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Ask a Doctor: How Do I Drop My Pandemic Stress Load?

COVID-19 and all that came with it has many of us on high alert—and that is taking a toll on body and mind
BY Jessica Russo TIMEMay 3, 2022 PRINT

The past 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 because of 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 that you need to calm your central nervous system.

When we’re under physical or psychological threat (real or imagined), the flight or fight response, or what’s known as the acute stress response, is activated. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of catecholamines, hormones that 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’ve 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 affects 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 that can contribute to a worsening of anxiety and depression symptoms.

At the same time, if you eat during times of stress, your body may not be able to fully digest what you’ve consumed, as the digestive system shuts down when our bodies are prepared to fight or run because of 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 Meditation

Aim for at least 10 minutes of meditation; 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’re 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 tension. Find the one that’s right for you. There are many good meditation apps, such as Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, Buddhify, Ten Percent Happier, or Simple Habit.

You can also use this time for self-reflection or spiritual contemplation. This is the time to clear your head and be clear about what matters.

Practice Mindful Eating

Eat nutritious foods, eat only when you’re hungry, and chew your food thoroughly. Enjoy what you’re eating. When possible, don’t multi-task when eating, such as checking email or watching TV. Try not to eat when you’re 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 aren’t aware of their breath use the upper part of their lungs. This doesn’t bring enough oxygen into your cells and fails to activate 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 breathe, it looks like his or her tummy is going in and out. That’s what you want. Your belly should expand with each breath like a balloon and deflate with each exhalation. Try to inhale for at least three to five seconds and exhale for five to seven seconds. Check your breath throughout the day and evening.

Exercise Enough

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 activates 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 per 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. Falun Gong exercises are always taught free of charge at 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 and any worries or stimulating thoughts and feelings before bed. Finish journaling with a gratitude list.

Read a hard copy book or listen to an online “bedtime story.” Reduce exposure to blue light (from TV and other devices) one hour before bed. Electronic devices such as 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.

Epoch Health articles are for informational purposes and are not a substitute for individualized medical advice. Please consult a trusted professional for personal medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment.

Dr. Russo is a clinical psychologist in full time private practice in Philadelphia, PA and specializes in integrative mental health care. She is a volunteer faculty member with the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
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