Feeling anxious about the world right now? Between the pandemic and the global markets collapse, it would be unusual NOT to be stressed out right now. The effects on your work and home life are likely to be dramatic. Schools and colleges are closing, sending children and young adults back into the family home – all day, every day – with their own worries. This can mean having to arrange for child care and/or teleworking with interruptions - if your job allows you to work from home. For those still going to an office, the day may be punctuated by handwashing and social distancing. Some employees may be temporarily or permanently laid off. To top it off, the very things we can do to help slow the spread of the virus – social distancing, sheltering in place, and not visiting elderly relatives – contribute to feelings of anxiety and isolation.
Now is a good time to review advice about de-stressing, most of it from before the coronavirus outbreak. Stress is not good for you. It can raise your blood pressure, lower your resistance to infection, and cause other physical and mental problems. There is a lot of information on relaxation techniques (healthcare, fitness, and wellness websites and publications). The added stresses of being in relative isolation have prompted a renewed interest in the topic. While some of the pre-virus suggestions are not practical now (e.g., getting a massage, going on vacation, going to the movies), the more general relaxation techniques are still useful.
Everyday Ways to de-stress
The following is a short list of activities and practices that can help reduce stress any time and almost anywhere.
- Meditation and practices that include meditation with movement (e.g., yoga and tai chi) can promote relaxation and have many health benefits. Studies show that meditation can improve anxiety, depression, and pain, and may even help you sleep better.1, 2
- Take a walk (but keep a 6 foot distance from others) or get some exercise inside (climbing stairs, doing jumping jacks) -- it takes only 20-30 minutes a day to help boost endorphins and reduce stress. If you can take a walk in nature, the benefits are even better.3 If you’re headed to a state or national park, check to see if it’s open or expected to be crowded – as of March 17, 2020, some national parks are full of people escaping their homes and a number of sites and museums are closed.4 Watch and listen to the birds, close your eyes and soak in some sunshine (but wear sunscreen don’t stay in it too long), breathe in the fresh air and feel the wind on your face. If you’re a gardener, now is a good time to do some pruning, planting or fertilizing as appropriate for the hardiness zone where you live.
- Listen to Music. Music you like can help relax your mind and body. Research has found that classical music has a particularly soothing effect -- it slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure and even decreases levels of stress hormones. 5
Breathe deeply. Breathing exercises can help you relax. Sitting quietly with your eyes closed and breathing deeply have been shown to lower heart rate and reduce stress.6 Here are several deep breathing relaxation exercises:7
- 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.
- Observe yourself passively breathing in and out. Feel your breath going in and out through your nose and take note of how it feels as your lungs expand and contract.
- Breathe in while saying “I am,” and then breathe out with a positive statement like “at peace."
- 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. Move up your body, tightening and relaxing each muscle until you’ve finished with your face.8 If you are dealing with insomnia, practicing progressive muscle relaxation can help you fall asleep.
- Take a hot bath, which can help to relax and de-stress. The warmth of the water dilates superficial blood vessels, increases circulation, improves blood flow around the body and promotes muscle relaxation. When you step out of a hot bath, the cooling effect can promote a good night sleep, which can do wonders for pain relief.9
Specific steps to take in reducing anxiety around the coronavirus
You can’t control what’s happening in the world regarding the coronavirus or the stock market, but there are some things you can control in your own household.
- Follow the CDC prevention protocols. 10 Practice social distancing (stay 6 feet from others), wash hands with soap for 20 seconds (often), avoid touching your face, maintain your house to be as virus-free as you can by daily cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces (phones, doorknobs, facet handles, etc.).
- Be mindful of your screen time – get your news from trusted sources (e.g., Centers for Disease Control, US Department of Health and Human Services, and state and local websites). Limit your time reading about or watching anxiety-producing stories. This is a good time to catch up on podcasts, TV shows, and online classes.
- 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. Don’t forget to check in with your elderly family, friends and neighbors who might be even more isolated than you -- a phone call or a card might cheer up their day.
- Get something done. This is a good time to get some projects done – cleaning out a closet, organizing financial files, baking something you’ve wanted to try, or keeping a journal. Some things can be done alone, some can bring together other members of the household. Not only will this take care of chores, but will also give you a feeling of accomplishment.
- Limit your exposure when shopping. Depending on where you live, you might be able to have almost all essentials delivered to your doorstep. If you’re not so lucky, then limit your in-store time to essentials only.
- Maintain healthy diet. Some foods to avoid if you’re stressed out include sugar, ‘white’ carbs (e.g., chips, pasta), and caffeine. 11 Keep eating nutritious foods to help maintain your health and mental health12 – fruits, vegetables and leafy vegetables (frozen are fine if you can’t get fresh), whole grains, nuts and seeds. Don’t forget to eat seafood, especially fish and shellfish that are loaded with proteins and omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., sablefish, salmon, and trout).
Of course, 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)
- McMahan EA, Estes D. The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2015;10(6):507-519.