How often are you in your head about how the pandemic is affecting you? Do any of these sound familiar?
-You check the balance in your bank account and see you don’t have enough to cover this month’s bills.
-Your boss hands you yet another project to complete by the end of the week-made harder because you’re working remotely.
-All three kids are sick and it’s virtually impossible to get any work done from your new “home office.”
-A big portion of your income has dried up because you’re a speaker….or a company consultant and the companies no longer are open or have need for in-person help. (this one is mine!)
While most of us, before the pandemic, have had some form of stress in our lives, whether it’s internally or externally created, it’s now doubled or tripled because of this new normal. We’ve been shaken to the core with this unexpected event and it can seem as if our hearts are racing and blood pressure is soaring on an ongoing basis! And what about long-standing issues, like relationship problems, low self-confidence, financial difficulties, or negative thinking, that keep us simmering in a brew of low-level stress all the time. It’s exhausting!
Part of what’s stressing us out is our fight to go back to being as “normal” as possible–to find that comfort in controlling our outcomes. Change is hard and many of us are risk-averse and when uncertainty is our daily M.O, our flight-or-fight mechanism (this is explained below) works overtime. Plus, our divided society, the media, and our peers reinforce messages that foster stressful feelings.
When our lives don’t match these messages, we feel overwhelmed, agitated, and stressed to keep all the plates spinning, to work harder, to spend money that we don’t have. And feeling stressed and unhappy adds a second layer of bad feelings like guilt, frustration, and shame. “I should feel happy. I hate feeling so stressed out. When will I be able to calm down and just enjoy life?”
Some people are more prone to reacting to stressful situations than others. Type A personalities tend to react more than Type B personalities. Type A people are competitive, driven, self-critical, and wound-up. They tend to have a high sense of urgency about everything, they over commit and overreact, and they more easily express anger or hostility in stressful situations.
Studies also suggest that men and women handle stress differently, in part due to hormonal differences. Women tend to internalize stress more, making them more likely than men to develop depression as a result of their stress. However, women have more social support networks than men do, explaining why women in general tend to cope with stress better than men.
Obviously stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health regardless of your personality type or sex. When you feel stressed, your nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which create the “fight or flight” reaction in your body. Your muscles tighten, your heart beats faster, and your breathing quickens. Chronic stress leads to a variety of symptoms that can range from annoying to debilitating to life-threatening if not addressed. These symptoms include . . .
• aches and pains
• intestinal problems
• chest pain, palpitations, high blood pressure, or heart attacks
• frequent colds due to lower immune system (which makes you more susceptible to the coronavirus!)
• skin problems
• weight gain
• loss of sex drive
• hair loss
• anxiety or agitation
• angry outbursts
• inability to relax
• memory problems
• inability to focus
• worry and racing thoughts
• poor judgement
• overuse or abuse of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs
• nervous habits
• sleeping too much or too little
Whether you are chronically stressed or have episodic stress, it’s important to your peace of mind, happiness, self-confidence, and long-term health to know how to calm yourself and relieve stress when you experience it. Here are 10 techniques for relieving stress in the moment and for the long haul:
When you are in a stressful situation, nothing beats calm and steady breathing to regain control of your emotions and the “fight or flight” physical response to stress. Learning proper stress-relieving breathing will provide instant relief.
You want to breathe from your diaphragm. As you breathe in, your stomach expands, moving out to make room for the air, and it contracts as you breathe out.
• Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4.
• Hold your breath to the count of 4.
• Breathe out through your lips to the count of 4.
• Hold your breath to the count of 4.
• Repeat until you feel your body and mind relax.
2. Alter the stressor
Rather than giving in to your automatic reactions to stress, examine the stressor for ways to manage or alter it. If you’re stuck working from home, can you carve out a few 15-20 minute breaks to center yourself? Can you find a game to play, a crossword puzzle to solve–something to bring your inner-child to the surface and keep you in the present? Perhaps listen to an audio-book or play an instrument. Remind yourself to redirect to stress-busting alternatives before you get too immersed in physical or emotional reactions.
