The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has come with a long set of rapidly changing instructions that has thrown normal human life into an unfamiliar state of disarray: Stay inside; close your business; lose your job; wear a mask in public places; wash your hands constantly; avoid other people; and, if you are around them, don't get closer than 6 feet. These are not to even mention the threat of exposure to the deadly virus itself.
And while such changes have been necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, little has been said about how to take care of one's mental health, especially when those changes have removed from life some of the things that make it most worth living.
Michael Boyle, a psychotherapist in Taos, appears on a webcam every weekday morning from his home to guide viewers in one of the oldest known strategies for restoring a sense of calm and self-control during stressful times: meditation.
Boyle starts with a breathing exercise he calls the "fog breath." He takes a deep breath and then exhales very slowly from the back of his throat, as if he were trying to fog a mirror.
"The breath gets us deep into the autonomic nervous system," Boyle explains to the camera. "Every single time we exhale we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, so then by nature, if we extend the length of the exhale we are going to become more parasympathetic nervous system dominant."
Basically, he means that breathing exercises like this one can make you feel a lot better when done right. Simplified, feeling better is what Boyle's trying to help all of his clients do.
Breathing segues into a guided meditation, where Boyle teaches you how to sit still with your thoughts and, hopefully, emerge in a calmer state of mind than when you started.
Sessions with a psychotherapist can cost as much as a few hundred dollars each session, but Boyle is doing these for free every weekday morning between 9-10 a.m. on Facebook. Every Sunday at 6 p.m., he's offering a class via Zoom that's part of a series he calls "Talk and Tools for Thriving Through Tough Times." Those are also streamed on Facebook and Boyle encourages people to not only watch, but to participate. If you miss one, there's already a few in his Facebook archive to check out.
"I'm doing it because I feel like this is a time when we all need to pull together and do whatever it is that we can do to uplift each other," he said. "The overall theme is going to be how do we learn perspectives and practical tools that we can use to thrive despite these difficult times, particularly how do we learn how to refine and optimize the health of our nervous system so that we can best enjoy the quality of life that we have available to us to improve our outlook, our mood, our resilience."
Boyle drops a lot of psychotherapist jargon when he talks, but there's also a lot of humor peppered in. He gives grounded, simple-to-grasp examples of what he teaches in his practice and how it can help even the most level-headed people to achieve a healthier mindset.
He suspects that with so many people newly isolated, or, on the other hand, surrounded by household members once occupied by work or school, many of them might be finding themselves in a state of heightened stress.
"I think people are feeling maybe a loss of a sense of purpose because so many people are identified with their external world pursuits as who they are," he said. "And in the absence of having stuff to do and business as usual there is an emptiness and a void type of a feeling that is basically causing people to freak out."
Boyle said that level of stress can cause people to argue more with their partners and be harder on their children.
"I'm really concerned about kids whose saving grace is going to school who are stuck in unhealthy families," he said.
People with a history of substance abuse might also find themselves without the tools they rely on to remain clean and sober.
The free sessions are also, of course, a way to advertise his paid practice, energyofmind.com.
After about five years spent working with different behavioral health agencies around Taos County, Boyle gradually began shifting to the business he started running out of his home earlier this year.
Like for other people who use a home office, that became more complicated with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's stay-at-home order, but he says he's trying to teach himself - and his clients - how to make the most of it.
With so much bad news to consume in recent months, he says it can be tempting to remain glued to the television screen or to one's cellphone all the way until bedtime - checking infection counts, death rates and the latest advice from health experts. Get what you need, he says, but know when you cross the line into territory that has a detrimental effect on your health.
"Our brain is designed to prefer survival mechanisms versus thriving mechanisms," he said. "It will choose what's negative and focus on that. The survival part of the brain doesn't care if we're happy or not."
Boyle does his best to incorporate what he teaches into his own "quarantine" life with his wife, baby daughter and two sons. Their days begin and end with meditation, which he says is a practice that takes time to develop, just like anything else.
"It's like going to the gym," he said. "If you lift weights, your muscles are going to tear and then they get stronger. When you meditate, you might get distracted, but when you return to it you'll be better at it."
Boyle's weekday guided meditations and Sunday sessions will be streamed on Facebook at facebook.com/energyofmind. People interested in participating in the Sunday sessions can email their request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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