COVID-19 and all that came with us has many of us on high alert—and that is taking a toll on body and mind
The last two plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a biologically toxic load of stress for many, if not most, people around the world. Social isolation—created by lengthy quarantines, lockdowns, masks, and social distancing—has taken a toll on our mental health. And what happens in the mind, echoes throughout the body.
Many have suffered financial stress due to income or job loss. Others have been denied critical mental health care and other medical care during this period. This has often led to further distress and poorer health. Ongoing media reports that focus on the dangers of COVID-19 have also helped fuel pervasive anxiety.
So what can you do to reduce worry and curb hopelessness during this stressful time? The bottom line is you need to calm your central nervous system.
When we are under physical or psychological threat (real or imagined), the flight or fight response, or what is known as the acute stress response, is activated. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of catecholamines, hormones which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
The acute stress response has a valuable purpose but is, as its name suggests, only meant for brief periods. During ongoing periods of stress, such as what we have experienced during this pandemic, the stress response is constantly activated. As result, our bodies get too much cortisol, epinephrine, and other stress hormones, disrupting almost all of our body’s processes, including sleep, digestion and metabolism, our reproductive systems, and our circulatory systems. We may experience headaches, anxiety, depression, poor impulse control, and cognitive fatigue.
There are many ways to reduce the activation of the acute stress response. The most important thing to remember in reducing psychological stress is that you must take care of your psyche as well as your physical body. Emotional stress impacts physical stress and vice versa.
For example, when you feel stressed, you might not eat nutritious foods but reach for comfort foods, which may contain bad fats and refined sugars, which wreak havoc on your physical body, creating hormonal imbalances which can contribute to a worsening in anxiety and depressive symptoms.
At the same time, if you eat during times of stress, your body may not be able to fully digest what you have consumed, as the digestive system shuts down when our bodies are prepared to fight or run due to perceived danger. Poor digestion can lead to irritability, depression and heightened anxiety.
There are many things you can do to deactivate the acute stress response:
Start Your Day With a Meditation
Aim for at least 10 minutes, 20 minutes is ideal (or longer). You can do it in bed but sit up first; don’t meditate lying down, as the brain is less active when you are horizontal. The greatest gains experienced through meditation come from an alert yet relaxed mind.
There are many kinds of meditation, such as guided visualization, mindfulness, mantra-based or “body scans” to reduce muscle relaxation. Find the one that is right for you. There are many good meditation apps such as Head Space, Insight Timer, Calm, Buddhify, 10% Happier, or Simple Habit.
Practice Mindful Eating
Eat nutritious foods, eat only when you are hungry, and chew your food thoroughly. Enjoy what you are eating. When possible, do not multi-task when eating, such as checking email or watching TV. Try not to eat when you are upset.
Be Aware of Your Breath
Correct breathing is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. Breathe in through your nose and feel the air fill your belly. Good breathing comes from using the lower part of your lungs, not from the upper part, which is more of a chest-breath. Most adults who are not aware of their breath use the upper part of their lungs. This does not bring enough oxygen into your cells and fails to active the vagus nerve, which is essential in producing a state of relaxation.
Instead, you want to breathe like a young child. If you ever watch a baby breath, it looks like his or her tummy is going in and out. That’s what you want. You belly should expand with each breath, like a balloon and deflate with each exhalation. Try to inhale for at least 3-5 seconds and exhale for 5-7 seconds. Check your breath throughout the day and evening.
Enough means at least three times per week for 20 minutes. We’ve all heard this for years. You’ve probably also heard that exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which energize both mind and body. Exercise also helps to relax muscles and actives a number of different brain functions, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being.
Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication and without the side effects. A recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26 percent. Aerobic exercise is a great stress reliever but slower exercise practices, such as yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Gong or Falun Gong are also very healing for both mind and body. The Falun Gong exercises are always taught free of charge: www.learnfalungong.com
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
For at least one hour before bed, engage in calming activities, such as a bath or shower before bed. Not only is the water relaxing in the moment, but the drop in your body temperature as you cool down afterward may make you feel sleepy.
Try adding a foot massage with calming essential oils such as lavender or chamomile, after bathing. Stretching can also be very helpful right before bed.
Write down any stressful tasks you have to do, any worries or stimulating thoughts and feelings before bed. Finish journaling with a gratitude list.
Read a hard copy book and or listen to an online “bedtime story.” Reduce exposure to blue light (from TV and other devices) one hour before bed. Electronic devices like your phone emit blue light, which can reduce the melatonin levels in your body. Melatonin is a chemical that controls your sleep/wake cycle. When your melatonin levels dip, it can be more difficult to fall asleep. Devices that emit blue light can also distract you, keeping your brain alert. This may make it harder to fall asleep. Set your device to warmer light in the evening.
Take 10 deep, slow breaths upon lying down.