While we are still navigating the “new normal,” it is natural to feel increased levels of stress, anxiety and worry. There are many factors causing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s the unpredictability of the virus itself or factors such as loss of income, challenges affording food or concerns about health.
Stress by itself it not a bad thing—especially when it is helping us to handle difficult situations and avoid danger. Over an extended time, however, high levels of stress can take a toll on physical and mental health.
You have probably heard the term “fight or flight,” referring to the combination of reactions that happen in the body when we are stressed. Under stress, the heart pumps faster, blood vessels constrict, and blood pressure increases. The amount of sugar released into the bloodstream by the liver also increases, causing blood sugar to go up.
These reactions to stress are meant to be temporary, to give us energy and strength to escape imminent danger. Under situations where we are chronically stressed, however, the body continues to respond to the steady stream of stress hormones. Blood sugar and blood pressure remain elevated, which become detrimental to health. The immune system is also affected by stress. This system is temporarily improved by short-term stressors but, over time, chronic stress can weaken the body’s ability to fight infection.
Though stress can help us to survive dangerous situations in the short term, it does not serve us in the long term. These initial practices can help recognize stress causes and symptoms:
- Accept what you can control and let go of what you cannot control. Things you can control include continuing to follow social distancing and CDC-recommended guidelines to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Use reliable sources to stay informed on current pandemic updates: (Center for Disease Control and Prevention ;CDC) and World Health Organization; WHO)
- Recognize your signs/symptoms of stress. These will vary greatly from person to person, and identifying them is integral to catching stress early. Signs of stress include irritability, an upset stomach, tightening of certain muscle groups, increased hunger or food cravings and disrupted sleep patterns, among many others. Take a moment to target your signs/symptoms of stress.
Now that you’ve identified these symptoms, make a goal to identify stress early on and take part in these actions to keep calm and reduce overall stress levels.
- Breathe deeply or practice 4-7-8 breathing. Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, and breathe out for 8 seconds. Breathing helps us to cross over from the “sympathetic” or stressed out state of being to the “parasympathetic” state of relaxation.
- Exercise. Take socially distanced walks or bike rides, or find a way to get active in your own way. Exercise helps to reduce stress hormones and can improve mental health, as well.
- Have fun. Take time to do something you love, or try your hand at a new hobby. When you are engrossed in an activity that you enjoy, your brain enters into a near-meditative state, which benefits your mind, body and soul. Playtime is just as important as work time!
- Practice gratitude. Gratitude is strongly associated with physical and mental health benefits. It can be as simple as reflecting on one thing you are grateful for each day or telling someone why you appreciate having them in your life.
- Keep a journal. Journaling can reduce stress and worry and increase happiness. This can also be an outlet to reflect on and identify what your needs are. Doing so can help you set boundaries for friends and family members in this “new normal,” where personal space and boundaries may not already exist.
- Take breaks from the news and social media. Social media can be a form of connection, but it can also contribute to increased stress levels. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly through news and social media exposure can be upsetting. Try taking breaks to limit your exposure to stress-inducing updates.
- Create a routine. Setting a daily schedule or adding some type of structure to your day can help reduce the chaos and feelings of uncertainty. This routine can also include forms of self-care, like getting ready, exercising, praying, having meals at set times and meditating.
- Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Sharing these feelings helps to relieve stress and can help to validate the other person’s feelings and reduce their stress levels, as well.
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Eating is a common way that people (consciously or unconsciously) cope with stress. Eating can also serve as a distraction from life’s current realities. More often than not, the foods we crave while stressed are high in fat and simple sugars. Emotional, or stress eating, can help to alleviate the negative emotions in the short term but will often leave us feeling even more depleted afterward, leading to guilt, physical discomfort or undesirable changes to weight. If you know you are engaging in emotional or stress eating, or this is something you are prone to during times of stress, you are not alone. Read this article to identify ways to curb emotional eating. Strive for balanced eating, including a variety of complex carbohydrates (whole grains like oats, whole wheat bread or pasta, or brown rice), protein, fruits and vegetables to feel energized and better equipped to take part in other stress-relieving activities.