The instructor on the after-work Zoom call speaks slowly to the half-dozen participants.
“Tune into what it feels like to breathe – not thinking about the breath, just being with the breath,” says Amy Noelle, an instructor at UCI’s Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute who has a master’s degree in physical therapy.
“Notice when your mind wanders, as minds do,” she continues, “and then kindly and gently return your attention to the physical sensations of breathing.”
The 20-minute virtual meditation session is among several free online courses the institute began offering to UCI employees, as well as the Orange County community, on April 13 to help ease anxiety and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Targeting front-line healthcare providers in particular, the well-being initiative underscores the institute’s focus on the mind, body and spirit, says its executive director, Dr. Shaista Malik, associate vice chancellor for UCI’s Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences and a professor in the campus’s School of Medicine.
The initiative also includes eight mindfulness-based stress reduction courses. The two-hour weekly sessions were immediately filled to capacity. That translates to 5,280 hours of free instruction for 240 people, with a waiting list of more than 200.
“There are some acute stressors that have taxed our already busy healthcare system and really pushed the limits of our providers,” Malik says. “So maintaining an adequate healthcare workforce that can care for high volumes of patients at their full potential becomes critically important over what could be an extended period of time.”
Dr. Nicole Reilly, a former anesthesiologist, is one of four mindfulness-based stress reduction teachers participating in the initiative. A mindfulness instructor at the institute for more than six years, she leads two sessions.
“I’m not used to teaching online, but I’ve actually grown accustomed to it, and I think it’s working well,” she says. “It’s an especially great opportunity for some people who might not have felt comfortable coming into a classroom.”
Meditation and mindfulness
Joy Kliewer, director of development for the UCI Health system, is in Reilly’s Thursday evening session. “It’s a lovely chance to take advantage of a free course that settles my mind in this surreal, wild world we’re living in,” she says.
Kliewer says that the class, which incorporates meditation, yoga and other stress-management strategies, gives her balance and focus after long days of online meetings and phone calls from her home office.
She praises Reilly for exuding a sense of calm during a time of great uncertainty. “She’s a loving guide and teacher who radiates peace and comfort,” says Kliewer, who also participates in the initiative’s 20-minute virtual meditation sessions.
Stanly Tran, a psychotherapist at Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach, scored a slot in Reilly’s Saturday morning mindfulness-based stress reduction course on his third attempt. A colleague at UCI Health had told him about the well-being initiative.
“I’ve practiced meditation for a year,” Tran says, “and this is really my first time trying to integrate into a community of meditation practitioners. This class actually pushes the threshold of what I’m comfortable doing, which is usually about 30 minutes of meditation. It’s kind of like working out with a personal trainer instead of working out alone.”
The sessions, he adds, help tweak his perspective on the coronavirus crisis. “Worrying can become obsessive and intrusive, which at that point isn’t beneficial,” Tran says. “You end up creating a narrative that becomes much more doom and gloom than it really has to be.”
Reilly says that one of her course goals is to get participants to “meet the moment” – stay focused on the present – as they did in childhood, when it was natural for them to be curious and playful, and not become consumed by what’s to come.
“I think it’s especially helpful during this pandemic to acquire some new coping skills, to learn how to navigate everything in a way that’s going to make us feel more in control and able to meet the moment without feeling so overwhelmed,” she says.
“There’s always going to be stress. And right now, for many people, it seems insurmountable. We need to ask ourselves how we can address this stress with more peace and ease.”