For many of us, our stress levels are at an all-time high and it seems like we can’t catch a break living among COVID-19. As soon as things seem to be tapering down and businesses reopening, a rise in the number of cases surface, leaving many of us wondering when all of this will end or if this is going to be our new normal. It can all feel overwhelming, and while it’s likely impacting our mental health, it’s also taking a toll on our bodies. To the nervous system, there is no difference between emotional and physical stress, and the only thing our body puts above balance is survival. We are literally in a fluctuating state of fight or flight, and these high intense stressors cause our bodies to experience multiple microtraumas as we attempt to cope with it all.
Signs You Are NOT OK
You may not consciously realize when you are in the danger zone because the pressure builds like a slow pressure cooker. But there are warning signs to look out for. If you answer yes to any of these questions, it's a good indication you are not coping as well as you might think.
Does the thought of interacting with others feel taxing or overwhelming?
If you feel a sense of wanting to be alone or like it’s too much work to connect with others, pay attention. You may say to yourself, “I don’t want to have this conversation because I just don’t feel like it.” When we find ourselves beginning to revert from the thought of interacting with people or it becomes a burden or a drudgery, there may be an imbalance. If you begin to isolate it’s easy to slip into depression.
Do you feel as if social distancing, mask wearing and lockdowns must end now because you can’t it take anymore? (i)
If you’ve said to yourself, “enough is enough, this is too much,” and anything other than the restrictions ending right now is unacceptable, then it’s time to check in. Ask yourself why it has to stop. What is it that you have to do that supersedes the relevancy of what’s happening right now? You are likely responding out of stress.
Are you making decisions that you know are not in your best interest?
If you find yourself making decisions you wouldn’t typically make under normal circumstances, that’s a sign. The body will always find a way to ease the stress in an attempt to find balance again, and this can lead people to turn to food, shopping, drugs or alcohol. The desire to relieve your stress can push you towards unhealthy coping mechanisms to find some sense of feeling good. For example, American Addiction Centers is seeing a rise in the number of people turning to substances during the COVID-19 pandemic. The treatment provider has also noticed a 10% increase in the number of people reaching out for help during this time and a spike in admissions at some of its treatment facilities.
If you find you’re exhibiting signs that you are not coping well or a self-assessment survey reveals some concerns about your stress level, you should take action. Here are some tips for managing stress with ease:
1. Take time to process what you’re feeling
Pausing and figuring out what’s really going on with ourselves internally can significantly impact how we process stress. But it begins with first accepting that something’s different — and that’s OK even if you’re not happy about the difference. You don’t have to pretend to be happy. Getting in touch with your feelings can make all the difference. Ask yourself, “how does this make me feel and why does it make me feel that way?”
Maybe you are feeling powerless in the midst of the pandemic or trapped because you can’t leave the house and live your life like you used to. You have to capture it, so it’s not just thoughts floating around in your mind. If you can think about it and process it, you can manage and deal with the stress in a productive way.
2. Add a physical act that calms the body
Calming your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system can be done by simply adding a physical act that alerts the body that it’s not in danger. One of the easiest ones is called box breathing. This breathing exercise involves breathing in through the nose and out through the nose. Next, slowly inhale for four seconds, hold it for four seconds and then blow it out for four seconds through the nose. You should be attempting to push your belly in and out with each breath. Combining breathing with yoga or any type of stretching is also beneficial.
You can also try any type of outdoor activity where you can see the sun. There are a lot of studies that show how the sun affects the brain, especially as you listen to music while you’re doing it. I recommend somewhere between 17 to 25 minutes in the sun and it doesn’t even have to be warm outside. This puts your body in a state of de-stressing and alerts the nervous that everything is OK.
3. Start keeping a journal
Studies have shown that when you write it can hardwire into your nervous system. Typing does not have the same effect. I recommend people write in a journal at the end of every day and ask themselves the following questions:
- What did I accomplish today?
- What didn’t I accomplish?
- What is one thing I will commit to tomorrow?
- What am I most grateful for and least grateful for today?
If you do this every day for two weeks I guarantee you will notice a shift in your mood and stress levels and even find you’re sleeping better. This one simple act can transform your life.
If you’ve implemented these strategies and find you are still struggling, I recommend reaching out for help. You don’t have to manage this alone as I’ve found most people are ill equipped to make change on their own. There are many organizations that will work alongside you to help better your life in ways you need it most. In these unprecedented times, it’s important you take care of yourself before it becomes detrimental to your health. Remember, you have the power to turn stress into strength and the time to act is now.
Chuck Morris, Ph.D., is the founder of Fulcrum Performance Lab. As a sports scientist, he has combined science, technology and wellness to elevate the mind-body connection. He is also CEO of the newly launched NFL Alumni Health Lab. The NFL Alumni Association recently partnered with American Addiction Centers to raise awareness about addiction in the midst of the pandemic as the nation is experiencing a rise in overdose deaths.