Stress Management during COVID-19
I have spent the last week trying to assess what information I wanted to share with you during this scary time. Of course, there are recipes and immune-boosting tips that I can share, but at the end of the day, the same conversations flood timelines and Facebook messanger. We are stressed, fearing the safety and health of ourselves and our loved ones and worrying about our financial futures. Our routines have changed, and our entire world as we know it has been flipped upside-down. Above all of the other factors of health, stress is always the last to be addressed. Not this time, though. Managing our stress response needs to be a priority for our physical health and our mental wellbeing.
Long term stress can be harmful to the immune system. Unfortunately, this situation counts as chronic, long term stress. It has been a solid two weeks of fluctuating emotions and then does not appear to be in sight. Any cortisol response ignites a cascade of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6, IL-1B, IL-18, and TNF-a. (Liu, Wang, Jiang, 2017). Under acute conditions, these pro-inflammatory cytokines are protective. Long term, however, can inhibit the immune system, and they can increase the risk of illness, vulnerability to infections, and chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease (Morey, Boggero, Scott, & Segerstrom, 2015; Kaptoge et al., 2014). Long term exposure to IL-6, notably, has been correlated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, which is still the number one cause of death worldwide.
Why am I telling you this? Because it is now more than ever that we need to take advantage of the time that we have to put forth the best efforts for our health and wellness, starting with our stress response. I will be the first to tell you that I am experiencing the weight of this situation too. I have anxious tendencies, and I am an empath. Not only was I feeling the uncertainty and worry I was producing, but the overflow from the world around me was suffocating. Going to the grocery store was the hardest part because I could feel the vibration of fear around me. The air felt heavy. Now I am managing my emotions much better, grounding myself, and protecting my energy from the world around me, and that has helped me tremendously. I want to share with you a few ways that have helped me manage my stress response in hopes that you will find benefit from them as well.
Be accepting and adaptable
Coming from someone that has a false sense of control, I must say this first talking point has been my biggest challenge. We have all faced a sudden shift in our everyday life. Work routines, child care, eating patterns, and gym time have changed or even stopped. Grocery stores are missing standard kitchen staples in a time where eating it home is almost necessary. Many of these encounters that we are facing right now are out of our control. What is in our control is how we respond to these situations. It is imperative to be adaptable and flexible. Challenging your own beliefs and meeting yourself where you in the most loving, self-accepting way possible helps us build self-compassion and transition through these challenges with ease.
Let’s look at the difference between puddles and rivers. They are both made of water. However, the difference is the ability for the water to flow. In a puddle, water simply collects, not moving, sometimes growing, but ultimately puddles shrink and become dirty. Water continuously flows in a river, however, always changing. The water you see today in the river is not the same water you saw yesterday. The changes in our current situation are not permanent, but we need to be adaptable to the surroundings, just like the river, to ease through the constant changes. If we become rigid and keep a closed mind, we will become stagnant, carry the weight of the world, and come clouded just like the puddle.
Being flexible is easier when you practice self-acceptance and meet yourself where you currently are. It would be irrational to assume we can all adapt to these circumstances instantly. Meeting yourself where you are at reduces the resistance and the guilt that you may be experiencing. Trust the process and know that it is ok if you did not get your to-do list accomplished today. Honor your progress that you are making through this journey. The best you can do today may not be the same as yesterday or tomorrow. But it is the best you can do, and that is enough.
What can you do to help yourself be more self-accepting and adaptive?
Keep a journal. Journals are handy for brain dumping all of the emotions out of your head and onto paper. Brain dumps free up extra space in your mind and allows you to think clearer. Follow up a brain dump with a list of things you are grateful for and things that you love about yourself. Refer back to that list when you need a reminder.
Instead of trying to “fix” yourself, honor where you are now. Look at how far you have come and where you are going. You are currently a perfect version of yourself. Let go of the limiting beliefs that you need to “fix” anything about you for you to accept and love yourself.
Try not to criticize yourself. We are all treading in new territories for the next few weeks. Criticizing yourself for anything is unfair to yourself because you have never been here before. Negative self-talk keeps us in a negative mindset.
If you are feeling like your daily routine isn’t working for you, evaluate what you can do to improve it, and implement one action step at a time. Reach out to a friend, family member, or health coach for support and accountability.
Process your feelings and remember your strengths. Think back to other times in your life that you may have felt anxious, tested, and uneasy. What worked for you then? Was there a self-motivation book that you read? A favorite song? A strategy that you adopted? Although the situation may be different, you may find comfort and strength in sources that have helped you previously.
Grounding and Shielding
I mentioned earlier that it physically felt hard for me to go out to the grocery store due to the overwhelming anxiety I was picking up from everyone else. Let alone the natural unease I was experiencing. It seemed like I was off-kilter, and it was a bit difficult to find my footing again. Once I started acting on the simple grounding and shielding techniques, it felt as though a weight had lifted off my chest. It takes almost no effort to lose yourself up in what is happening around us. Grounding is the process of reconnecting yourself back to the present moment and your reality. It can help establish feelings of connection to the world around you currently when you are feeling detached from your surroundings. The sense of detachment is commonly associated with higher levels of stress and concern about the future and is valid to feel this way. Practicing grounding techniques can help reduce the effects of stress, clear your mind, and aid in your ability to shift your focus towards the here and now.
There are multiple techniques to ground yourself. Here are a few of my favorites:
Walk outside barefoot and feel a physical connection with Earth and nature. I love walking barefoot, feeling the grass under my feet. Theory suggests that when we connect barefoot to the Earth, there is an ion exchange that leaves us (literally) recharged.
