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Using mindfulness during coronavirus: Northern Ireland expert’s tips on lowering anxiety

As panic over the pandemic sweeps the world, Bridgeen Rea-Kaya tells Stephanie Bell how taking a few minutes to meditate will calm nerves

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A shopper in a mask

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Stress buster: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya strikes a yoga pose

Stress buster: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya strikes a yoga pose

A shopper in a mask

Bridgeen Rea-Kaya is a pioneer of the practice of mindfulness in Northern Ireland but even she is not immune to the anxiety currently sweeping the nation over the spread of coronavirus.

She says, however, that she does have the tools to combat it and her expertise in the way our minds work means she can teach the rest of us how to stay calm.

Anxiety levels are a real concern as lockdowns force people, particularly the elderly, into increased isolation.

Bridgeen (45), who is married to Muhutin Kaya, a maintenance technician, and runs her own company Immeasurable Minds, was one of the first people to introduce mindfulness classes to Northern Ireland 15 years ago.

She also runs regular retreats and monthly workshops on self-compassion from the Namaste Yoga Centre in Belfast which just last week closed its doors as a precaution against Covid-19.

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Stress buster: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya strikes a yoga pose

Stress buster: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya strikes a yoga pose

Stress buster: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya strikes a yoga pose

Local companies also employ her to run eight-week mindfulness courses to help staff manage stress.

Bridgeen originally studied for a degree in communications, advertising and marketing and worked in this field for most of her 20s.

But she says the lingering impact of a bad car accident and then, some years later, taking 12 months out to travel at the age of 29 where she spent a large part of her time visiting yoga retreats around the world, changed her life completely.

One in particular had a huge impact on her, as she recalls: "In 2003 in a yoga retreat in Rocklyn, Australia I discovered the book Peace is Every Step.

"It was written by the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master who is world renowned for his teachings on mindfulness and author of over 100 books.

"He lives in a wondrous place called Plum Village in France, which I call my 'happy place'.

"I fell in love with Thay (pronounced 'tie') as he is known to his students, his monastics and the environment there on my first visit in 2005. I have been retreating to Plum Village at least once a year since then.

"At first when I told people where I was going, I think they thought I was part of some occult group. People thought it was weird as mindfulness was still very much unheard of here."

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Bridgeen on her wedding day with husband Muhutin

Bridgeen on her wedding day with husband Muhutin

Bridgeen on her wedding day with husband Muhutin

On her return home to Belfast she was unable to find a class locally to continue to practice mindfulness and this led her to decide to become a teacher herself.

She spent the next five years studying for a masters degree in mindfulness-based approaches at Bangor University in Wales and is the only person in Northern Ireland to have this qualification.

However while her travels at the age of 29 proved a turning point and changed the course of her career, she believes that the seeds for it were sown much earlier when she suffered serious injuries in a road traffic accident. "When I was 21 I was hit by a car and thrown on to the window screen which smashed and then thrown up 15 feet into the air, landing on my left side.

"I spent 22 days in hospital and had to learn to walk again.

"Most of my injuries were down my left-hand side. I broke my tibia and fibula (shin and calf bones), shattered my shoulder and had to get stitches in my eye.

"It wasn't the worst but it was bad enough. I still suffer from the effects of that accident, including restricted movement in my left arm, a muscle hernia in my left leg and stiffness in my left hip.

"It didn't seem such a big deal when I was 21 but now when I look back I can see how it did impact me and change me. I was more or less self-isolated for three or four months while I recovered.

"It is lot of time to think and something was planted then, some wee seeds which led me to what I am doing now. It is also when I first discovered yoga which I began to help with my recovery."

The scientific effects of mindfulness have been documented now for more than 30 years. Worldwide it is now recognised as a solution for depression, anxiety and even chronic pain.

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Sound advice: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya

Sound advice: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya

Sound advice: Bridgeen Rea-Kaya

So how exactly does it work? Bridgeen explains: "I teach people to become more present which calms the nervous system.

"Our anxiety spikes when we don't know what is going to happen and the default mode of our minds is to wonder about things and much of that thought is negative.

"Our mind is doing its job trying to keep us safe but it doesn't help our nervous system to be worrying about the future.

"All we really know is the here and now and if we can just be here in the present and realise we are both safe and well, that is enough to allow the nervous system to calm down. This will help us to see things more clearly, feel happier and appreciate what we have now.

"For me personally, mindfulness enriches and enhances my life in immeasurable ways. I have met so many wonderful people and friends through the practice - I really enjoy teaching and sharing it with others.

"I see it as a vocation rather than a job and for that reason I feel really lucky and grateful to have found what I'm to do with 'my one wild and precious life'."

Bridgeen has now been forced to close her classes because of coronavirus, but hopes to continue to teach via the internet.

She already posts wellbeing videos on social media but hopes to set up live classes for her clients.

She says: "I'm feeling the anxiety as well, I think everyone is. I can't teach public classes anymore and I would have a lot of older people come to my classes and they need to take care of themselves so I am looking at launching online classes.

