With levels of anxiety currently sky-high around the world I felt it was time to put together this little ‘toolbox’ of tips to reduce stress and ease some of the worries many people are facing.
I’m not a GP, I don’t have a qualification in psychology, and I’m not a therapist. Nor am I one of those cool, unflappable souls that breeze through calamities without getting a hair out of place.
I’m a stress-head by nature.
But over the last ten years I’ve learned some incredibly effective tools for staying calm – even when life is very, very tough.
My hope for you, if you are struggling with anxiety and stress in these uncertain times, is that you find some of these ideas helpful in maintaining a calm, resourceful state – for yourself and those around you.
I’ve also included details of a free web class and resource site that my wife and I will be running throughout the pandemic. This will provide the means to expand on strategies outlined in point ‘7’ below, as well as provide additional helpful exercises and tools.
For now, here are the tips...
1. Limit exposure to news and stories about the pandemic
You don’t need round-the-clock news updates, and the more time we spend with these stories, the more involved in them we become. Keep social media in particular at a sensible distance. While it’s good to connect with others who share our views we don’t need to become ‘Facebook warriors’, because if we aren’t careful we can disappear down a labyrinth of horror, disaster and doom. Before you know it, you’re a bundle of anxious nerves, and nothing has been achieved.
Closely linked to that is the situation with the stock market and the global economy. Spending time worrying about pensions and finances – while critical for many people who have lost or at risk of losing jobs – is probably not helping your state of mind either. The bottom line is: concentrate on the things you can control rather than worrying yourself about things you can’t.
2. Concentrate on the here and now.
Help yourself to stay healthier and more sensible at this time by engaging fully in the things you can control directly. This is where mindfulness comes in. I’ll explain a little more about this below but, in a nutshell, this means giving your full attention to whatever you’re doing – getting ‘lost’ in it, if you like. If you’re playing with your kids, be fully present for them – put your phone away. Whatever you’re doing, be it washing up or preparing a meal, keep your attention on that activity; be mindful to bring your attention back if it wanders.
I’ve read that back and can see how UN-appealing that sounds. But that’s the problem for many of us today – we rush through almost everything we do and miss out on countless opportunities to enjoy the moments. I’ve been teaching and practising mindfulness for almost ten years and believe me, there are huge benefits to be gained from even the most mundane of tasks. More about this below.
3. Turn disadvantage into advantage.
How much of our lives do we spend wishing for more time at home, to get on with things we’ve been planning or wanting to do forever? Well, now is our chance – a chance to think about employing this time to make our current and future life better. You might have always been putting off that de-cluttering, gardening or home-improvement, because when life was ‘normal’ you never could find the time.
Consider learning a new skill or taking an online course – perhaps learn a new language. How about making or building something – knitting, drawing, making a model with the kids, baking, mending something (like that model you just made with the kids!). Or simply listen to relaxing music. Or start on that pile of books you’ve been putting off. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point. These are all wonderful stress-relievers because they offer an easy route to losing yourself in the present moment. Again, more about this in a minute.
4. Keep up (and strengthen) connections and relationships.
We all have a wonderful chance now to connect more with family members or whoever is sharing our living space, perhaps by starting some projects or quiet activities together like cooking or DIY; or just sitting quietly and chatting. (It must be said there’s also a likelihood of arguing and fighting when you’re all cooped up together – but that’s a different topic for another time.) Once we adjust to this regime, we can use some of the time to discover more about each other and spend our time together productively. Most of us spend far too long on our mobile devices these days, so this time may prove very useful in improving and deepening connections and relationships.
But what about friends, relatives and loved ones who aren’t in the house with you? One option is to ‘write letters’ (note to readers under 30 – you might have to google both of those words). A letter is a great way of saying things you’ve wanted to say but never had time – and you may even rediscover the lost joy of handwriting. Maybe ask for that fiver they still owe you! Then, of course, there’s always the phone or perhaps playing an online game together. People in our village have been setting up little online groups to help others to keep in touch, including kids’ clubs and a ‘virtual pub’. Communications apps like Skype and Zoom provide facilities for group chats and meetings.
5. Get outside (or get fresh air).
Isolation doesn’t have to mean watching Netflix all day in airless rooms. Although we’re meant to stay indoors for most of the time, there is a great deal of evidence to show that nature has very positive effects on anxiety, mood and even depression so we really need to get out in it.
Many of us are fortunate enough to have gardens or patios where we can spend some time in nature and breathe fresh air. If you don’t have that luxury even a brisk walk round the block or to the end of the street can be of great benefit – and still conform with social distancing guidelines. If you are unable to get out, the very least you should be doing is opening a window and getting fresh air in the house, breathing deep and hearing the sounds of birds and wind in the trees (or even the sound of an occasional car, if you’re lucky).
6. Bulk up on positive inputs.
While avoiding the maelstrom of negative news, junk food and cigarettes should be high on your list of stress-reducing strategies when faced with a lung disease pandemic, so should making sure you get as many positive inputs as possible. Reading inspirational stories, practising a faith, meditating, laughing (a lot), exercising and being kind (to yourself and others) are all things to gainfully divert your time towards.