Take a walk outside. Although a lot of us are in a shelter in place, we are still able to go out and be apart of nature. The weather is warming. Take a walk, count your steps, listen to the birds, and take deep inhalations of fresh air. Nature is comforting, and exercise increases endorphins.
Identify something in your surroundings with each of your senses. What do you currently see? What do you smell? Is there something you can taste? What can you hear? What do you feel? Engaging in your senses is one of the easiest ways to bring yourself to the present moment. Use essential oils for the smell, or a warm cup of tea for the taste and fully engage in the experience.
Meditation and visualization is a versatile technique that is customizable to each person. I like to start by sitting in a comfortable position and taking deep breaths. The only thing I focus on for the first few minutes is breathwork. After a few minutes, I visualize myself growing roots out of my body and into the ground. Every breath I take makes my roots grow more profound and more durable. Like the roots of trees holding them steady when the wind blows, my roots keep me grounded during times of turmoil.
This practice does not have to take more than 15 minutes, but it is an excellent way to focus your mind and feel strong throughout your day.
Shielding is a critical technique for everyone, but more importantly for people that pick up the emotional energies of others. Shielding protects yourself from energy drains or heavy energy loads. When I said the air felt heavy, it is because of the large number of people that are feeling fear, worry, and anxiety, and I was picking up all of it. Shielding is an extension of the visualization practice described above. It is visually constructing a shield around your that not only prevents your energy from escaping but also prevents you from collecting the energy of others.
Here is how I incorporate shielding into my grounding meditation:
Once I visualize my strong and steady roots, I shift my focus back into my breathing. With each breath, I imagine an increase in energy within my center. Each inhalation I feel positive energy flowing in, and with each exhalation, I release the feelings that do not serve me.
Once I feel full of positive energy, I visualize it expanding around me like a bubble. I identify as many characteristics of my bubble or shield as possible. The stronger the visualization, the more effective it will be.
When I am ready to release my meditation, I imagine the bubble forming close around me like a rubber suit, and absorbing back into my center.
I like to end my meditations with prayer, journaling, and tea, but this practice will vary for everyone. The purpose behind these techniques is to bring your awareness back into the present moment and protect yourself from the overflow of negative energy. If you are interested in other ways to incorporate grounding or would like help with a guided meditation, I would be more than willing to walk you through it.
Do the best you can to live a healthy lifestyle
I cannot stress to you enough the importance of living a healthy lifestyle during a pandemic. Not only do we want to adopt a healthy lifestyle to boost our immune system now and in the future, but we want to be able to find healthy coping mechanisms that may provide relief to stress and build resiliency. Right now, we don’t want to be drinking, smoking, eating junk food, and being sedentary. These are examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms that decrease your immune function and increase feelings of anxiety and depression. Yes, your lifestyle habits can alter your moods for better or for worse.
By living a healthy lifestyle in a pandemic, I am not saying we need to be drinking green juices daily, and obviously, we cannot go to the gym at this time. We can, however, make more mindful choices in our daily routine to optimize our mental state.
Here are a few examples:
Take regular breaks from sitting down. A lot of us are working from home. To our advantage, though, we can get up and stretch, step outside, dance it out, and other forms of movement that would otherwise be limited in the office. Schedule breaks every hour if you can.
Many fitness facilities are adapting to online classes. Zumba, yoga, bodyweight exercises, and more are available at the push of a button. To our advantage, we can wear what we want! 😉
Reduce exposure to social media. Seriously, if I can give you any other piece of advice to help you find peace of mind, it would be to provide yourself with a time frame to be Facebook and limit yourself to that.
Don’t forget to take your daily supplements.
Get restful sleep. Put your cellphone or laptop away 30 minutes to an hour before bed. The rush on anxiety makes it difficult to sleep. Create an evening routine that will help you wind down before bed.
Be mindful of food choices, limit sugar snacking, and make the best of what you have. Don’t forget fruits and vegetables when possible. Don’t forget to eat, because stress can cause people not to have an appetite. Pinterest is a resource for finding recipes, and I can even provide some insight into making the best out of what you have available. I’ve seen the memes, and it is kind of like an episode of Chopped right now. I can help with that.
In summary, we can all do our best daily. Remind ourselves that we are doing the best that we can right now. Take the time to honor the journey—ground and shield yourself. Make the best choices for a healthy lifestyle as possible. Most of all, I encourage everyone to reach out to your family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues to just check on them. There are a lot of stressed and scared people out there right now. Social distancing is necessary to flatten the curve, but it doesn’t mean everyone responds well to it. Depression and anxiety are increasing, and it is essential to continue to communicate with everyone as often as possible.
Until next time, healthy blessings, my friends.
Kaptoge, S., Seshasai, S. R., Gao, P., Freitag, D. F., Butterworth, A. S., Borglykke, A., Di Angelantonio, E., Gudnason, V., Rumley, A., Lowe, G. D., Jørgensen, T., & Danesh, J. (2014). Inflammatory cytokines and risk of coronary heart disease: new prospective study and updated meta-analysis. European heart journal, 35(9), 578–589. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/eht367
Liu, Y. Z., Wang, Y. X., & Jiang, C. L. (2017). Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 11, 316. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00316 (Links to an external site.)
Morey, J. N., Boggero, I. A., Scott, A. B., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2015). Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Current opinion in psychology, 5, 13–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007