20 Seconds

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, maybe basic hygiene is our ticket to staying sane

Apeksha Atal
9 min readMar 25, 2020
Photo by Noah on Unsplash

I was a junior in college when I downloaded Headspace. I remembered opening some Buzzfeed article or the other and looking at ways to keep stress-induced anxiety in-check. I was double majoring, I was working a few jobs, I was living away from my family, and I was also just trying to exist as a human being. The least I could do was find some way to give myself space to breathe — especially when I was so good at pretending like I didn’t need it.

I went through a few courses on Headspace. I did the foundational courses, and went through some on sleep and creativity, but the one that resonated with me the most was the one that had inspired my subscription in the first place: Managing Anxiety.

The funny thing about taking a course in anxiety management, is that your anxiety can make you want it to go faster. During sessions, I often found my mind wandering, impatiently contemplating whether the course was worth it. When my guide’s cool British voice would call me back into my breathing, I was scold myself for not paying attention to the instructions. The words “why isn’t this working” came up again and again. It took a lot of patience for me to even get through the first few exercises thoroughly. I kept restarting the course, frustrated with my behavior.

While taking this course, I encountered two pieces of advice that have proved to be relevant again and again in my life. The first was more of a technique than advice, which my guide (I think his name is Andy) called “Noting”. This is essentially the process of noticing when your thoughts are starting to spiral and summoning the mental power to pin those spiralling thoughts down as either thoughts or feelings. You have to sort of remove yourself from your thoughts and look at them as an outsider — is this thought really helping me right now? Am I reacting to something or just trying to reason something out? How can I be more productive with this line of thought?

The second piece of advice stemmed from a homework assignment that appeared pretty early on in the course. At the end of one of the sessions, while signing off, Andy asked that I try to really pay attention to what I do during the course of the next day. I lightly scoffed when I heard this, assuming that it was something I did already, obviously. Boy, was I wrong.

The next day I caught myself putting toothpaste on my brush and then suddenly being done brushing. It was almost like it had happened involuntarily. Where was my mind? Thinking about some assignment I had due later. It happened again and again during the course of the day. I was blinking my way between tasks and encounters, all the while thinking about something that was either yet to happen or long gone. It was infuriating.

That evening when I ordered dinner, I sat and looked at my plate really hard. I picked up my sandwich very slowly, trying to pay attention to how much pressure I was applying to the bread, how far it was from my face, and the muscles I was using to transport it towards my face. I bit down, suddenly too aware of what my jaw, tongue, and teeth were all doing. I swallowed, really thinking about the flavor components of what I had just eaten. After that bite I looked back down and sighed. That was enough mindful action for the day.

I started using this as an anxiety management mechanism whenever I felt really out of control. The way some people turn to their breath, I started narrowing down on the things I was doing in the moment. Interestingly, the times when I found this easiest to do, were the times when I was cleaning. Sometimes it was when I was doing the dishes. Sometimes it was when I was showering. Many times, it was when I was washing my hands.

I started a new job just under two months ago, and being the workaholic that I am, have already found ways to work myself into the ground. The condition I set with myself? Work stays at work, and home is for downtime. I never took my laptop out of my bag once I crossed the barrier of my front door. I even went to the extent of going over to friend’s house if I absolutely needed to do work outside of regular hours. This gave me time to run in the mornings, and watch movies with my parents at night. I had time to practice driving, eat dinner with my family, and call my friends overseas, even with crazy time differences. I really felt like I’d struck a strong sense of work/life balance, something to be proud of.

Flash-forward to two weeks ago, when I sat down for the first of many days of working from home. With my eyes staring at monitors all day, I started getting gnarly headaches. I found myself turning to books to destress, seeking any time possible away from the harsh lighting of a blinding screen.

I often like to say that getting sick is the body’s way of telling you to slow down. Right now, it feels like the whole planet is kind of sick, so I’m trying to approach this from a similar angle. Maybe it’s time for us to slow down a little bit, at least in our day-to-day lives. Maybe we don’t need to travel as urgently as we might have believed. Maybe we don’t need to see that new movie right at this very moment. Maybe we can deal with a little space from our friends and loved ones, and use technology to connect with others. Maybe we can also step away from our computers, and just take a second to breathe.

I started organizing little family-wide “mindfulness hours” in the mornings, where my mom, dad, and I all sat outside for an hour in the morning and engaged in some activity that didn’t involve screens. It was amazing.

