Chapter 14: COVID stillness
A systematic review1 of the literature suggests that mindfulness has positive beneficial effects on immunity, looking at various indicators of immunity including antibody formation to vaccination, activity of lymphocytes and white cell numbers in the acute phase reaction to infection.
The degree of positive effect in most studies was moderate, and would be influenced by co-morbidities and the overall health status of the person being studied. What does this tell us in a time of COVID-19?
Vaccination, with the two doses and the booster, remains our most significant protection. Other evidence-based immune-modulators in the time of COVID-19 include adequate sleep, Vitamin D, Zinc, and Vitamin C.
Interestingly, in the systematic review there were no studies showing a negative or detrimental immune system effect from mindfulness meditation, when it was compared in randomised control studies. The form of mindfulness used in these studies was based on a standardised 6-8 week training course developed by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn at Harvard
Doing whatever we can to support our immune system, in the face of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, makes good sense. This is intuitively logical, but studies and objective supporting data are lagging behind, as is to be expected with the short history of this pandemic.
We do require further studies to ascertain the direct benefits of mindfulness with COVID-19, either within the acute illness, or with the inflammatory processes seen in the post-acute phase, and in some patients in an even longer timeframe known as “long COVID”. We just don’t have enough longitudinal data specific to COVID-19 and mindfulness, at this time, so any advice must be generic, and extrapolated cautiously from specific immune benefits described1.
In the trenches
There are examples of how “breaks” and “time outs” are used for staff in Emergency Departments. The ED in the Landspítali Hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland, has a room for staff to quietly retreat to for mindfulness breaks during their shifts.
At the shipyard in Ketchikan, Alaska, all staff are required to undertake 15 minutes of meditation followed by stretching exercise before starting work on the ships.
The WRaP-EM team have introduced staff trollies of snacks and healthy food to help combat sagging energy levels at the Gold Coast Hospital Emergency Department.
Applying these ideas needs to be customized to the location, people and culture of any specific ED, and there are useful “how to guides”, mentioned in the book below which is aimed at the teachers of mindfulness in clinical environments2.
Setting the tone
For leaders, a crisis like COVID-19 provides opportunities to “show the way”, to be a role model, to support and nurture their team during the current times when exhaustion and stress are so prevalent.
Having our own mindfulness practice helps with managing any conflict in the workplace, as well as the challenging interdepartmental conversations that are more likely at present, due to stress at each level of hospitals during COVID-19.
The individual immune system benefits of mindfulness in relation to COVID-19 are likely but not yet proven.
Recharging the battery
Carrying stress forward from one day to the next is recognized as a factor in staff burn-out. Front-line clinicians need to cultivate activities that refresh and rebalance us, before we return to another shift.
Important in this process are physical exercise, diet, sleep, and the overall way that we think, and process emotions, particularly negative emotions. Mindfulness has its role in this domain.
(this one has been used with hospital staff working in a high-stress clinical area)
- Duration: 5-10 minutes
- Level of Difficulty: Easy
- Special Equipment: Nil
- Turn off pagers or phones if you safely can
- Find a place to sit
- Close your eyes during this exercise, but only if you feel comfortable doing so
- Just study your breathing, regardless of its pattern
- To start, we are all probably “spinning fast”
- Just let that take care of itself
- Study your breathing now, flowing in, and flowing out
- It can be fast or slow, jerky or smooth, depending on the mental state you were in when you came into this room
- What it is does not matter, as this is the starting point which we will soon leave
- Just watch the breaths, as they go in, and go out
- (do this for 2 minutes if you can)
- Your breathing will slow, naturally as you observe it
- Now, move on and study your muscles as they support you
- Observe where any muscular pain or tension is
- Just observe this, and slowly scan from your toes to your head
- (do this for 2 minutes or so)
- Now as you breathe, imagine letting all the stress go out from your muscles, in your breath, away, letting it really go
- Repeat this for a few minutes
- (do this for 2 minutes or so)
- In your own time, just return slowly to the world of clinical care
- Know that you can efficiently repeat this process of balancing any time you want, and that it will become faster and faster as you practice
- Slowly stretch, and return to the room
- Thankyou for your valuable time
And to close..
These are indeed unknown times, as COVID-19 fills our radar.
Find your own stillness, if you can, each day, amidst the noise and haste.
And don’t forget to practice
Thankyou for reading this, and take care of yourself
- Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):13-24.
- Wolf C, Serpa LG. A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness. New Harbinger Publications. 2015
Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM. They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains