During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are viewing a constant barrage of disturbing news and experiencing emotional, physical and mental fatigue while sheltering in place and practicing social distancing. According to a recent survey, 88% of organizations have encouraged or required staff to work from home, and the resulting social isolation can elevate stress levels.
Now more than ever, our mental health should be a top priority. Recognizing stress in ourselves and knowing how to manage it is particularly important today because chronic stress threatens our wellbeing and weakens the immune system’s ability to fight off infections. Stress also can have a negative impact on physical and mental health.
You Can Influence Your State of Mind
Over time, humans have evolved into social beings surrounding ourselves with family, friends and groups with similar interests to help cope with life’s stressors and manage their mental health. Although we are now in the digital age where technology allows us to stay connected, we still desire human interaction, involving touch and in-person gatherings, to keep us mentally healthy.
These are uncertain times, and many Americans are feeling more stress and worry as unemployment rates skyrocket and health concerns are high. A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 55% of Americans said they experienced stress, nearly 45% reported that they worried a lot, and 22% said they experienced anger. Today, we are cooped up at home trying to understand and respond to an onslaught of information coming from various medical authorities and organizations. It’s not surprising that many of us are experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mind health problems. Although it is important to stay connected and up-to-date on current events, staying tuned to new reports throughout the day can create a greater sense of fear and anxiety. However, there are ways to cope with stress that will help you and those around you better manage such feelings and reduce worries.
Everyone reacts to stress differently so it’s important to remember that what works for one person may not work for another. Here are some coping tips that can help you manage your stress levels during the #StayAtHome mandate:
- Identify stress cues. Teeth grinding; weight gain; headaches; mood swings; back and neck pain; and sleepless nights are signals that you are experiencing stress. Identifying these cues will help you know when it’s time to practice some strategies to lower your stress.
- Know your triggers. If you’re working from home or watching the news and you find yourself feeling anxious, irritated or experiencing a headache or neck pain, that’s the time to get up and disconnect. Taking a walk, listening to music or finding a quiet place to relax can help you reset your mental state and go back to tackling the day’s tasks.
- Disconnect daily. Schedule regular times throughout the day when you take breaks from working or watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Being connected 24-hours a day can lead to mental strain and anxiety. Take time to unwind by participating in activities that break up the monotony of your day. Connecting with people you trust to talk about your feelings can also help improve your mood.
- Find your creative outlet. Spend time reconnecting with pastimes you enjoy or find a new activity or hobby. Shifting your focus on something novel can help you relax and feel energized. Consider trying a new recipe, walking, spring cleaning or participating in an online workout to reduce your stress and help you feel more refreshed.
- Breathe for relaxation. Natural breathing involves the diaphragm. When we breathe using the diaphragm, our stomach extends as we inhale and flattens when we exhale. After a time, we forget to breathe correctly and tend to use our chest and shoulders, which can lead to short and shallow breaths and increase stress and anxiety. There’s no time like the present to start working on your breathing. To begin, find a quiet place to lie down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. When you’re ready, slowly inhale. You should feel your stomach expanding, and when you exhale, your chest should descend. Practicing relaxation breathing for 20 to 30 minutes daily to reduce your anxiety levels and promote a state of calmness.
- Move your body. Keep active. Find a recreational activity that you enjoy. Exercise increases overall health and sense of well-being and is a great way to combat stress. When you exercise, you produce endorphins, chemicals in the brain that help to reduce the perception of pain and improve mood. Regular exercise also helps to improve quality of sleep, which in turn reduces stress and fatigue. If you own a fitness tracker, aim for 10,000 steps each day. Setting a goal will help keep you motivated and give you a sense of accomplishment.
- Stay connected. Keeping in touch with your family and friends is critical. You may be physically isolated but that does not mean you need to lose your connection to others. Try to reach out daily to people who are important to you using social media, videoconferencing or phone calls.
- Keep your routine. In the midst of changes that are out of your control, stay consistent with activities that you take charge of. If you, like many Americans, are working from home, set up a daily routine. Act as If you’re going to work. Get up at the time you normally would and get dressed. You don’t need to wear a business suit but aim for business casual attire. Also, set up an office where there are limited interruptions to help keep you focused. Also, remember to take regular breaks to unwind throughout the day. Many people who work from home tend to stay glued to their desks and are less active. Taking breaks throughout the day as you normally would at work will give you a sense of control and normalcy in your life.
It’s important to remember that stress is common, reduces productivity, and threatens physical and mental well-being. Being informed and developing stress coping techniques will help you manage and come out stronger in the end.
About the Author. Gary Small, M.D. has been a member of the Nutrition Advisory Board since 2011. He has authored over 500 scientific works and received numerous awards and honors.
Small is professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, the Parlow-Solomon professor on aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA*, director of the UCLA* Longevity Center and director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Division at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior.
* The University of California as a matter of policy does not endorse specific products or services. Small’s credentials are for identification purposes only.