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by Elle Mok
I was driving to work on a gloomy Monday morning. As I was heading down the highway I felt a weight on my chest. The more I began to pay attention to my body, the more I noticed that I also felt nauseous.
At first, I couldn’t think of any reason why. Sure I felt a little nervous about how my employer would deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, yet I felt ready to help the kids and families I was to work with that day. I did not realize at the time is that I was feeling stressed and anxious about the unknown. What does COVID-19 mean for me? For my family, my job, the kids and families I work with? What if I get sick or if I die? My brain began to unravel or “snowball” as we therapists call it. Learn ways to manage stress this week.
Ways to Manage Stress
1. Put a Name to It
The feelings I described above are physical or “somatic” symptoms of stress and anxiety. Often the brain may not consciously be aware of the event producing stress or anxiety. However, the body reacts to stressors in a way that alerts the brain that “something’s not right!”
Common physical symptoms of stress and anxiety include:
- Muscle tightness and pain
- Stomach ache
- Changes in sleeping
- Appetite changes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased irritability and anger
- Increased worry about loved ones
Many of us also may turn to “unhealthy and maladaptive” coping methods, such as drinking, smoking, excessive eating/sleeping, and even drug use.
It is always important, especially given the state of the world, that we pay attention to our bodies and minds, and take care of ourselves. I have outlined a few ways to help with life during the stress and anxiety about the unknown.
2. Be Informed, But Know When to Shut it Down
When listening to the news, I hear it daily; “the most up to date reporting” and “in real-time”. OOF! This is not helpful!
Constantly inundation with information and BAD news can make one feel depressed. Rather than flipping to the news or your Facebook friend’s re-post, go to sites such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/) or the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/). They provide up to date, cold, hard FACTS to help you stay informed.
While it is imperative that you stay informed about safety, it also is important to take a break from the news as well.
Creating boundaries and time in which you are NOT reading about the stressors will help your brain process this information and develop coping strategies.
A good method to practice this is by building in small time frames where you allow yourself to read. Try building it into a daily schedule (see below) in 15-20 increments (i.e. “15 minutes at 8, 15 minutes at 2 and 15 minutes at 5). Stick to small time frames only a few times (at most) daily. This will help keep your mind at bay and reduce mindless scrolling through the internet.
3. Create a Schedule and Stick To It
For the majority of human beings, we enjoy some degree of structure. Whether it is a daily routine while at work, weekly activities, or picking up/dropping off the kids. We all thrive on routine.
Without these routines in place, fear, depression, and a loss of purpose can set in. Let’s take our lives back! Create a daily schedule for yourself! It can be as loose or structured as you need. Daily schedules help create purpose and meaning in our lives, as well as a sense of accomplishment when it can be checked off. Here is a sample for those of us who are currently working from home:
- 6:00-7:00- wake up, 10 minute morning meditation (we will get to that next), brush teeth and wash face, drink coffee and chat with loved one (we will get to that too)
- 7:00-8:00- work out or get moving!! Warm up, work out, cool down, hop in the shower and get ready for work (whatever that may look like)
- 8:00-12:00- work work work work workkkk. 45 minutes of work, 15 minutes of movement or brain break
- 12:00-1:00- lunch and connection with friend/loved one, or read the news for 15 minutes
- 1:00:-4:00- work again! 45 mins on, 15 mins off. Throw in some steps around the house or watch a funny Youtube video during the break!
- 4:00-6:00- read 15 minutes of news, plan/make dinner. Social connectedness or do something enjoyable.
- 6:00-10:00- engage in enjoyable activities or new hobbies.
- 10:00- get ready for bed and do evening meditation!
Things to include when creating a schedule:
- time to do morning/evening routine (i.e. shower, brush teeth)
- meditation and relaxation at least once daily
- eating three meals a day
- some kind of movement (aim for at least 30 minutes)
- enjoyable activities or new hobbies
- social connection
Make sure that you practice it and stick to it! It takes 21 days to form a new habit, so it is important to do this daily. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget or deviate from it, just re-focus and try again. The only way for it to consistently relieve anxiety is to make it a purposeful practice!
