By Niamh Brown
‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, Save lives’ played over every radio and TV station. The emphasis placed on washing hands, staying indoors and staying away from other people permeated every conversation. As the world was plunged into lockdown, things started to feel too dystopian to comprehend. It was around then that Orlagh Cultra realised the importance of being able to just breathe.
Orlagh, 22, from Strangford is a diagnostic radiographer who began practicing meditation regularly during the first lockdown.
She remarked that “I hadn’t even been working as a radiographer for six months when the pandemic hit. I was working directly with some of the first Covid patients in Northern Ireland and then I was going back home to my family every evening. All I could think was ‘Am I putting them at risk?’. The stress was becoming a lot to handle so I started following guided meditations on YouTube around the middle of April 2020.
“I found that they helped me to relax at night after work. They allowed me to unwind and deal with the stress pretty well I think.”
Orlagh was certainly not alone in this realisation. As hysteria about the pandemic grew, mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm saw exponential growth. Calm saw 28 million downloads in 2020 where Headspace saw 11 million downloads.
Anna Murray, 23, is a qualified hypnotherapist from Newcastle, Co. Down (@that.hippy.hypnotherapist on Instagram). Anna started her own live meditation classes over Zoom in the third lockdown. The classes (named ‘Finding Happy with Hippy) averaged half an hour in length, with some in the morning and some in the evening.
When asked about the rise in meditation during lockdown, Anna said that “Our mind is an extremely busy place, especially in times of high stress – which for a high number of the population is pretty constant, especially during the pandemic
“Meditation offers the body time to release tensions and watch thoughts come and go. Being able to observe the thoughts and and decide during meditation which thought patterns and beliefs we will spend energy bulking out is an incredibly powerful thing.”
Anna clarified that oftentimes the change in a person’s breathing is what either stresses or calms the body.
“Diaphragmatic breathing is linked to settling the mind as our breath is intertwined with our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The inhale reduces the fight or flight response and the exhale releases stress.
“If you think about times where you’re stressed or fearful, the breath is the first thing to change. So when you have that awareness and you’re the one to change the breath when things get a little tough, then you’re in control of how your body responds to potentially quite stressful and triggering events.”
Reiki is a traditional Japanese form of alternative medicine called energy healing. It is often taught alongside meditation. Reiki healer Claire Greenan agreed that meditation is an important factor for grounding yourself in high stress situations.
Claire said that the most effective way to achieve this was through “If you can, spend 5-10 minutes deep meditating in order to ground your physical body. Allow yourself to relax into and visualise your body, mind and soul at one with the world around you. This clears space within you that will purify the seven chakras and the mind, leaving the individual unburdened and stress free.”