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Relaxing When You're Stressed Out

Stressed Out

"31/365 - Stress." by BLW Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stressed Out? Here are ways to Relax!

By Dale Mayo

It’s safe to say 2020 has been an especially stressful year. 

The pandemic has affected everyone with almost 50 million confirmed cases and over a million deaths worldwide.  Some people have been more affected than others - health concerns, friends or family lost to Covid-19, healthcare or caregiver concerns, employment and education disrupted or moved online, plans for gatherings (sports events, holidays, weddings, funerals) and travel thwarted.    

In addition to the coronavirus anxiety, the American Psychological Association reports that more than two-thirds of adults in the US say that the presidential election is a significant source of stress.[1]  No matter where you stand on the election, you’re likely unhappy with what is happening.  This is a good time to figure out what we can do to take care of ourselves, starting with relieving stress.  This will help with sleep, health, and mental health.   

Everyday ways to de-stress

At the beginning of the pandemic, we looked at ways to cope and de-stress, recognizing that the very things that used to soothe us were not possible (e.g., dining and drinking with a group of friends in a cozy restaurant, going to a museum, attending a concert, sweating it out at the gym).  Some of these activities are now possible in a modified way, but the original suggestions for stress relief are still useful:

  • Meditation and practices that include meditation with movement, such as yoga and tai chi, can also promote relaxation have many health benefits. Studies show that meditation can improve anxiety, depression, and pain, and may even help you sleep better.[2], [3]
  • Take a walk or get some exercise in place – 20 minutes a day helps boost endorphins and reduce stress. If you can take a walk in nature, the benefits are even better.[4]
  • Practice yoga, tai chi, or quigong. The combination of rhythmic breathing and movements/postures can help focus a racing mind and enhance flexibility and balance.[5]
  • Listen to music. Music you like can help relax your mind and body.[6]
  • Try progressive muscle relaxation: Start with your toes and work your way up: tighten your foot muscles as much as you can, then relax them. Make your way up, tightening and relaxing each muscle until you’ve finished with your face.[7]
  • Take a hot bath, which can help to relax and de-stress.
  • Breathe mindfully. Breathing exercises can help you relax. Sitting quietly with your eyes closed and breathing deeply, for example, are two techniques that have been shown to lower heart rate and reduce stress.[8]  Here are two good relaxation exercises:[9]
  • Draw in a very deep breath from your stomach, filling your lungs from the bottom up. Once you can’t take in any more air, exhale by letting your breath out as slowly as possible.
  • Do a series of breaths where you breathe in to the count of 4, hold for 4 beats, and then exhale to the count of 4.
Smartphone Dark

"Person looking at smartphone in the dark" by Japanexperterna.se is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Reducing election-related stress

The buildup to this year’s election has been unusually stressful and sometimes downright scary.  There are some things you can do to control your own environment and maintain a stress-free space.[10]

  • Limit your screen time – set limits on how much time you designate for election news and on which websites you read so that you’re not obsessing or ‘doomscrolling,’ especially when you’re preparing for sleep. Take a break from the news and don’t focus on worst-case outcomes.
  • Expect the election result to take more than a day or so.[11] It’s not unusual to have to wait beyond election day for a winner to be declared – we did not have a certain winner in the elections of 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004, and 2016.[12]   
  • Stay in touch with friends and family – connect by phone or social media. Maintaining relationships and being able to discuss what’s happening and how you’re feeling about it is good for mental health. 
  • Focus on the positive. Reflect on events in your life for which you are grateful.[13]  Seek out friends who make you smile.  Avoid negativity when you’re talking to friends and family – it’s more damaging to our own feelings to say something negative aloud than to think it.[14]  Focus on what is possible – in your personal and professional life.[15]
  • Stay active and get something done. Prepare your garden for winter, rake leaves or mow them to much the lawn, and/or take a walk.  Indoors, focus on projects like cleaning or organizing to create a soothing, uncluttered space.

 

Baked Cod

Mediterranean baked cod with Greek yogurt

Eating healthfully under stress

Maintaining a healthy routine includes regular exercise and a regular schedule of eating and sleeping.  This is easily interrupted by anxiety and stress and events that keep you up late into the night (or longer), like watching election results. Preparing food can be its own reward:

  • Bake. Baking bread can be calming, as it is a creative process and gives the baker a sense of control and accomplishment – and a tasty end result.
  • Make a salad. Chopping vegetables can be soothing and if you’re chopping fruits or vegetables of various colors (e.g., onions, peppers, and carrots), putting together a salad or fruit plate can be an artistic endeavor.

While many find it helpful to avoid caffeine after a certain point in the day and to limit alcohol consumption, some foods are thought to be helpful for reducing stress.

  • Warm milk. Some people swear by a cup of warm milk before bedtime as a sleep aid.
  • There are a number of popular anti-stress herbs, such as lavender, valerian root, ashwagandha, and ginseng.  Be sure to check whether the herbs you’re ingesting don’t interfere with any other medications you’re taking. 
  • Eat more seafood. Stress contributes to adrenal fatigue by lowering our level of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), an anti-aging hormone produced by our adrenal glands. Certain foods high in omega-3 fatty acids - like salmon, sablefish, rainbow trout and wild cod - can also help the body to better use its naturally produced DHEA.

 

If you have severe or long-lasting symptoms, call or see your health care provider or seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others call 911. 

The US DHHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746. (TTY 1-800-846-8517)

References

[1] https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/10/election-stress

[2] https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stress/relaxation.htm

[3] https://thrive.kaiserpermanente.org/thrive-together/live-well/need-quick-ways-relax-de-stress-throughout-day

[4] McMahan, E. A., Estes, D. (2015). The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(6):507-519.

[5] https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/six-relaxation-techniques-to-reduce-stress

[6] https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-power-of-music-to-reduce-stress/

[7] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/stress-relief-that-works_n_3842511

[8] https://www.bluecrossnc.com/sites/default/files/document/attachment/services/public/pdfs/formulary/stress.pdf

[9] https://thrive.kaiserpermanente.org/thrive-together/live-well/need-quick-ways-relax-de-stress-throughout-day

[10] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/02/stress-relieving-activities-for-2020-election-day-waiting-for-results.html

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/31/at-home/election-stress.html

[12] https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/november-1-2020

[13] https://hbr.org/2014/04/gratitude-is-the-new-willpower

[14] https://hbr.org/2020/10/how-to-thrive-when-everything-feels-terrible?utm_source=pocket-newtab

[15] Zander, R. S., & Zander, B. (2002). The Art of Possibility. New York, NY.