How to Make Your Mind Your Friend, Even During COVID

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Managing life is not about managing situations but managing our response to situations.

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Uma Anand, PhD

Dr. Uma is a licensed psychologist in Minnesota and Arizona. She received her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Virginia Tech with a focus on Scientific practitioner model and currently serves as the Mental Health Counselor with Student Services at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, Rochester, Minnesota. Her training focused on traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but over the years she has integrated cognitive and behavioral constructs from the ancient science of yoga into her practice. Though her primary responsibility is individual counseling for learners, her passion is to help individuals to strengthen resiliency and coping tools using this integrative approach.

Experiencing discomfort or anxiety in an uncertain situation, especially in the current pandemic, is not unusual. We have been taught that managing life is about managing situations.

The truth is this: Managing life is not about managing situations but managing our response to situations.

Anxiety arises from the focus on our inability to control external circumstances, whereas all we need to do is to manage ourselves and our minds.

“How can I manage my mind, especially when I do not know what is happening or will happen to me or others right now?”

It’s a completely valid question, and here are a few tips:

  1. Catch those “what if” thoughts and identify them as “wasted.” “What if my patient worsens or dies?” That is a wasted thought. “What if something happens to me or my family?” That is a wasted thought. “What if am unknowingly infected?” That is a wasted thought. These are very natural thoughts in the current context. But the truth is that these thoughts only consume energy, consume space in our brain, and consume time. The idea is not to “stop” or “suppress” these thoughts, but to take note of them and see them for what they are: wasted.
  2. When you catch that wasted thought, use a mental spatula to turn it over into a “caring” thought. Redirect yourself. Focus on what you are doing/have done right for a moment. You are following directions, you are doing your best, and, most importantly, you are engaged in the field of medicine. Remind yourself that you are a student, and that is the best you can do given the current situation.
  3. Remind yourself that there is a difference between being responsible for an outcome and playing one’s role responsibly. All any of us can do in any situation is to play our role conscientiously and responsibly.
  4. When your mind leaps into possible outcomes and the “what-ifs”, bring it back into the present. Remind yourself that the outcome has not happened and becoming mindful about how to go about your business at present is the only thing you can control.
  5. Focus on your intent. Remember your purpose, your values, and your highest calling in life.
  6. Observe how your breathing changes when you are upset or anxious or excited or happy. We can actually use this to our benefit by reversing this – by engaging in focused breathing daily, our minds can be made to feel calm. Breathing techniques can really help. Here are two basic techniques that do not require a visual demonstration:
    • Sit comfortably and keep your back straight and mouth closed. Mentally count to 4 when inhaling, take a very brief pause between the inhalation and exhalation and count to 2, count to 6 while exhaling, and then count to 2 again in between the exhalation and inhalation. The count is 4-2-6-2. This is completely optional, and do not do it if it makes you uncomfortable.
    • Sit comfortably and keep your back straight. Close your earlobes with your thumb, and gently place your other 4 fingers on your head. Close your eyes and say the word “Hmmmmm” out aloud. You will hear the sound reverberate in your head. Do not prolong the “mmm” – this is not a competition. Stop when you feel the need to stop and repeat this.

Thank you for reading. Stay safe, happy, connected, grounded, and careful.

Uma Anand, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science

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