Mindfulness
Mental Health

When COVID finally came for me, meditating made a huge difference

Coping with COVID can be easier thanks to mindfulness meditation.
By Rebecca Ruiz  on 
An illustration of a woman sitting upright in bed and meditating while sick with COVID.
When COVID finally hit me, I decided to deal with the discomfort and uncertainty by meditating. Credit: Zain Awais / Mashable

When I finally contracted COVID-19 for the first time, earlier this summer, I deluded myself into thinking I could work through the first few days of illness. After all, I perceived my symptoms to be impressively mild. I'd experienced worse colds and flus that laid me out for days. My version of COVID, which ultimately gripped my body for weeks, began with lethargy and barely noticeable congestion.

Continuing to work wasn't about proving my productivity. Instead, I faced a timely deadline that I preferred to meet than delay. But COVID had other plans. Within three days, I crashed. When I wasn't watching TV, I could do nothing but lie in bed, fatigued by the simplest tasks. 

That's when I started meditating multiple times a day. As a Ten Percent Happier app user, I turned to several guided meditations, most of them emphasizing gratitude, self-compassion, deep rest, and coping with difficult emotions. I'm convinced that it helped transform the physical and mental toll of my extended illness from an exhausting, isolating burden into a still challenging experience that I could observe with calm and empathy. 

I can't be certain that meditating improved my physical health, but some studies suggest the practice can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. If nothing else, it helped alleviate the anxiety that surfaced along with unusual and unexpected symptoms, like nerve pain and tingling in my hands and feet that is consistent with neuropathy, as well as an aching twitch in the muscles near my heart, relentless insomnia, and a whole-body vibration I'd never felt before. 

My experience with meditating during COVID pointed to a bigger question: Could the practice benefit other people sick with COVID when included as part of a recovery and healing regimen? Of course, it can't supplant the role of vaccines to prevent severe illness in the first place. (I'd been vaccinated and boosted.) Meditating is also no match for monoclonal antibody and antiviral medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat people at risk of severe or life-threatening COVID. Nor is it an alternative to seeking medical guidance and treatment for COVID, particularly in emergency situations.

What it's like to meditate with COVID

What meditating could do as my body fought the virus was shift my mindset away from the anxiety borne of uncertainty about my health and toward healing. One of my go-to tracks was expert meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg's "Lovingkindness for the Body." A type of Buddhist meditation, lovingkindness is a way of developing an unconditional kind attitude toward the self or others. Available as a 10- or 20-minute recording, Salzberg's version begins by acknowledging the "cruel conditioning of this society, which says we should be in control of all things at all times. If we're sick or in pain, we blew it somehow." (This is a similar version of that recording.)

I'd previously listened to this track several times but felt a new sense of conviction about Salzberg's point. I studiously avoided the virus for more than two years, because I don't believe the myth that it's perfectly fine to contract it multiple times and don't want to gamble with long COVID. But our national policy is to let variants run rampant, which meant that even when I took every recommended precaution during my first real trip in years — an N95 mask in the airport and plane, no indoor unmasked activities — I still got COVID. I was angry, struggling to accept what had happened, and stressed that I might infect my husband and kids (I didn't). I could've been swept up by these emotions, but Salzberg presented an alternative with her instruction: "If you feel bold enough to experiment, you can send lovingkindness throughout your body, recognizing that integrating all of one's experience into a whole, seeing life working through us, even in an illness, might well be the healing we need." 

"If you feel bold enough to experiment, you can send lovingkindness throughout your body..."

And so I did that. Salzberg invited the listener to scan their body and wish each part contentment. I thought to myself: May my eyes be happy, may my sinuses be happy, may my chest be happy, and so on. It soon occurred to me that I needn't wage battle against my symptoms, perceive them as a creeping threat to my long-term health, or try to pretend they weren't there. When I suddenly felt dizzy or my eyesight blurred, likely from fatigue, I treated it as a sign that my body needed rest. I felt liberated from the misery and self-judgment that can accompany illness. Instead, I summoned a tenderness that personally made coping with COVID easier. 

When I later talked to Salzberg on the phone about this particular meditation, we discussed the "grim determination" that people often marshal when faced with illness.

"It's a very stressed-out state," said Salzberg, who is also the author of several books on meditation, including Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. She said that strain can limit a person's ability to begin again and cultivate resilience in difficult moments.

