There’s no denying it: These are high-stress times. Unemployment and furloughs, abandoning our cubicles and posting up at the dining room table, schools going online, malls, restaurants, and movie theaters shutting their doors, and beaches being barred for the foreseeable future.
We may not notice that our stress levels are through the roof, but nail-biting, insatiable snacking, and hours of counting sheep to no avail are signs that our bodies are feeling the effects, even if we’re unaware, says Joshua O. Zimmerman, MD, Senior Medical Director of Behavioral Health at HealthPartners. Control is a big factor: lack of control amps up stress levels.
A global pandemic accelerates this problem. When the future is all but up in the air, and we have almost no control over the span of the novel coronavirus, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, helpless, and, well, stressed.
“When stress levels are elevated, our ‘fight or flight’ system becomes overactive, making us feel like there is potential danger right around the corner,” says Dr. Zimmerman. “This can result in feeling tense, worried, having trouble focusing, insomnia, [and] feeling more emotional, edgy, or irritable.”
Other symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, and lack of interest in activities, says Meghan Miller, PsyD, LP, Clinical Director for the Mental Health and Addiction Service Line at Allina Health. Long term, stress can have detrimental effects on the body and change the chemical makeup of the brain. Although the fight or flight response is common, Dr. Miller says many times stress is more ambiguous and may not be connected to a tangible source of danger (i.e. COVID-19). “In these situations, it is important to manage stress through selfcare strategies.”
Online shopping—though fun—is not the right answer for stressed-out souls. But there are ways of decompressing, so we aren’t endlessly wound up for the coming weeks and months. (Trust us, your wallet will thank you for taking these pros’ tips instead of ordering three more pairs of sneakers.)
Let’s Get Physical
Skin inflammation, fidgeting, and trouble sleeping can be eased by getting a little sweat in each day (or as often as you can manage). “A moderate amount of regular exercise also helps reduce our ‘fight or flight’ response,” Dr. Zimmerman says.
The Minnesota Department of Health suggests in its COVID-19 stress-relief chart that yoga and other mind-body exercises promote coping, relaxation, and focus. “Many studies have found that, after beginning a yoga program, people feel less stressed, more focused, even more optimistic. In fact, yoga’s been found to be even more beneficial to people who are highly stressed,” says Mayo Clinic.
With empty streets and ample paths and trails, hopping out for a walk, run, or pedal is another easy way to get your heart pumping and enjoy the warmer days ahead—just remember to keep a safe six feet from others.
“My best tip would be to step outside and enjoy the weather,” Dr. Miller says. She recommends taking walks and getting fresh air to boost spirits. “There is something about this time of year that, as soon as we feel the sunshine and the warmth, other negative parts of the day seem to begin to resolve and we have just a little added bounce to our step.”
Regular exercise and healthy diet habits can boost immune health and improve stress levels, says the Minnesota Department of Health. Plan out healthy meals, Dr. Miller says—instead of wandering to the fridge and scrounging up easy meals or snacking continually from nine to five.
We struggle to leave our desks at the office, but at the home-office it’s even more important. Dr. Miller recommends taking small breaks throughout the workday. Overcome your desk-separation anxiety: set aside time for meals, take a lap around your living room, or catch some rays for a few minutes daily. Use a break to take a few deep breaths, she adds.
Mind your Zs. Eight hours of sleep each night can boost physical health and ward off stress, Dr. Miller says.
If you’re having trouble getting shut-eye, try a few relaxation techniques from Mayo Clinic. Some involve visualizing a calm or peaceful place, focusing on breathing, and tensing and relaxing specific muscles, while others are as simple as diffusing your fave essential oil or getting a massage. (If you’re quarantined with a buddy, take turns giving gentle at-home massages.)
Play a Game
Engaging your mind in a game or focused activity can lower stress and improve mood and outlook. Dr. Miller suggests doing a puzzle or crossword, playing a game with family, or pursuing a new hobby (no, binge-watching Tiger King is not a new hobby). May we suggest honing a coveted skill like flipping omelets in the pan, taking well-lit, flattering selfies, or cultivating a succulent collection that isn’t dead by July.
Close Your Eyes
Not for sleep this time though. Slow down the spinning wheels in your head by finding a quiet space, Dr. Miller says. “Close your eyes and imagine being in one of your favorite places.” Imagine a different beloved place each time you practice.
Also: eat chocolate. (No, this is not a drill.) “You can implement relaxation into your routine by eating chocolate slowly and noticing every aspect of the taste and texture,” Dr. Miller says. We’re so on board with this idea.
Limit News & Social Media Time
Although we like to stay abreast of the news, all that information fuels the fear fire. Cutting down on news and social media exposure can help prevent misinformation and give us a mental break from virus coverage, reducing stress levels.
The Minnesota Department of Health also recommends going to reputable sources, like MDH itself and the CDC, to avoid speculation and rumors.
“For now, we have no control over how long this pandemic will continue, but we have control over our personal schedule and daily structure.” Dr. Meghan Miller, Allina Health
All the Feels
Connect with Others
Social distancing = physical distance, not emotional distance. This is possibly the only time experts will actually recommend screen time—grab your four-buck-chuck and Zoom cheers with friends, schedule a virtual family Bingo night. Get your face time via… FaceTime. Or put down the phone and enjoy quality time with the folks you live with. MDH encourages Minny residents to prevent loneliness and social isolation by connecting using technology.
Less socializing and fewer external distractions during the Stay at Home order presents an opportunity to get to know yourself a little better. Check in on your mood daily, Dr. Miller suggests—this is our long-awaited opportunity to create a Pinteresty mood tracker diagram. If colorful diagrams aren’t up your alley, try writing down how you’re feeling, either using your phone or putting pen to paper IRL. Registering and processing your feelings can benefit emotional well-being, she says.
Reframe stressors into positive thoughts and opportunities. Easier said than done, we know. But, she says, “instead of ‘we are stuck at home with nothing to do,’ think: ‘Now would be a great time to finally paint that room!’”
“One of the worst things about stress is that it creates a sense of lack of control,” HealthPartners’ Dr. Zimmerman says. “Making lists of concrete goals and things you want to accomplish each day can help a lot.” The Monica Gellers of the world are already embracing the check-box method of stress management, but a quarantine to-do list should create small victories, not add pressure.
“As humans, we do like to feel in control; however, we are not always particular about what we control,” says Dr. Miller. “For now, we have no control over how long this pandemic will continue, but we have control over our personal schedule and daily structure.” For children and people working from home, routines can foster a sense of control and normalcy, lowering stress when the rest of the world is in limbo. Here’s to changing out of our sweatpants one day this week!
Establishing good habits is just as important as preventing bad ones. Dr. Zimmerman says, “During times of stress, it is good to watch that bad habits, like drinking too much alcohol, don’t take over as a short-term fix.” Nationally, alcohol sales amid the coronavirus pandemic are soaring at supermarkets and liquor stores, and even online. Try fueling up with water instead (especially if you’re combatting the Quarantine 15 with extra exercise).
Source: MSP Mag