Aging Well

Recovering from the tumultuous year

Anxiety, foggy brain, apathy, easily provoked... these are just some of the lingering effects from our lost year. How do we recover?

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Open road
Liisa Ogburn

Yesterday I misplaced my glasses; the day before, I couldn’t recall a former client’s name. Last week, while I intended to write several posts while on our first family vacation in over a year, I couldn't summon the concentration to do more than a few paragraphs.

“What’s the matter with me?” I asked myself. So many friends, young and old, have mentioned asking themselves something similar.

So it was with great relief to listen to Krista Tippett’s recent interview with clinical psychologist Christine Runyan, discussing how these signs--forgetfulness, irritation, lack of productivity, anxiety, depression--are to be expected after the kind of year we've experienced. Specifically, Runyan illuminates just what has been happening in our nervous system this year.

“We want to have control," Runyon explains. "That’s why the uncertainty, the unpredictable nature of this is so hard for us, physiologically.”

One need not look far to find families affected in significant ways--a death due to COVID, separation from loved ones, the acceleration of dementia or another disease process due to social isolation, a lost job, divorce, substance abuse... the list could go on. And there is research to back each up. In a recent brief by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, have risen fourfold, from one in ten adults reporting anxiety and depression in 2019 to four in ten over the last year alone.

It is easy to draw a line between what has been happening in our external world to what is happening in our internal ones. In her conversation with Tippett, Runyon highlights and differentiates between our autonomic nervous system (“fight-flight” system), which is not happening at the level of our conscious awareness and our parasympathetic nervous system, “rest and digest” or relaxation system. The former causes our adrenalin, heart rate and blood pressure to increase; the latter, calms things down and brings us back to baseline.

How can we recover and return to baseline? Dr. Runyon points to contemplative practices, something as simple as sitting quietly and observing the breath or one's thoughts with curiosity, as well as compassion, especially self compassion.

Self compassion is treating yourself with kindness, the way you would treat a good friend facing adversity. Self compassion can help lessen loneliness, reduce anxiety and depression, and even improve happiness.

Emma Seppala, Faculty Director of the Yale School of Management's Women's Leadership Program, as well as Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, encourages self compassion, too, as well as walking in nature, reconnecting with friends and family, and breathing exercises.
For a good primer on breathing exercises, you might want to visit Art of Living, which features tutorials on SKY Breathing Technique, the technique proven in recent studies by both Harvard and Yale to improve well-being in relation to depression, stress, mental health, mindfulness, positive affect, and social connectedness. SKY practitioners also developed better sleep quality & resiliency against anticipatory stress.
Or for a deeper understanding on the importance of breath, consider reading James Nestor's recent award-winning book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, a comprehensive examination of the ways people around the world and across time have used breathing techniques to improve athletic and musical performance, as well as treat a large number of health maladies.
My husband and I have been on the frontlines, in different capacities, since COVID arrived in North Carolina March of 2020—he, as a hospitalist working many shifts on the COVID wards and myself, as an elder consultant, untangling some of the many dire situations seniors have faced due to COVID. For the first few days in a rustic solar cabin we rented on the edge of a national park, I had the sensation of my brain being like a suitcase I had packed too tightly, running from crisis to crisis, never time to unpack. With each walk out in nature, I returned to the cabin a little bit lighter. And with that lightness, there was space to listen to some meditations and breathing exercises on my phone (which I found myself doing multiple times each day). Now, back at my desk at home, it is not only my head that knows practicing self compassion, breathing exercises and meditation (my favorite is a free 40-day series available online here, led by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield), it is my body, too, that feels the difference.

Long story short, if you've been feeling off your game after this pandemic year, you're not alone. Consider going easy on yourself, talking about it with friends and family, and maybe doing something different, from a regular walk outdoors to a new (and perhaps irregular to you) breathing technique. As the weather warms and the percentage of North Carolinians vaccinated continues to grow, there is much to be hopeful about.


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