Exercise is an amazing stress-buster for both situational and chronic stress. Exercise increases the production of endorphins, the brain’s feel good neurotransmitters. According to Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the Yale Stress Center, “Stress atrophies the brain — especially the hippocampus, which is responsible for a lot, but memory in particular. When you’re stressed, you forget things.” However exercise promotes production of brain hormones like norepinephrine associated with improved cognitive function, elevated mood and learning. Even a quick jog, rebounding, or bike ride has been shown to improve one’s mood and increase energy.
So much chronic stress arises from the internal conflict of struggling against situations or things you can’t change. When you want something you can’t have or you wish someone behaved differently, you are in a constant state of stressing, longing, and agitation. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your sense of calm and happiness is to simply accept what is and stop struggling. Often when we release control and let go, the thing we desire or the situation we want to change works out on its own for the better.
There’s no question that lack of sleep contributes to stressful reactions. When you’re tired and not well-rested, you have lower emotional and physical reserves to use in order to cope with stress. You are quicker to get angry and agitated, more prone to depression, and your focus and judgement are altered. Of course stress can disrupt your sleep, but this is a good time to use relaxation and breathing techniques before you turn out the lights. Listen to a guided meditation tape. Practice your breathing. Turn on a sound machine with soothing, sleep-inducing sounds. Have a peaceful and calm bedtime routine that doesn’t include stimulating TV programs, loud music, alcohol, or a full meal just before sleep.
Scientific research has proven that the practice of meditation lowers blood pressure, calms your body, reduces anger and anxiety, and increases the production of endorphins in the brain. In a study of health insurance statistics, meditators had 87% fewer hospitalizations for heart disease, 55% fewer for benign and malignant tumors, and 30% fewer for infectious diseases. The meditators had more than 50% fewer doctor visits than did non-meditators. (D. Orme-Johnson, Psychosomatic Medicine 49 (1987): 493-507) You can read more about the practice of meditation here.
7. Support System
Having loving, supportive people in your life with whom you can share your stressed feelings and turn to for support is invaluable in managing stress. A variety of studies show that having a network of supportive relationships contributes to psychological well-being. As mentioned before, women tend to do a better job of this than men do. But the importance of emotional connection with significant people cannot be underestimated. If you don’t have a strong social support network, then begin to foster one by reaching out to old friends, reengaging with people around you, and strengthening your relationship with your spouse and family.
As we’ve become more and more attached to our electronic devices, it seems we can never get away from work, emails, texts, and the barrage of information thrust in front of us. We feel pressured to respond, to spend more, to read everything in front of us. These devices disrupt our sleep as they sit by our beds, enticing us to keep engaged and connected. The best thing you can do for your peace of mind and sense of internal balance is to take time to disconnect from all electronic devices. Turn off the phone, the computer, the TV, the cell phone, the iPad, and any other device that pulls you away from real interactions and experiences.
Do whatever you can do to simplify your life in general. Clean out clutter and extraneous stuff you no longer use. Put yourself on a spending freeze for a few weeks (except for the essentials). See what you can cut out of your schedule and off your plate. Cut back on the number of tasks you try to accomplish in a day. Give yourself quiet time to just sit and read, walk in nature, or talk to a friend. You will feel calmer, more in control of your life, and less stressed in general.
10. Seek Treatment
If your stress feels overwhelming and has already begun to impact your physical or mental health, don’t try to manage it on your own. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional who can help you create a stress relief plan of action for your life. Don’t allow your stress to morph into a full-blown depression or a serious ailment like an ulcer or heart disease. The most relieving thing you can do for yourself is to ask for help.
Don’t allow stress to manage you and control your emotions, thoughts, and physical well-being. Recognize the symptoms of stress when they arise and take immediate action to relieve stress.
Keep these 10 stress-busting treatments nearby for quick reference so you can zap stress, find inner calm and balance, build your self-confidence, and ultimately create a happier, healthier life. Hang in there!