Managing Pandemic Stress With Ayurveda

Sweta Vikram

Last week, we sat in a plane for the first time since December 2019. Both my husband and I have been fully vaccinated for a while now. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been encouraging Americans to travel domestically. I know neither of us is reckless, but I was a little nervous. This trip was important to us and the people we were going to meet are very dear.

The night before our flight, I read an article in The New York Times about human resilience, and how a small percentage of people might experience post-traumatic stress after things open up fully. I did not believe it. I was a little uncomfortable about sitting in a plane. My aunt was in the ICU in India in a critical condition. One of my best friends lost her mother to Covid. Another friend lost her father to Covid. He caught the virus in a plane. My extended family and friends have been impacted. India itself was suffering on the whole.

The next morning, on our way to the airport, I saw that our Uber driver had a little statue of Ganesha in his car. Turns out he was a Nepalese American who had returned to driving Uber after a year.

“Life must go on,” he said. I took it as a sign that things were going to be okay, and I had to believe deeply.

The airport was busy, and I did not see much social distancing. Man, that was slightly unsettling. We have done indoor dining only in upstate New York in this past year (on our hiking trips) or in massive restaurants in Long Island (only three times a year). But I have not sat down inside a restaurant in NYC, when the Big Apple went on pause on March 14, 2020. Since then, it has only been delivery or take-outs.

Both at the airport and in the flight, my husband and I were double-masked and did not eat anything. An hour in the air, a passenger fell sick. The crew asked if there was a doctor on board. Turns out, there were none, so our flight got rerouted to Greensboro, North Carolina. By the time the medics arrived, and the passenger was on their way to the hospital, the pilot found out a mechanical failure in the engine. In case you didn’t know (I did not!), Greensboro is a tiny airport where they close all eating places between flights. So, for hours we sat in the aircraft, waiting to get the OK from the pilot. We still did not eat anything. I had brought my own water, so we took sips of that.

I meditated while we were on the runway in Greensboro. I said gratitude when we finally reached our destination later in the evening. A two-hour flight turned into an all-day expedition. I was reminded that everything happens for a reason. Had the sick passenger not asked for help, we would have been mid-air when the plane developed the mechanical failure. Who knows what that would have translated into?

Ayurveda and Travel

Ayurveda says that our vata dosha can get imbalanced when we travel.

What is vata?? You can read about it here in one of my #thebalancedlife SEEMA columns.

What I will tell you is that vata imbalance can create anxiety, nervousness, bloating, drying of the nostrils when up in the air, among other things.

Even before we got to the airport, I leaned into Ayurveda to help me get mentally prepared for my first post-lockdown flight. Here are a few tips that have helped me with my travels. Hopefully, they can help you as well. That said, please consult your physician before making any changes to your diet and lifestyle.

  1. Breathe Deeply: I am a big believer in mind over matter. I had several talks with the “self” about not caving into the fear of the unknown. It is important to acknowledge and name your triggers/fears…but do not let them take control of your life. You are not your mind. You are not your thoughts.
  2. Drink Warm Water: It is readily available everywhere (including in the airplane) and helps maintain the health of the digestive system. Vata imbalance can lead to digestive issues like bloating, constipation, and irregular bowel movements. Flight travel can mess up the digestive system. Hot water prevents it.
  3. Practice Fasting: One of my Ayurveda teachers says, “In the modern world, most of us die because of over-eating, not undereating. Fast when you can.” I chose to fast on the day of our trip. I wanted to avoid using the restrooms or pulling down my mask for any extended time to put food in my mouth. If you have a health condition and do not like the idea of skipping meals, then do not do it. Obviously, always check with your doctor. But I am personally a big fan of giving my digestive system a break every now and then. Also, emotions affect our food intake as well as digestion. If you are stressed, you might make food choices that are not best for you.
  4. Apply Nasya Oil: Nasya is the nasal administration of medicinal herbs, decoctions and oils. Dr. Vasant Lad, renowned Ayurveda expert and one of my teachers, says, “The nose is the door to consciousness and the pathway to our inner pharmacy.” Nasya oil is an herbal, infused oil, which is both nurturing and nourishing, and supports the sinus, nose, throat, and head. I love that it keeps the nasal pathway oleated because flying can make things uncomfortably dry.
  5. Practice Alternate Nostril Breathing: A few rounds of this beautiful breathing technique helps keep the mind calm by balancing the right and left hemispheres. Even when we were stuck on the runway, I did alternate nostril breathing. It is calming and centering. You will notice the brain chatter dissipate.
  6. Learn to disengage: Social media is fabulous, but it can be detrimental if we let it get to us. I made sure that I was not scrolling my screen(s) mindlessly. I was not getting sucked into the negativity out there. People are entitled to their opinion but some of it can feel a bit much. Make sure if you are nervous about sitting in a plane after an extended period of time, you do not expose your brain to anything that instills fear.
  7. Quiet the pseudo guilt: I am still grieving and hurting for what’s happening in India. One of my best friend’s mothers passed away a few days ago. So many I know are struggling. My father lives by himself, and in his seventies, he is cooking and cleaning. Ask yourself (and do the research), how you can best support India right now. Becoming people’s suffering does not help anyone; it is more about your ego. I can honestly say that getting away and taking a break replenished me. I have more energy and bandwidth to help those back home. The reality is that we are all burnt out.

Taking care of my mental health is important to me. I never pretend to be brave. There are days I can take on the world; there are moments when a couch and a cookie feel the safest. Stop defining yourself. Taking the first step and sitting in a plane in the post-vaccination world were monumental experiences. I am glad I did because now I feel less limited in my life choices. As Earl Nightingale said, “All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.” But listen to yourself and be discerning about what works for you.

If you are looking for tips on how to manage pandemic stress with Ayurveda, I recently launched a course. Try it!