Beyond her job as chief medical correspondent for ABC News, Dr. Jennifer Ashton maintains a daily medical practice where she sees patients ranging from teenagers to women in their 80s. As explained in an interview with Ridarswear news, in the past year, her patients have begun to open up more and more about the effects stress and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and their associated struggles with fear, anxiety, loneliness, frustration and depression.
“They express it to me almost with this tone that they think there’s something wrong with it,” says Ashton. “The first thing that I do is I help them recognize that it’s appropriate and it’s OK. Everyone is having these feelings. … Nothing that we are doing today or have lived through in the last year is normal.”
As Ashton points out in her book “The New Normal,” it is essential that we practice self-care during this pivotal time — a time when we are looking with hope toward healing and recovery. “It’s time to go back to the basics,” she says. When asked one thing she does every day for her mental health, her answer is, “I’m a big believer in meditation.”
Meditation seems to be a subject (or an option) on a lot of people’s minds of late. As an example, Time magazine recently republished a story that first appeared in 2017 titled “How Meditation Helps You Handle Stress Better.” In it, they cite a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research that demonstrated that people who learned to meditate reported feeling less stressed than those in other control groups. Their blood measurements of adrenocorticotropic hormone, a stress hormone released in the brain and then into the bloodstream, were lower as well, along with markers of inflammation.
The Time story goes on to say that researchers hoped insurance companies would take note of the growing evidence supporting meditation training as a treatment option. “To me, it’s obvious that insurance companies would save money in the long run,” said lead author Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Last fall, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, nature meditation guide Robin Hancock took her practice to what could be called new heights. She landed in what, at first glance, seems the most unlikely location — Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. She was brought in at the request of the airport interfaith chapel’s executive director, Blair Walker, to offer 20-minute guided meditation sessions to small groups of travelers in need of help. Over the past year, Walker was noticing stress and a “tightness” in people he had not witnessed before. They were quicker to lose their temper, or worse. An ordained minister with a background in higher education and public health, he began the new service by inviting two visitors in the dimly lit room for a meditative experience and a tool to use the next time they feel overwhelmed.
“Airports, in particular, trigger panic and anxiety because of the frenetic pace, noise and glaring screens … but covid amplifies travel anxiety,” writes Katja Ridderbusch of Kaiser Health News. As 2020 progressed, airport chaplains became close witnesses to people’s worsening mental conditions.
“No doubt, the pandemic has accelerated the need for our services to a new level,” the corporate chaplain for American Airlines and director of the interfaith chapel at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the world’s largest airport chapel, tells Kaiser Health News. During the pandemic, he reports seeing depression, anxiety and addiction increase among travelers and workers as well. “We have encountered a tremendous amount of grief and fear,” he adds, especially among airport staff.
According to Hancock, the guided mediation offered at Hartsfield-Jackson is designed to “help people breathe, recenter, step away.” On a busy day, she says that each session can have up to five socially distanced participants.
“Traveling is tough,” says Jordan Cattie, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine. He has found that “practices such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga and controlled breathing can be very effective at thwarting anxiety triggers that are inherent in air travel.”
“Mental health and well-being were on the radar of airport administrators long before covid, but some services were paused because of the pandemic,” Ridderbusch reports. “Now, though, they’re making a comeback. Several airports have yoga, stretching and silent meditation areas. Live music and therapy pet programs are also intended to calm stressed-out travelers.”
According to Cattie, the pandemic’s mental health fallout is sure to last longer. “Covid has seeped into every crack and every foundation and created so much loss and change and fear,” she says. “It’s OK to be scared. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable.”
In her interview, Ashton admits she now dedicates 20 minutes every day to meditating, and that “it’s life-changing.” “As the saying goes, I don’t find the time; I make the time,” she adds. “It’s helped me immensely during this pandemic.”