4. Stay Connected to Others
As humans, we are naturally social creatures. While introversion/extroversion varies from person to person, we all need some kind of connection to maintain our sanity! For many, especially those who are more outgoing (shout out to my extroverts out there), isolation can be a major source of stress. Social distancing is the opposite of what we feel drawn to, yet it is essential to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Distancing can feel isolating and lead to increased stress or depression. However, there are many ways to achieve social connectedness. This is a situation where I am thankful for how immersed in technology we are.
You can connect with others by sending a Facetime message to a friend, going “live” on a social media platform to interact with others, setting up video chats or “virtual happy hours” with others on platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Also, there are interactive internet games you can play with others.
If you are looking to engage with others and stay off the internet (remember what I said in the first bullet point?) gather your IN HOME family members and play board games, or channel those creative juices and make one up! The more scheduled and planned out it can be, the better you will feel! Just this past weekend, I did a “virtual happy hour” with friends in other states, and talked with all five members of my family through Zoom! I then played board games with family members that live in my house.
5. Shift Your Mindset
This may be the most challenging skill to implement consistently, but can be one of the most helpful. In the counseling world, there is a theory of practice initiated by Aaron Beck called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT states that by changing your unhelpful thoughts, you will alter your behaviors and emotional responses.
The first step to CBT is to be aware of and to notice your negative thoughts. Our culture encourages discrediting and avoiding unhelpful or negative thoughts. Ignoring negative emotions can increase stress and anxiety. Instead, notice when you are feeling hopeless, anxious or as some may call it, a “Negative Nancy”.
Examples of negative thoughts include: “This will NEVER get better” or “I am NEVER going to feel better”. It can also be useful to name this type of “unhelpful” or “distorted” thought. This chart is often what I refer my clients to use for this practice. https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/cognitive-distortions.pdf
You can then practice slowly shifting these thoughts to more helpful and positive emotions. For example; a distortion that “things will never get better” (which is jumping to conclusions on the worksheet) can instead be reframed to “It is really hard right now, and it will not last forever.”
The more you can shift your mindset into helpful thoughts that you have control over, the more at peace your mind will feel. Now trust me, this is not an easy thing to do! As a therapist teaching and practicing this skill for several years, I still catch myself in these cognitive distortions daily.
Think of it this way: even being more mindful and noticing these negative thoughts more often will, in the end, help you to shift your mindset. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen immediately, keep practicing!
6. Calm That Brain….This Will Pass
In addition to changing your mindset and your schedule, there are several other activities that you can use to help you to cope with stressors.
Focus on the “here and now” using mindfulness and meditation. There are a lot of great apps out there that can help practice staying “in the present” which has been proven to help calm a racing brain and regain a sense of control.
Some of these apps are Headspace, Smiling Mind, and CALM. You can look up “meditation” or “progressive muscle relaxation” on Youtube to find other options. Meditation can be done with almost any activity: eating, walking, sitting, laying down, and either solo or with others!
Get up and get out! Go for a walk or run, do yoga, exercise, walk around the house, play hide and seek with kids. Any type of movement and physical exertion helps release endorphins which increases happiness and decreases stress.
Gratitude and Appreciation
Be grateful. Gratitude and Appreciation are well known to decrease anxiety in the Positive Psychology realm. Practicing this skill helps to shift the mind into more positive coping. My favorite activity, which I engage in daily, involves writing down three things that I am thankful for. Try it out!
Do things! Engage in one of your favorite hobbies, try a new hobby, clean or reorganize! Being creative and engaging in activities generally decreases anxiety. While this sounds simple, it is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce anxiety.
Last but not least, make sure that you are getting enough rest and that you are eating. If you are struggling and can’t seem to find any relief, don’t be afraid to reach out for help by talking to a friend, a family member, or someone who is supportive to you.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, contact your doctor, counselor, clergy, or 24-hour crisis hotlines such as the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP (4357)) which are always open and are confidential.
This is a scary and unsettling time in our world, certainly one for the history books. It is true that we cannot control many aspects of the new normal we are navigating. However, you can use the above suggestions to help regain control and calm as we weather this storm! The s*** may be hitting the fan but, you can make small changes to care for yourself until it ends!
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