Of course, there are good reasons that people feel compelled to slog through illness as quickly as possible. These include the prevailing assumption that someone else always has a right to your labor and our perverse guilt over not providing it, the absence of national paid sick leave, and widespread economic precarity that turns losing several days' pay into an unqualified disaster. I'm frankly still upset that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines suggest that it's OK to end isolation and theoretically return to work after five days if the person is fever-free for 24 hours and their symptoms are improving — as if COVID doesn't have the capacity to grab hold of its host and not let go for weeks, months, or years. 

While popular conditioning tells us to deal harshly with moments of weakness, often by toughing it out or being self-critical, Salzberg says the opposite is true. "[Y]ou have to give yourself a break, have some compassion with yourself, learn how to let go gently, and learn how to start over."

That's why I didn't try to meditate well when sick with COVID. I laid down in bed. I let myself fall asleep. If my mind cycled through an impressive number of unrelated thoughts before I remembered that I was actually meditating, I reacted with the equivalent of a shrug. Meditation worked for me precisely because I had no expectations for myself except to experience a pause that could lead to deep rest. Some days, I drifted off and didn't wake up for more than two hours. It was glorious. 

Should you meditate with COVID? 

I'd urge anyone new to meditation and curious about using it during COVID to be extremely gentle with themselves. Some people, including those with a history of trauma, feel increased anxiety in conjunction with breath work. In such cases, trying meditation could yield more negative experiences than benefits, and a new practice is probably best explored with additional support, and at the right time.

Additionally, I didn't experience severe nasal or chest congestion, hacking coughs, or rapid-fire sneezing, which made meditation much easier for me. It could be more aggravating with these symptoms to use the breath as an anchor to return to when the mind wanders, a common technique of mindfulness meditation. If breath isn't easily accessible, Salzberg suggests practices less dependent on it, like directing lovingkindness to the body, or a simple body scan in which the attention is placed on physical sensations that arise — of course, without judgment.  

Some, including those familiar with meditation, may have no interest in practicing while sick with COVID, and that's OK as well. To non-judgmentally sit with a fever, body aches, sore throat, or persistent coughing may simply feel too exhausting. Other barriers may include malaise, depression, and anxiety. Instead of feeling guilty about not meditating for these or other reasons, people should practice self-compassion and do whatever restores their physical, emotional, and mental energy. 

But newcomers open to the idea could try simply listening to basic guided meditations without putting too much effort into the practice. Someone spending long hours in isolation might feel less alone listening to the soothing voice of a meditation teacher — and possibly experience added bonuses, like decreased stress and improved quality of rest. 

Does meditation help fight COVID? 

We won't know for some time whether the benefits of meditation include boosting the body's response as it fights COVID. Research suggests that both meditation and yoga can regulate the nervous system and promote anti-inflammatory effects, and may prompt increased melatonin, a hormone with antiviral properties. In fact, several researchers and scientists argued in a Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine paper published in 2020 that we need much more research on the potential role meditation and yoga could play as one of many tools to subdue and possibly prevent COVID. 

They cited promising studies that demonstrate how yoga and meditation are associated with appropriately modulated cytokine activity. During COVID, cytokine "storms" unleash small proteins that push the immune system into overdrive and inflict damage on major organs and the nervous system. Cytokine storms are a major underlying cause of COVID mortality in severely ill patients, and may be linked to some of the conditions associated with long COVID

William Bushell, Ph.D., lead author of the paper and a biophysical and medical anthropologist researcher at the Massachusetts of Technology for decades, told me that his proposed scientific model of how yoga and meditation could blunt COVID's impact on the body still needs rigorous testing before it's proven. And before it's found useful as an added treatment, we'd need to know details like how much meditation leads to benefits, whether prior meditation experience is required to elicit a positive immune response, and if specific types of meditation are more effective than others. 

"Unfolding all of that is a project that would take many researchers over a long period of time," said Bushell, currently lead researcher at the Chopra Foundation Institute for Consciousness Research. 

As for me, I've not abandoned my meditation practice, even though I'm well past the acute phase of my illness. In fact, I meditate much more than previously, closer to 45 or 60 minutes a day instead of 10 or 20 minutes. I still experience insomnia and symptoms of neuropathy, so pausing to practice mindfulness and gain a few moments of deep rest is profoundly restorative. Meditating also reminds me that I can experience distress about these lingering symptoms while noting that the discomfort will pass, even momentarily. Public health agencies suggest long COVID can be identified between one and three months after infection, which puts me in limbo as I wait for my body to recover, and for guidance from my primary health care provider. Either way, with my meditation practice, I feel much better equipped to handle the journey of not knowing.


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