For the past 28 years, April 1st has marked the beginning of Stress Awareness Month. Right now it feels especially relevant to recognize the ways stress impacts our health and identify helpful ways to cope in an uncertain world.
Our world has changed. Many are feeling a loss of control as the news around the world spins in so many scary directions. We have had to abruptly change the course of how we live our daily lives without a script on how to navigate the unknown or how to mitigate the fear and anxiety that come along with anticipating the impact this pandemic will have in the weeks and months to come.
Yet, what has not changed is our ability to gain control over our thoughts and tap into our innate ability to heal ourselves. We have tools within our reach right now to ease our nervous system and stay healthy when it's most important.
10 Ways to Manage Stress Right Now
Sleep - Stress and sleep are closely linked, and an imbalance in one will surely affect the other. Maintaining good "sleep hygiene" practices is one of the best ways to decrease stress and improve our overall health. Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and let natural light keep your internal clock on a natural sleep-wake cycle. If you must sleep during off-hours, utilize blackout shades or natural sleep aids like melatonin to help you get adequate sleep. Establish a pre-sleep routine to help your nervous system wind down and prepare for a restorative night's sleep. Good practices are: no electronic devices for an hour before bedtime, engaging in relaxing activities like a relaxing bath, drinking herbal tea, journaling, meditation or reading. Limit bedroom activities to sleep and sex only. If you do wake up during the night, resist the temptation to turn lights on and reach for the phone. Rather, try to limit stimulation and ease yourself back into a restful state.
Nutrition - We quite literally are what we eat in that what we take in makes us who we are down to a cellular level. If we want to be healthy and strong, the majority of our food choices should be a reflection of that. While it’s natural to crave comfort foods in times of uncertainty and stress it’s important to maintain a balance between nourishing what we need and indulging what we crave. Decrease or avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and processed foods as much as possible as all have been studied and are proven to stimulate the nervous system, and can contribute to increases in anxiety and depression. Eat organic, fresh produce when possible. One thing I have not seen wiped out on grocery store shelves are fresh fruits & veggies! Frozen fruits and vegetables are great options to limit frequent trips to the grocery store and still have roughly the same nutritional value. One of Chicago's largest farmer's markets, Green City Markets, is now offering delivery and pickup to keep high-quality goods available while maintaining social distancing.
Movement - The science behind how movement can change not only our bodies but our brains is quite real. Imaging studies of the brain show how the brain actually lights up after 10-20 minutes of even gentle movement. This activity in the brain activates "feel good" chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, a powerful way to combat feelings of stress, depression, chronic pain, and anxiety. Try getting up and stretching or inviting some gentle movement in for a minute or two each hour if possible. Many fitness centers are offering free or donation-based virtual classes to keep exercise available despite being homebound. Yoga is a great way to get moving with no requirements other than the ability to breathe and has powerful mind and body benefits. Great postures for calming stress levels are "legs up the wall" pose, gentle chest openers, and forward folds.
Get out in nature - Have you ever heard of forest bathing or earthing? Both are evidence-based wellness practices that have been shown to improve mood, increase our immune system health, and stop stress in its tracks by regulating our cortisol levels and flipping the switch from our "flight or fight" response to our more desirable "rest and digest" response. You can still get outside while practicing social distancing and protecting your health. Going for a walk, bike ride, or simply finding somewhere to get some exposure to fresh air and sunlight or get your bare feet rooted to the earth for just a few minutes can have big-time benefits.
Breathe - It’s easy to lose awareness of the quality and state of something as seemingly involuntary as breathing. While we don't have to remind ourselves to breathe for survival, we surely need to remind ourselves to breathe well, to keep our nervous system in balance. How often do you check in only to notice your breath is shallow, and oh yeah, your shoulders are tight and how long has your jaw been clenched? When we don't practice breathing in a relaxed state we become hard-wired to remain in a “flight or fight” response, and that takes all kinds of tolls on our mental and physical health. Take a moment several times a day to check in with the state of your breathing and do a full body scan to be aware of where you may be holding stress and tension in your body. Simply making your exhales slightly longer than your inhales is an effective way to invite relaxation in. Square breathing is another useful breathwork technique to regulate your nervous system.
Gratitude - “It could always be worse” is something we often tell ourselves or each other in an earnest attempt to put our current situation in perspective. While mostly true, that phrase can invalidate the very real feelings we are experiencing in the now. Instead, honor all of your experiences and current emotions just as they are, without judgment. Following that with acknowledging 5-10 things you have to be grateful for is a powerful tool to transform your state of mind. Regular practices in gratitude are scientifically proven to improve our psychological health and mental strength, reduce anxiety and increase empathy, improve sleep, and improve our relationships. Starting and/or ending your day with this quick gratitude practice is a great place to start.
Stay connected - Social distancing and sheltering at home are profoundly exacerbating the epidemic many already battle with - the loneliness epidemic. Many are working remotely and having little contact with other human beings. Virtual chats with friends over a cup of coffee or game night are important. The app Meetup.com has virtual gatherings and events for all kinds of interests and hobbies to keep people connected in the community. We all have mental health that needs regular maintenance. The feelings of uncertainty we have now can trigger some of us back to earlier life events where we might have felt extremely vulnerable and out of control. It's helpful to have someone to talk to and help you navigate those feelings. Luckily, telehealth is widely available to anyone right now. Let us know how we can help support you during this difficult time here.
But disconnect - While it's important to maintain valuable connections, we also need to be mindful of how much digital stimulation we are allowing in. Many of us are now connected to technology from the time we get up until we go to sleep, can we say system overload?! While it's important to stay up to date on what is happening in the current COVID-19 crisis, it's also important to realize that prolonged exposure to tragic and sad news will undoubtedly lead to increases in stress and feelings of depression and hopelessness. Try to limit your news exposure to catching up once or twice a day, put a reasonable limit on Netflix binging and mindless social media scrolling. Swap e-mails for an epsom salt bath!
Seek Joy - Amongst all of this we need to invite more pleasure and joy into our lives!!! Turn up the tunes and shake off your stress with a ridiculous living room dance party (bonus points if you invite friends for a Zoom dance off!), jump into a creative project you've been putting off, host a virtual potluck with friends or family. It's also a great time to start gardening or other outdoor projects at home. Laughter is powerful medicine, so find something that incites some big belly laughs!
Invest in Yourself - This is undoubtedly a time that will challenge our patience, our wits, and our best coping mechanisms. This is also a prime opportunity to take a look within and use this time as an opportunity to get to know yourself better, adopt some new habits and skills that will make you a happier, healthier, and more whole human ready to take on the world when we are able to get out there and do so again!