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Manage Your Stress during Times of Crisis
Whether it's the coronavirus or another crisis that triggers waves of stress, learning how to relax and find perspective is crucial.
Watching or reading the news can be a little stressful even in the calmest of times. But when the daily headlines bring on a cascade of alarming health news about the current coronavirus pandemic, it's only natural to feel overwhelmed and anxious.
"Excessive anxiety is a common response to situations like this, and we need to manage our own anxiety as best we can," says Maurizio Fava, MD, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the Division of Clinical Research at the Mass General Research Institute.
These days, it can seem harder than ever to keep your stress level under control, but it is especially important because of the health risks associated with stress. Apart from triggering feelings of anxiety or depression that can interfere with our daily functions and long term mental health, stress can also affect our ability to stay healthy and defend against illnesses ranging from COVID-19 to a common cold. Stress immunity and disease progression are all related.
Stress triggers an immune response and creates inflammation through-out the body. Inflammation is associated with mental health challenges and most serious health concerns.
"At a time when we experience COVID-19, a threat to our health and the health of our friends, families, and community, our stress levels tend to increase significantly, and this can have negative effects on both our physical and mental health," Dr. Fava explains. "Stress-reduction strategies are therefore critical for all of us to deal with the current situation. The stress response is natural, but needs to be contained so that we are not overwhelmed by it."
If you're spending most or all of your time at home, you may need to make some lifestyle changes to keep the stress from getting the better of you. The big three components include exercise, diet, and sleep.
"Regular exercise can both reduce stress and improve mood," Dr. Fava says. "Getting adequate sleep through good sleep hygiene is also critical. Avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs can also help. And, of course, try to eat a health, balanced diet, reducing caffeine and excessive carbohydrates. Establishing a new routine can be very helpful as well."
Rather than focusing on matters out of your hands, he suggests exploring positive, helpful information. "Go on line and search for helpful tips to manage stress from home. Consider yoga or relaxation exercises," he says.
- One simple technique is simply deep breathing:
- Sit comfortably with your back strait.
- Inhale through your nose.
- Exhale through your mouth, while contracting your abdominal muscles.
- Repeat while focusing your attention only on your breathing.
Breathing from the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, which extends from the head down through your chest and into the colon. Deep breathing in this way activates the relaxation response, slowing your heart rate and lowering your stress levels.
Another helpful stress-management strategy is mindfulness. It's the ability to be fully aware of your current environment and what you're doing in the moment. You're taking in all the sights and sounds around you and you're focused on what you're doing in that moment, not worried about things out of your control. Of course, accepting that there are circumstances you can't manage or affect is a challenge for most of us. But the more you can let those concerns go, the greater the feeling of control you'll have. And that can go a long way toward reducing your stress.
To help you develop your mindfulness skills, there are many computer and smartphone apps to get you started or keep you going if you're already a mindfulness practitioner. Apps such as Headspace, Smiling Mind, and Stop, Breathe and Think are especially helpful because you can use them on your own schedule or if you're unable to get out to a mindfulness meditation class.
But mindfulness also means acknowledging your thoughts and feelings without judgement. It's about experiencing the world with gentleness and forgiveness. "By practicing mindfulness or relaxation exercise we may help ourselves," Dr. Fava says. "Personally, I love to take a walk around the neighborhood with my wife. It is a wonderful routine that allows us to talk with each other and relax at the same time."
Dr. Fava also recommends reaching out to friends and relatives more often, especially if they are people who bring positivity and joy to your life. "The social distance that we need to practice to keep ourselves safe has led, in some cases, to greater opportunities to connect virtually with friends and family." He says. "Let's take advantage of that."