go back to their heart centers. 

RM: Exactly. And I think that takes us back to the point we were saying about uncertainty, that it  can be good in some scenarios. And in this case, I think this uncertainty, this period of change has actually led people to make those changes in their lives that maybe they were not doing before because their lives were too comfortable and they weren’t really forced to think about their actions.

AB: And now that’s the key, isn’t it? To think about it, we were all just leading our lives. We weren’t thinking about things, we didn’t pause to think what next? We just did things. At least we did. I know your generation is very different.

RM: No, I think it was the same, really. I think it was the same. I have so many friends who now for the first time… before they were traveling Monday to Friday, to their jobs and were spending most of their time, you know, 90% of their time at work, and now that they’ve been forced to pause, have really reflected and made some significant changes in their life. And I don’t see workplaces going back to where they were before in terms of traveling, having to be in the office 24/7, or having an expected facetime. I think we’re going to see a fundamental shift now in the way we work.

AB: But tell me something, I’ve had two sides of the story. So, one side is what you’re saying that workplaces may not go back, but on the other side of things, people are missing going to work. They’re missing that connection of all days working with people, those coffee breaks, and those face-to-face meetings.

RM: Yeah, I think it is a balance. I think the bad part of the working culture was how people felt like they had to be at work all the time and it was less about the work that you were doing and more about showing your face or being at a certain place. And I think that need has gone. But now I think the need for social connection will still persist. And maybe it will be more of a case of people understanding that occasionally you need to work from home, if you have families or certain demands, young kids that keep you at home. But at the same time, you go into the office when it’s important. So, maybe it turns into… A lot of offices I know are thinking long term about doing three days in the office, two days, or going remote first and then having big team meetings. So, they are having more of a hybrid model.

AB: And that’s why I think, what you said about sort of lifestyle in health, it has become even more important. Because people are getting…  [Saving] the 1 hour they were traveling to work and back, is now maybe going to give them that extra time to focus on themselves.

RM: That’s the hope. But I think it does take discipline to actually put that into action. And I think what I found is that people are still… because we’re offering some walking on Earth services to corporate workplaces and we find the number one reason why employees don’t engage in these practices is because they say they’re so stressed and they have no time. And actually, it’s trying to shift the thinking so that people realize that by engaging in these practices, you’re actually gaining more time in your day. You start your day with even a half an hour of yoga or meditation, then you’ll be so much more productive. And that time that you’ve spent on yourself, you can actually then gain in terms of productivity, efficiency, and your positive mood throughout the day. So, I think a lot of people have filled that time that they spent commuting, with more meetings or with more work. But it’s really about making them realize that actually, you need to prioritize yourself, and you need to be locking times out in your diary or driving behavior change through habit creation.

AB: And the other thing, which I think I hope happens, the other advantage is consumerism was going crazy, wasn’t it? I hope that gets curbed because of the lockdown. And I think we’d all reached the stage where we weren’t even thinking. We were just buying, buying, buying and traveling, traveling, traveling. Traveling is a good thing, but just excessive traveling.

RM: Exactly. And I think it goes back to the point of doing actions more consciously. So, now we’re starting to realize what the effects are of having these kinds of materialistic things and cultures where we’re doing things in excess. Because we saw during the lockdown, the change of what just two months, three months of slowing down had on the environment; had on the world; and had on our own health. And I think the fact that we could see in just three months the drastic changes in wildlife being regenerated and vegetation, it shows us the impact of our actions. But I think ensuring these behaviors persist long term is something that will take effort, and I don’t think it will come naturally.

AB: Yeah, no, you’re right. So, Reeva, do you have any advice for people listening?

RM: I think the biggest piece of advice is really to take ownership of your own health and your own well-being. Because I believe that we had fundamentally just lost control, like our well-being or our health was not in our own hands. We would often go to doctors, go to other people to understand our health, but really what we should be doing is listening to our own bodies. And I always say it’s almost like becoming the CEO of your health.

AB: I love that phrase.

RM: I don’t know how it happened, but we should go and ask other people about what’s happening with our bodies, what we should be doing to our bodies. We really need to understand ourselves. We need to, I think, reconnect back with our bodies and reconnect back with just prioritizing what’s really important to us in our lives.

AB: Okay, that’s lovely. Thank you, Reeva. Thank you for coming here and for spending time telling us all about your learning. Lots of love.

RM: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it, too. 

AB: Bye-bye. Take care. 

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