Laughter is an input you should make a priority and with funny films, books, box sets, stand-up comedians and YouTube at our disposal, we have an almost endless supply of mirth-making material at our fingertips and provide our daily dose of the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin. If you doubt the power of humour and laughter in times of crisis or ill health, look up the story of Norman Cousins (‘Anatomy of an Illness’) or read about Patch Adams (or watch the Robin Williams film – it’s very funny!).
Kindness deserves a second mention here too; starting with kindness to yourself. At The Life Raft we have a saying that you can’t help others if you don’t look after yourself. It’s a little bit like an ambulance – if the oil and tyres aren’t monitored and it isn’t topped up with fuel, it can’t be used to save lives. So now is a good time to be ultra-kind to yourself - with treats, exercise and whatever makes you happy.
Kindness to others is also crucial at this time – and not just because it’s well, nice and helpful for ‘the others’ – it’s incredibly beneficial for our own mental health too. Countless scientific studies have proved that selfless acts for others generate feelings of well-being and satisfaction, and a phenomenon known as a ‘helper’s high’. But perhaps of more relevance and importance right now is that acts of kindness have been shown to cause a lowering of stress levels and anxiety. If you’re stuck for ideas for ways to be kind to others at this time, here’s a great link with some ideas for ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ during the coronavirus outbreak:
7. Learn strategies to LESSEN your stress response.
The tips I’ve outlined above are coping strategies. They give us the means to distract ourselves when we’re feeling anxious; they give us a break (even if it’s only temporary) from our worries. They’re useful, no doubt, and the more you practise them, the better. But as you may well have found, it’s unrealistic to think you can just keep on distracting yourself. Sooner or later, the stress and anxiety will resurface, and that’s why these next strategies should also be in your toolbox.
But first let me explain WHY you need to do this; you might already know this, but a recap is useful. When we’re anxious, under pressure or trapped in a downward spiral of negative thoughts, we trigger our ‘fight or flight’ stress reaction. This is the alarm system inherited from our ancestors who routinely had to either fight or flee from big, scary animals with sharp teeth in order to survive.
One of the jobs of the fight or flight reflex is to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to turn off non-essential body processes. Things like digestion aren’t essential when you’re fleeing predators or swinging a branch with nails in it, so the hormones cause the these body systems to be effectively 'shut down'. If you’ve ever wondered why highly-stressed people get ulcers and bowel problems, there’s your answer.
These hormones have other functions like raising heart rate and blood pressure (again, this is why people with stressful lives have heart and circulation problems) and putting us in a state of anxiety and agitation. Everything is targeted towards getting us mobilised and ready for intense action – which means clear thinking is shunted to the back seat. This might explain why panicking and running around like a headless chicken are pastimes observed at times of sudden crisis.
Clearly the fight or flight reaction, very useful in times of short-term, immediate danger, is not going to be our friend during the coronavirus when the official advice is ‘stay at home’. We may well feel like running away or fighting but the reality is, for now and the foreseeable future, we must hunker down in our houses and stay calm.
Fortunately there are two ways to effectively turn off the body’s stress response and induce its opposite – the ‘rest and digest’ state or ‘relaxation response’. (In truth there may be more; I am sharing with you the methods I know and can vouch for.)
One is by practising mindfulness. The other is by breathing, albeit in a special way. Both offer the means to actively influence the body’s nervous system and switch from Sympathetic (S = stress) to Parasympathetic (P = Peace) mode.
Mindfulness, as I briefly alluded to above in sections 2 and 3, is largely about bringing our awareness to the present moment. There’s one magic ingredient which makes all the difference though, and this may well have been missing if you’ve tried mindfulness in the past and found no benefit. What makes all the difference is the attitude you hold whilst practising – that of ‘non-judgement’.
By approaching things non-judgementally we’re able to experience what is going on around us from a more detached viewpoint. We don’t need to get drawn into the drama. We don’t have to fight against the system. We don’t have to run away from our fears. The madness, the noise and even the worries are still very much there, of course; the difference is that they don't affect us anywhere near as much.
One of the things which puts a lot of people off mindfulness is that, despite the phenomenal and well-researched benefits (google the terms ‘benefits of mindfulness’ or ‘mindfulness studies’ if you aren’t convinced), it does take some effort and persistence to experience the results. I don’t mean a huge effort – most of our students feel more positive and stress-proofed within days of starting a regular routine – but yes, some effort is required.
If you fall into this category the second tool might be right up your street – ‘special’ breathing. When done correctly, this technique can bring about an almost IMMEDIATE reduction in anxiety and stress. It can be used to calm down your mind and body at any time in as little as a minute; it can help you fall asleep much more easily (and enjoy a deeper, more restful sleep once you’re there); and it can exercise and tone your lungs and diaphragm – a potentially big advantage given the organs targeted by the COVID-19 virus.
Both of these tools are easy to learn but full instruction in them is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, my wife and I (we’re both fully-accredited mindfulness teachers) are putting together a free resource site and online web class to provide full explanation on these (and other stress-reducing tools and strategies).
Everything we provide is free of charge during the coronavirus pandemic period.
For more information, visit: https://www.theliferaft.org/anxiety-free-webinar
Please share with anyone who may be struggling.