In that same vein, I turned back to books that had been lying on my bookshelf for weeks, and sketches that I had left uncolored. The sudden burst of energy I had inspired in myself ebbed and flowed. One moment I was nose-deep in Catcher in the Rye. The next moment, however, I was back on my phone, obsessing over a New York Times notification that had popped up.

It’s now been a couple weeks of social distancing and self-quarantining, and Prime Minister Modi just announced a 21 day country-wide lockdown. I can feel myself getting a little crazy. The smallest things I missed the chance to do before the COVID-19 panic hit India have started to bother me so much. Why didn’t I go to the salon and get my gel nail polish removed? Why didn’t I get that massage when I was starting to feel soreness in my back and legs? Why didn’t we try that awesome restaurant across town? Why? Why? Why?

While these are obviously not the most pressing problem in society, they seem to find ways to piss me off on a daily basis. On one end, I’m sitting down, absolutely horrified by the growing number of cases, health concerns, racial slurs, and limited resources around the world. On the other end, I’m upset that my nails look awful, that I haven’t had the energy to really “create” much during this time. On top of that, my coping mechanisms haven’t exactly evolved into a pinnacle of “mindfulness”. I’ve been melting my mind between meetings and movies.

The truth is, we’re all going to be dealing with problems until this virus decides to calm down, and for those of us who can, we need to go a little easier on ourselves. Acknowledge that things are frustrating, show yourself some grace. Yes, some of the greatest minds in human history created great art during times of hardship, but those great minds also had to take care of themselves to make sure they had the mental and physical capacity to be productive. They also didn’t have the internet to distract them, but that’s besides the point.

A lot of the initial messaging around COVID-19, was largely centered around keeping oneself healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, eating right, and practicing basic hygiene. As I’m sure many of you remember, one of the first PSAs that made its rounds of the global community was incredibly simple: “Wash your hands”. Actually, it wasn’t just that, it was something more along the lines of “Wash your hands properly”.

Washing your hands properly entails something that I think it immensely useful to us, especially my fellow anxious folks, during this trying time in human history. You really have to pay attention to what you’re doing. There are, in fact, a few things you have to pay attention to. You have to keep track of how long you’re doing it (sometimes with a fun song — I like to sing the Steven Universe theme song), what parts of your hands you’re covering, how you’re turning the water stream on and off, and how you’re drying off after. You have to pay so much attention, but also you also get to pay so much attention.

That’s 20 seconds that you can’t think about any space outside of the sink that you’re in front of. That’s 20 seconds where you are not thinking so hard about the potential symptoms of COVID-19 that you’re fooling yourself into thinking you suddenly cannot breathe. That’s 20 seconds where you’re not thinking about who you need to respond to, now that you’re on call all the time, and when on earth you’re going to find time to get super buff without leaving your home. All of these thoughts, have to wait, at least for those 20 seconds. Those 20 seconds, my friends, are yours.

I cannot tell you, how oddly comforting it has been knowing that I have both an obligation to my mind and body to put my full energy into my hand-washing time. It’s reminded me of a plethora of other tasks that I now do in the confines of my home, with the same few people surrounding me everyday, that I can pay a little extra attention to. I sometimes focus on how the keys on my keyboard clack when I type, and take measure of how long my legs are when I’m moisturizing after a shower. I’m trying to sip my tea a little slower, and take in what other people are saying to me for a little longer before I offer up a response. It’s a work in progress, but I find comfort in knowing that it’s work that I’m putting into myself. By keeping myself mindful and present in the moment, I am making my ability to stay indoors a little stronger. I am also freeing up the mental energy, which has given me space to start drawing, reading, and — now — writing again. That’s how I know it’s been working.

That being said, it’s important to know that everything in moderation is important. Even washing your hands too much, putting that extra pressure to stay as physically sanitary as possible, can dry out your hands, and take a toll on your mind. I know I’m taking this time to seek balance in the way I approach my mindfulness — letting it come to me as needed, rather than forcing it upon myself, making it just another part of a routine.

Let washing your hands be a break, not a burden, and remember that it comes with a happy side effect — showing this virus who’s boss.

I wish health and safety to you, wherever you are. Also, for the love of humanity, please stay in your homes.

If you can, please consider donating to your local food bank, and supporting those on the front-lines of this global health crisis. Say thank you to your grocers, healthcare workers, and everyone who is risking their health and safety at this time. Check in with your friends and loved ones, especially those in heavily affected areas. Take care of yourself. Do your part. Be safe ❤



Apeksha Atal

Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time