I Started Meditating for the First Time in Quarantine—And Now I’ll Never Go Back

It's the only part of my new normal that I’ll be sticking with long after this pandemic has passed.

I think it’s safe to say that we’re all feeling a little stressed out right now—or a lot stressed out. There are so many lingering questions about the novel coronavirus and our future. As someone who is already a bona fide germaphobe, COVID-19 has heightened my fear of germs and caused a lot of unwelcome anxiety.

Getting acclimated to working from home has also introduced a whole slew of issues for some, but as a freelance writer, I’m used to spending work hours with my laptop on my couch. Although, now, my days are also spent neurotically wiping down every apple and box of oatmeal with a Clorox wipe before it gets past my front door.

Much like the rest of the world, I have had to come to terms with this new normal as a result of this global pandemic. To that end, I decided to find new ways to channel my energy and stay optimistic while swimming in a pool of unknowns. Though, frankly, I’d rather trade in my cocktail of stress, fear, and anxiety for a real cocktail. I was craving an escape—a brief moment in time to just press pause on what was happening around the world. It became evident that there was no better time to start something I had always wanted to do but always put off: meditating.

Meditating during a pandemic

I always wanted to meditate, but I fell prey to myriad excuses, including “I can’t sit still!” and the all-too-common: “My thoughts are moving at 100 mph and it’s impossible to stop them!” Since a virus turned me into a prisoner in my own home, I had all the time in the world and no excuses. I longed to experience the benefits of meditation that dozens of highly acclaimed authors, world-renowned doctors, and even Hollywood celebrities have touted for years.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone in turning to meditation. Headspace, the popular wellness app, reported a 19 times increase in users completing a “Stressed” calming meditation. Megan Jones Bell, PsyD, chief science officer at Headspace, wasn’t surprised. “Uncertainty is generally psychologically hard for people to manage, and there is so much real uncertainty right now. This lack of stability can fuel anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness, and create unprecedented levels of stress,” she explains. “We’ve seen over a 1,700 percent increase in the use of our impermanence and change content, which reflects the support people are seeking in handling uncertainty.”

Headspace is currently offering health care providers in the United States free access to its premium content for the remainder of 2020. Here are another 25 ways you can relax that don’t cost a cent.

Your many options for achieving zen

The beauty of meditation is that it can be done in the comfort of your own home without any equipment. For that reason, many fitness studios and meditation centers are continuing to offer services during the quarantine through video-conferencing tools, like Zoom. Apps are already perfectly set up for at-home practice. Breethe has even created a free platform on its site called Inner Wellness for Coronavirus. It has, not surprisingly, turned into the app’s second most popular meditation, after its sleep meditation.

Sarah McLean, a master trainer at the McLean Meditation Institute, says that McLean has been offering meditations three times a day online, and up to 100 people from all over the world join them for each session. “We are hearing that people are tuning in because they are starting a meditation practice, or some are joining to ramp up the practices that they had left behind,” she says. “They are finding the online community and being ‘alone together’ makes their day easier. Some are older and living alone; others join in from their new ‘home office.'”

In short, it’s one of the most calming yet productive things you can do when you’re stuck inside.

My first time

As a first-timer, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I did know that I didn’t have the discipline to meditate on my own. I needed a guide. I looked into a few of the leading meditation apps, and I was immediately drawn to Insight Timer, which came highly recommended by my friends who regularly meditated. It’s free to download, and there are more than 30,000 free meditations; for $60 a year, users can get access to premium content. Since I wasn’t ready to fully commit, I thought I would test the waters with the free library of content that was readily available.

Yoga matD-Keine/Getty Images

I chose to begin my practice on a Monday since it seemed like a good way to start my week. As usual, my alarm went off at 7:30 a.m., but instead of beginning my morning ritual to get ready, I got up and laid my yoga mat in my living room, where I get the most natural sunlight. I opened the Insight Timer app and browsed through hundreds of instructor images and meditations, looking for one that called my attention. The app allowed me to select how I wanted to meditate (by the length of time, with music, guided or not, etc.), so I clicked through to guided meditations. The one titled, “A Message of Hope,” by Sarah Blondin seemed timely.

Staying focused

As I sat cross-legged on my yoga mat facing the outside world, I immediately felt anxious and suddenly had a list of “things to do” jogging through my mind. I pressed play and slowly closed my eyes as I took a big breath in. In the first few minutes, Sarah shared personal anecdotes and described the whirlwind of emotions that the world is unanimously experiencing right now. Relaxing piano music started playing in the background and the meditation began. Sarah’s calming voice led me through each minute with her words of strength and guidance, which steered me into focus and reminded me that I am OK.

Fleeting thoughts would sporadically hijack my mind, but I always found my way back to Sarah’s soothing voice. Eighteen minutes of deep breaths, meditation, and what felt like a mini-therapy session was the overwhelming release I didn’t know I needed. Here are more ways to declutter your mind.

The next morning, I tried a different teacher for variety. I did that for the next few days, and it allowed me to develop a preference for a particular style and voice over time. Some mornings, I meditated for only 10 minutes, others for 20 minutes, but the one constant was that it became the first thing I did in the morning. Having a designated area in my home has also helped me to create a routine that I didn’t stray from. Meditation started to feel more and more natural, and it surprisingly became the highlight of each day.

The benefits of meditating

It’s no secret that meditation has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety effectively, as well as provide a number of immune-boosting benefits. “When we meditate, we are reversing the biological damage caused by stress and trauma,” explains psychiatrist James S. Gordon, MD, a clinical professor at Georgetown Medical School and the founder and executive director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. “Concentrative, mindfulness and expressive meditations all balance the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response and quiet activity in the amygdala, a center of the emotional brain responsible for fear and anger.”

After just a few days of meditating, I could feel the ripple effects that meditation was having on my mental health and my ability to calm my nerves. It allowed me to stay present and focused versus being anxious about a precarious future. “Establishing this biological balance quiets the stress response, lowers stress hormones, and makes us less vulnerable to chronic physical and psychological illness, including the inflammation that can play such a destructive role in precipitating illness and compromising our immune response,” says Dr. Gordon.

Why I’m hooked for life

Meditation can come in many forms. Sitting in silence with your eyes closed is one method. Listening to a guided meditation is another. “Understand that meditation is not difficult or particularly strange—that it is simply entering a state of relaxed, moment-to-moment awareness,” says Dr. Gordon. “There are many different kinds of meditation, and no one kind is good for everyone.” Meditation is not a one size fits all—you have to find the method that works for you.

Personally, I enjoy following guided meditations because they allow me to set the intention for that specified time period by focusing my energy on the theme of the session. It’s a practice that is now part of my daily ritual and I look forward to continuing it long after these quarantine days are over.

Next, check out these 12 breathing exercises that can help you relax in minutes.

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Leila Najafi
Leila Najafi is a regular contributor to RD.com's Travel and E-commerce sections. Her work has also appeared on Thrillist, NBC News, 10Best.com by USA Today, HuffPost, and Eater among other sites. Leila covers destination guides, cultural pieces, home and wellness topics. She earned her MBA from Loyola Marymount University and B.S. in Anthropology from UCLA.