"I want to do group classes that people can do at home through Zoom which is an online tool I have never used before.

"I hope to educate myself and my clients on how to use it so that we will all be together at the same time.

"I think it is very important to have it live rather than pre-recorded so that we can do it in real time together and share it with each other.

"People are panicking over coronavirus and then on the other hand there are people who are not taking it seriously enough. We do have to be mindful now more than ever and take care of ourselves."

While Bridgeen will be hoping to help relieve anxiety with online classes and video clips, she believes there are many things we can do ourselves at home to manage our fears.

One powerful method of mindfulness which she feels is particularly relevant to anxieties over coronavirus is known as ROAR - Recognise, Observe, Accept and Release.

She explains: "ROAR can be easily practised by everyone.

"We need to recognise we are anxious and admit it as the first step and then observe it and how it feels, notice where in the body you are feeling the anxiety. It could be tension in your muscles or a feeling in your stomach.

"Just be aware of it and then accept that you are human and it is normal to feel the way you are and then release it and let it go. This is a really powerful tool to practise."

Bridgeen believes that if we each meditate for just five minutes twice a day we can relieve our anxiety and remain calm.

She has urged all of us to keep in contact with older people via the phone and online to try and relieve their sense of isolation during this difficult time.

For families who are forced to self-isolate, Bridgeen believes it can be turned into a positive experience and offer space to spend quality time together.

She adds: "It is about looking for the good and appreciating what we have even in these difficult times.

"We have a lot of distractions in our everyday lives and for families who are forced to be at home together, it can be a time to be there for each other.

"Being forced to stay at home offers opportunities to play games together, bake together or even just simply be bored, which is good for our brains. Spending some time doing nothing is a good thing which we all need to learn.

"The negative stuff is usually so much bigger in our minds that it stops us seeing what is in front of us now and enjoying it, whether that is your kids, your dog or even a cup of tea, take time to appreciate it and enjoy it."

You can find out more about Bridgeen's online classes on her website www.immeasurableminds.co.uk

Bridgeen's top tips for staying calm throughout the Covid-19 crisis

1. Breathe. Put your hand over your heart, take a big deep breath and say to yourself a mantra like 'breathe, it'll be okay'. Repeat three times.

2. Sit in meditation for five minutes every morning and every evening. This is not as hard as you think. Just sit without distractions, no devices, TV or radio. Sit upright and comfortable in the quiet, listen to your own breathing. Let everything be. If anxious thoughts arise, say 'Not now. Right now, just sitting, just breathing.' You can set a timer for this or log on to the free app (and website) Insight Timer. I have several free meditations on there and will add more soon. There are also meditations on the Immeasurable Minds YouTube channel.

3. Go outside every day. Walking is not cancelled. We can still enjoy stretching our legs. On our walk 'take notice'. What can you see, smell, hear and feel? When you see, hear, smell or feel something pleasurable take time to savour it.

4. Do some gardening. Getting our hands dirty in the soil watching things grow is found to be very therapeutic and calming. Even if you live in an apartment without a garden as I did for 11 years you can get some planters and put things on windows or the balcony. Or go to an allotment or visit a park and notice different plants and trees. Nature has a lot to teach us.

5. Remember attitude is very important to help us through this difficult time. If we can all try to let others off the hook a bit, it will help us stay calm. It's really easy to get annoyed (and add to our own stress in the process) by feeling critical of others who either aren't taking it as serious as we are or are doing things we wouldn't. It's best to remember that everyone is doing what they think is right for them.

As (US professor) Brene Brown said recently: "Surviving this crisis will take a shift in mindset, and that's tougher than we think - especially when we're afraid. Fear and anxiety can drive us to become very self-focused. This global pandemic is a real case of 'getting sick together' or 'staying well together.' Our choices affect everyone around us. There is no such thing as 'individual risk' or 'individual wellness.'

6. Eat well. It's going to be really easy to stay home and eat and drink too much but this will also affect our mental wellbeing. Doing online movement videos will also help.

7. Make sure you get enough sleep. Sleep hygiene (having a good sleep routine) is really helpful. If we get enough sleep we are more resilient and more able to handle stress - meditation can help this too.

8. Use this extra time or down time to do all those things you keep putting off. Seize the opportunity. That song, poem or book you always wanted to write. The cupboard you wanted to Marie Kondo? The paperwork that's piled up, the sewing, the baking, maybe the jigsaw you got for Christmas. Now's the time to enjoy these old forgotten hobbies as well as catching up on the novel reading or the Netflix shows.

9. Look for the good. Even in the worst situation there is always something positive. Take inspiration from the Italians singing to each other on their balconies. Maybe we have a chance to spend more time with our loved ones, maybe at last a chance to rest. There is always something good if deliberately look for it. Find something good in every day. Write it down if you can.

10. Practise gratitude. The moment we stop being grateful is the moment we stop being happy. We can't be anxious and grateful at the same time. Practice counting your blessings every day. Maybe start a gratitude journal or just pause every day and remember what you feel grateful for. It will make a huge difference.

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