Season 3
July 9, 2020

Season 3, Episode 3: Mindfulness

Learn about mindfulness and its benefits during the pandemic with Shelley Johns, PsyD.


Phil Lofton:
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on mental health.

How could it not? Over the course of several months, our normal lives have been upended. We’ve physically distanced ourselves from our friends and our places of work in an effort to save lives and flatten the curve.

These changes have taken a toll.

We’ve been subject to trauma on a societal level, of course, but on an individual level, in countless different ways, the pandemic has found a way to rewire our lives.

The impact has been significant on healthcare workers. Workers have described the stress of coming home from long shifts and needing to refuse hugs from their children until they could undress and shower. In New York, two providers regularly interacting with COVID patients committed suicide.

But it hasn’t been limited to just care providers. According to Kaiser, nearly half of Americans report that their mental health is being negatively impacted by the pandemic. Unemployment has hit record highs across the country. Critical resources like in-person meetings have been taken off the table for people recovering from substance abuse.

As we protect ourselves against a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, how can we protect our mental health?

Welcome to The Problem. I’m your host, Phil Lofton.


The author Julia Gregson describes anxiety as being “like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you’ve made, and there’s this panic because you don’t know yet the scale of disaster you’ve left yourself open to.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded around us, it’s not surprising that our mental health has been affected. How could it not be? We’ve largely been removed from our normal environments, and every trip out from our homes has, for many of us, been accompanied by a conscious or unconscious weighing of risks.

Many of us have had a constant buzzing of worry – worrying not just that we’d be safe, but that the people that we and our loved ones come in contact with might be practicing safe habits, too.

Shelley Johns:
I’m Shelley Johns. I’m a board certified clinical health psychologist and an assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana university school of medicine.. My clinical practice is, um, at Eskenazi health and I specialize in palliative care as a psychologist.

Shelley Johns is a research scientist at the Regenstrief Institute. In the last few years, she’s done quite a bit of work showing the effectiveness of mindfulness-based meditation to improve quality of life.

In particular, she’s studied the effects of mindfulness on reducing the fear of cancer recurrence in cancer survivors.

The effect has been significant on participants. In a study that looked at a variety of techniques and evaluated their impact on reducing fear, the therapy that included mindfulness was the clear winner.

Now, while you might have heard of mindfulness or meditation, you might not know what it actually is. Here’s Dr. Johns with a helpful explanation.

Shelley Johns:
Mindfulness is so relevant when we are dealing with these unprecedented times that we’re living in. Mindfulness is the basic human ability that we all share, um, to be fully present in our lives to be really aware of what’s going on within and outside of us in our lives, so that we can choose how we’ll respond with, you know, with greater wisdom and in ways that bring greater peace to our lives. So, you know, coping with wisdom in ways so that we can protect ourselves, protect our loved ones, as well as protecting our communities.

In this time of uncertainty, Dr. Johns has spoken to news outlets about the proven benefits of mindfulness in anchoring us in the present.

Shelley Johns:
As a mental health community, I think we’re trying, you know, our best to gear up for the, the fact that many, many people today are going to be in need of some additional support, you know, to find healthy, you know, adaptive ways to cope with all of this uncertainty and all of the unwanted aspects, you know, of COVID-19 I just, I feel like there are lots of people who are who are looking for answers and looking for tools and resources and, and those kinds of things.

I think the world seems a little bit more receptive to any practice that can help with emotional regulation right now. And so there’s been a real upsurge. Mindfulness was pretty popular anyway, but I think it’s there’s been a bit of an upsurge in it now. And I think it’s because so many of us are getting hooked by thoughts about the uncertainties of the future. And sometimes we need to just come back home to the body in this present moment, feel what’s here now.

And that benefit of reducing stress is so important. Not just for doctors and other clinicians, but for all of us.

Paulo Coelho wrote that “Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it— just as we have learned to live with storms.”

This is a difficult time for all of us. It can be terrifying to think of the possibilities of what the pandemic might hold.

Dr. Johns’ work in mindfulness offers us an opportunity to keep our thoughts here in the present.

Shelley Johns:
Noticing sensations in our body, noticing the thoughts and the feelings that are here without necessarily getting hooked by yeah. The story of what the future may or may not hold for us. So that’s why I think mindfulness has really been an important part of the care that I provide right now.

I wanted to give you kind of a taste of mindfulness right now, if you’re willing. So, one of the ways that I practice mindfulness throughout the course of my day is every time I get a phone call, that happens a lot or any time I get a text also happens a lot. I take just one mindful breath, noticing the inhale and the exhale that follows. And that’s just a way that I can try to center myself so that I can be more effective in my communication with the person that I’m speaking with, or, you know, maybe less reactive to the content and the texts that I received. So we can try that right now just to taking one, um, really, uh, you know, really mindful, inhale, noticing the temperature of the air as it comes into your nose.

Noticing the subtle movements in the body with each and every inhale and exhale. And that’s just one thing that we can do just to reconnect with the here and now.

Before we close this episode, I thought it might be a good idea to include a mindfulness exercise with Dr. Johns.

Shelley Johns:
So if you’re willing to allow your eyes to drop or maybe adopting a soft downward gaze, and we’ll begin by finding a comfortable position in our chair, perhaps with the feet flat on the floor, if that’s comfortable for you, and really noticing the movements in the body with each and every breath.

As I invite you now to say silently to yourself, “May I be healthy. No matter what shows up in life, may I know joy. May I tap into the capacity to love and be loved. May I know peace, and extending to all people, may all people be healthy no matter what shows up in life. May all know joy. May all people tap into the capacity to love and be loved. May all people know peace.”

Can I invite you now to open your eyes whenever you’re ready? And that was a very brief mindfulness practice that is a compassion practice that is so relevant today with everything that we have going on so that we can find compassion for ourselves as well as compassion for others. So may you be safe and may you be well, thanks for joining me today.

Join us next time.

We’ll see you then, on The Problem.

Music this episode was by Everlone, and Broke for Free. Our theme and additional cues were written and performed, as always, by Polygon Breathing.

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